Debi Beauregard has a photo project that she has kindly let me join into in a way—meaning I get to be the model. She is taking well respected photographers and doing portraits in somewhat their style. The most recent was Gregory Heisler.
I am not necessarily a big fan of Heisler’s work. True, he has some really outstanding portraits but most strike me as ordinarily good, what would be expected from a top tier commercial people photographer—not spectacular. Many reek ‘commercial’ and some seem gimmicked. That is understandable as the thrust of his work is commercially oriented, mostly for editorial and magazines. It is one plateau of people photography, admittedly a high plateau, and at that he does extremely well and at times transcends that level. Where I must give Heisler considerable respect is in his creative processes which at times (imo) often exceeds the finished photograph. His thought processes and the way he approaches a sitting are remarkable and worth study.
So, the majority of his work does not blow me away like for instance the work of Arnold Newman or Karsh. He did apprentice with Newman and when he lets the background intrude can seem quite similar. For the most part he handles portraits much like I do by focusing tight on the subject—not quite as tightly as I do because he has the luxury of a studio or space where he has total or at least some control over the background. I am usually shooting in public and often must control the background by excluding it as much as possible.
What I do admire about Heisler is that what he says about photography greatly agrees with my personal photographic philosophies. I always tend to like photographers that agree with me. Who doesn’t like affirmation? I will contend that what I believe about photography applies only to me. I have given up on convincing anyone else that there is some value in beliefs that have been refined over years of following photographers that I admire. And yes, my beliefs are admittedly dated. I am not a fan of the softbox generation of portrait photographers. It’s like showing me things that I don’t want or need to see at the expense of giving me a photograph that makes my heart beat faster.
I do have Heisler’s book, 50 Portraits. The intro is by Michael Bloomberg (not impressed—who made Bloomberg an expert photographic commentator?). I sure don’t agree with Bloomberg’s comment that Heisler’s photograph of Ed Koch that hangs in city hall in New York City is one of the all-time great portraits—if nothing else the lighting is distracting and it is gimmicky (in my opinion—obviously other people disagree). What is great and greatly worthwhile about 50 Portraits is Heisler’s commentary on the photographs. Interestingly Heisler illustrates my theory that photographs are as much about the photographer as they are about the subject. In his political portraits he comes off as naked as a new born baby—but that’s another story.
There’s no kumbaya in Heisler’s writing. He doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of sticking a camera in a sitter’s face. He addresses the fear on both sides of the camera. The true value of Heisler’s work (again.. in my opinion) is his writing about the portraits. He has a phenomenal recall of each and every situation and that has great teaching value for the reader.
In addressing his own thoughts on photographing people Heisler goes back to the Robert Capa quote that if your photograph isn’t interesting is it because you are not close enough. Heisler, at times, manages to get exceedingly close but he carried Capa’s quote a step farther—he contends that if your photograph isn’t interesting it is because your light isn’t close enough. It is an interesting concept which you can see from many of his photographs he believes and practices. It is a concept that I think is worth emulating.In studying Heisler’s lighting style, Debi and I had difficulty pinning down ‘a’ style. I think the reason for that is that there isn’t ‘a’ style. Heisler does what the ‘by the diagram crowd’ will never achieve. His lighting serves the purpose of the photograph. It is no more complicated than that.
Next Sunday we will work on the next assignment, Mary Ellen Marks. Now, if she suggests that I get naked in a bathtub full of milk, I may just have to draw the line. It would require prune juice for proper dramatic contrast. Darn it! I just wrote the best line of the piece and then realized that was Annie Leibovitz. Well, I'll be dadgummed if I am going to toss it!