“Photography’s one percent inspiration and 99 percent moving furniture.” Gregory Heisler

I have always thought of Gregory Heisler as a gifted photographer and a well-dressed one at that. I’ve enjoyed chatting with him as well as being present in the audience of several of his very engaging presentations of his work. His has been and continues to be a life lived being a photographer, educator and a genuinely nice guy. He lives a very rich life.

Early days — Arnold Neuman

Gregory Heisler by David Ducane
Photo: © David Ducane

Gregory Heisler became Arnold Neuman’s assistant through tenacity. He called Neuman from Chicago asking to be his assistant. Neuman, who already knew from the conversation that Heisler was in Chicago, said when he got to New York to look him up. The next day, Heisler went to New York, rang Neuman’s doorbell and became his assistant. Heisler names Neuman as his mentor. He explains that Neuman was not one to sit down and say “Greg, let’s talk about photography…”. Neuman set an example of integrity, passion for what he did and really hard work. “Arnold Neuman showed me how to live a photographic life.”

Gregory Heisler — portraitist & award winner

Heisler remains one if not the standout photographic portraitist of the late 20th and early 21st century. He has made photographs of business people, sports figures, musicians, politicians, celebrities for magazines — more than 70 for Time, as well as covers for Life, Esquire, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine and GEO. His commercial work was for American Express, Nike and Merril Lynch to name just three. He’s won the Leica Medal of Excellence as well as the Alfred Eisenstaedt award.

On making the Rudi Guiliani portrait for Time

“…the thing that’s nice about it [the photograph of Rudi Guliani on top of Rockefeller Center] NOT being done in Photoshop is that photographers (me included) have their anal side come out in Photoshop. And they make things too perfect and they squeeze the air out of all their pictures. I would have probably tried to make it too perfect. The fact that it isn’t 100% perfect is what makes it more interesting as a picture.

The presidents Bush

President George H.W. Bush (41st president)

Heisler was assigned to photograph President Bush in the White House for Time’s Man of the Year cover. He carefully preplanned the setup for making an in-camera double exposure of the President to the point of laying down a big piece of white background paper in the floor, then marking the positions of the tripod, the posing stool and the light stands along with notes of the height and brightness of each one. On the day of this very technical session which took place when digital compositing was barely possible.

Knowing his time with President Bush would be very limited, he unrolled the paper on the floor of the room where the sitting would take place. Using the diagram, everything was placed as it had been in the test photos. The result was a portrait of George H.W. Bush that presented his face in two different views on the single sheet of film. The resulting cover presented the two faces of George Bush. The President hated the image. Heisler’s White House clearance was pulled. Fellow photojournalists accused him of making their job much harder.

President George W. Bush (43rd president)

When the name of George Bush was floated as a Presidential candidate to run against Al Gore in 2000, Heisler made the trip to Texas to create a portrait for the cover of Time. Heisler picks up the story.

His PR person was literally poking a TIME magazine editor in the chest and saying, “I don’t want any of that deceptive s**t…like we had before with his father,” and then looked directly over to me and said, “Do I make myself clear?” So with the biggest smile on my face I said to him, “I’m about to take a picture of your boss…I think you want me in a good mood!”

Canon, Hallmark & Syracuse

Heisler is one of Canon’s Explorers of Light. Heisler refers to himself as an “exploiter of light.” As Heisler explains,

I don’t carry a camera around with me, but I’m always looking at light: Its direction, quality, color and intensity. Light I see around me in everyday life, light as represented in paintings, light used on film sets, in movies or on television. I note it, store it, figure it out, and then retrieve it later when needed. And I test, test, test!

In 2009 he became the Artist-in-Residence at the Hallmark Institute of Photography which offers an intensive program that takes people who don’t know “the difference between an f/stop and a bus stop to opening up a studio in ten months.”

Currently, Heisler is a distinguished professor of photography in the Multimedia Photography & Design program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

HIs book, “Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer” is in its third printing. I have it and recommend it highly.

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