Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits

Cover of the book "Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits", Stories and techniques from a photographer's photographer.
Cover of the book “Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits”, Stories and techniques from a photographer’s photographer.

“Whatever happens in front of the lens stays. What’s captured during the encounter is all that exists.”

– Gregory Heisler

I had waited for almost a week for this book. It was a Diwali gift that I had bought for myself. It surely was expensive. The book, GREGORY HEISLER 50 PORTRAITS costed me 2764 Indian rupees when I placed an order for it on Flipkart(Affiliate link). It finally arrived when I was away on a holiday in Udupi.

Gregory Heisler is a New York based photographer acclaimed for his iconic portraits. Several of his portraits have made it as cover photographs of many magazines world over. Heisler is credited to more than 70 Time Magazine Cover Portraits. The book is Gregory Heisler’s first ever showcase of his work, where he shares  fifty of his iconic portraits along with fascinating and thoughtful stories about how the images were made.

I couldn’t wait to share the information that I was the proud owner of a copy of this book. Even before I could open and read it, I posted a mobile-phone photograph of the book on Facebook announcing the same. And one of the responses in the comments for the post was by fellow photographer Mahesh Bhat. Mahesh is a photographer with over 25 years of experience of photographing the Indian sub-continent. In the comments, Mahesh shared an anecdote of his meeting with Gregory Heisler at the latter’s studio in New York city during the early 90s.

Reproducing Mahesh’s comment : “It was a chilly September morning. Heisler had asked me to meet him at 8 a.m. I was outside his studio, few minutes before time. He arrived soon after with two cups of hot coffee. I was meeting him to invite him for Newschool-93, a three-day advertising and fashion photo fest that was scheduled to be held in Delhi, well in 1993. I was 26 then and he was already a star! Heisler was gracious, he spent nearly an hour with me, showed his work, saw my work… I still remember him explaining his thoughts behind a portrait of Danny DeVito that he had photographed few months ago.. Quite a memorable experience that was…”

Wow! what an encounter! Those were my first expressions to what Mahesh wrote. The closest I have got to listening to Mr Heisler till date could be this book. My immediate reaction was to flip through the book to see if Danny DeVito portrait was there in the book. And bingo! The 8th chapter in the book was titled as Danny DeVito. I am guessing that this could be the portrait Mahesh mentioned about. No book can replace the actual conversations between people. But, I hope this chapter conveys those ideas that Heisler shared with Mahesh in first person 🙂

Section on Danny DeVito portrait shoot in the book "Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits", Stories and techniques from a photographer's photographer.
Section on Danny DeVito portrait shoot in the book “Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits”, Stories and techniques from a photographer’s photographer.

Most photographers who have met Gregory Heisler have described him as gracious, down-to-earth conversationalist, with a sense of humour, and someone who is willing share ideas. And my first impressions after starting to read the book is something similar. In my opinion, Heisler demystifies photography and camera in this book. He bares it all when he shares the story behind each and every portrait. In the course of telling these stories, he emphasis the creative thought process that should take place in the mind of every photographer before he/she proceeds to make a photograph. In one of the stories, he mentions that he had used a third-hand, beat-up, gaffer-taped contraption, a cheap flash as a single source of lighting for a particular portrait shoot. Not a fancy gadget, but did wonders for the shoot. This is where he tells photographers an important lesson in lighting – His goal, he mentions is to have the viewer to get wrapped up in the image, not the lighting. And when possible, he loves to work with just one light. He further adds that the true secret to lighting is to learn to work with one light really well.

Each of the fifty chapters in the book are divided into two sections. One is the story behind the photograph and the other is ‘Thought on Technique’. Due to this pattern, the readers could skip to any chapter, and in read any order. At the end of the book, there is also a section for picture specification, which is intended for people who want to get into details of f-stop, shutter speed, light source, etc behind each of the portraits. In my opinion, it is of less importance than the chapters dedicated to stories behind making each of the photograph. I believe that the values of f-stop and shutter are all secondary and are taken care by the sub-conscious mind of the photographer when he/she visualizes an image and works towards it incrementally. The juice of the book is in those fifty chapters.

Currently, I am few chapters into the book. It has been very insightful so far. We learn more on the field than in classrooms. Each chapter is an experience of Heisler being on a portrait shoot. Hence, each chapter is a lesson in portrait photography and lighting. Every photographer serious about portraiture and in lighting should buy this book.

Buy Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer

Nishant Ratnakar
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By Nishant Ratnakar

Nishant is a Bangalore, India based Wedding, Portrait & Editorial Photographer. He is available for assignments across India. He also conducts photography workshops and offers personal photography mentorship.

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