Western Mass. man shares photographic talent in book
ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDTION, DEC 28-29 - In this photo taken on Dec. 8, 2013, photographer Gregory Heisler, right, chats with Paul Murphy as he signs a copy of his first book on his craft, "Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques From a Photographer's Photographer," in Easthampton, Mass. Originally from Chicago, Heisler worked for decades in New York before moving to Easthampton. His photos were on 70 covers of Time Magazine, now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery. (AP Photo/The Springfield Republican, Michael Beswick)
Muhammad Ali. Al Pacino. Yasser Arafat. Billy Graham. George W. Bush. Joni Mitchell. Tiger Woods. Hillary Clinton.
The names are famous. So are the faces that have appeared on the covers and pages of such magazines as Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.
The photographer who captured the images is Gregory Heisler, who was raised in Chicago and worked for decades in New York City before moving to Easthampton, Mass.
Heisler, who shot 70 Time covers now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, has been the artist in residence at Hallmark School of Photography in Montague, Mass., since 2009.
His first book on his craft, Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques From a Photographer’s Photographer, not only displays the breadth of his work but explains the creative and technical tradecraft that made it possible.
At a recent book signing at White Square Books on Cottage Street in Easthampton, Heisler gave a glimpse of what’s in his book.
He has photographed a wide range of figures including politicians, artists and athletes while working in New York City as an editorial photographer. “Most of what I’ve done for 35 years is for magazines,” he said.
Planning, persistence, creativity and flexibility all play a part in getting the picture. In one case he described, luck had a role.
The cover shot of the book could be considered Exhibit A for his work. Heisler was shooting his first black-and-white essay to accompany a Sports Illustrated story about the people who had comprised Muhammad Ali’s inner circle. On a hot day in Miami, he approached the home of Luis Sarria, Ali’s “masseur, physical trainer, and cornerman for his entire professional boxing career,” according to the book.
However, Sarria’s wife came out of the house and said her husband was unwell, had a swollen lip and didn’t want his picture taken. With some coaching, Sarria came onto the porch, then the stoop. A battery-powered flash was taped onto a diffuser to offer a caressing light. Polaroid tests shown to Sarria of the portrait in progress got him to relax. The resulting picture shows a reflecting face cradled in enormous hands.
“You can have the best-laid plans, but you have to be able to hang a left if the opportunity provides it,” Heisler said.
“Once you go out on location anything can happen. My goal was to bring the control of the studio outside into the world.”
That control of the studio was brought to an old farmhouse in Berrien Springs, Mich., where Heisler was shooting a picture of Muhammad Ali for Sports Illustrated.
Heisler said Ali had joked with them and shown them card tricks, but while they were setting up their lights, he retreated into a silent, peaceful state Heisler attributed to his Parkinson’s disease. Heisler described it in the book as a “powerful aloneness.”
“I want to get across his sense of isolation,” Heisler said.
He posed Ali standing alone in a snowy farm field. Light falls on Ali’s face but the farm buildings are dim in the background. “This looks like moonlight, but it was actually shot at 4 in the afternoon,” said Heisler, who went on to describe how strobe lights helped create the effect.
Luck came into play when Heisler was shooting Olympian Greg Louganis in Florida for a Life photo essay on 1984 gold medal winners who were headed for the 1988 Olympics.
Heisler said he wanted to convey the time distortion athletes describe when they are performing. The camera he was using didn’t have a motor drive for shooting rapid sequences.
“The first thing he said to me is, ‘I can only give you five dives.’ ” Heisler said Louganis had done something like 100 dives the week before for a swimwear ad.
Louganis explained the 10-meter dives are dangerous. He could hit his head on the platform. He could hit the water at the wrong angle and break his neck. (Louganis got a concussion after hitting his head during the 1988 competition in Seoul, South Korea.)
Louganis dived five times so fast, “I never saw him,” Heisler said.
The shoot was over until a boy who had been in the pool asked to have his picture taken with Louganis.
“This is your lucky day,” Heisler said Louganis told the boy. Louganis dived one more time while the boy jumped. It was the one picture Heisler got.
The portrait has a dreamy quality, showing a descending Louganis, head down, arms outstretched, toes pointed, with the little boy following, feet first.
“It’s a miracle,” Heisler said of capturing the shot.
Heisler said the only time he didn’t get the picture was when he was temporarily banned from the White House after President George H.W. Bush took offense at a multiple exposure portrait he had taken for the Time 1991 “Man of the Year” issue.
The portrait showed Bush with two faces to reflect the duality of the president, viewed as strong on foreign policy while ineffective on domestic matters. “I think both faces are really nice,” said Heisler, but the editorial context cast a negative pall.
He went back to the White House three months later for an assignment and learned his clearance was revoked. Years later he photographed George W. Bush as president.
Heisler said he transitioned from New York City after being contacted by Hallmark to teach there. Instead of commuting, he decided to move to western Massachusetts, eventually settling in Easthampton.
“By teaching there, I had time to work on this book,” Heisler said.