Gregory Heisler has been a top portrait photographer for 25 years, and has had his work published in such eminent publications as Time, Life Esquire and GQ. He boast over 70 Time covers. This book is a collection 50 of his best portraits, but it’s not really a photographer’s monograph. It’s part storytelling, part technical manual with a little bit of philosophising on photographic portraiture in general. What makes this a great book is not so much Heisler’s gifts with a camera as his gifts as writer. Each chapter comes alive with his anecdotes about how he managed to get the shot. The fears and frustrations of being a professional photographer also come across, and he describes the struggles to get the picture vividly and without any sense of ego. Heisler’s writing has an infectious charm and a disarming humility. The are lots of technical notes to, but it is not a dry collection of lighting diagrams, it is more accurately a recount of why he did what he did rather than how. This means that the notes aren’t necessarily for the novice, you’d have to know the basics of lighting to find them useful, but they are very helpful in describing the thought processes and the effort needed to produce work at the highest level. The technical notes are more of a jumping off point, a way of improving your own work rather that producing rote copies of different set ups.
Gregory Heisler’s work is notable in that his style is quite malleable, there is no signature Heisler ‘look’ . This makes for a interesting book because the set ups are always changing and the look of the photos is always changing. There are many photographers who have a look that they repeat consistently, but here the cameras and lighting changes to suit the subject or the mood to be conveyed, which gives the book a much broader scope. Heisler also comes across as quite a modest man and conveys the frustration and disappointments that anyone who tries to make good photographs feels, that barely repressed panic as you can’t get the shot you want and the recovery as you find something else that works and get the shot. That in lots of ways is the abiding experience of photography, trying to get control is a very elusive process, and sometimes the best and most meticulously laid out plans just don’t work. Heisler seems to have a an inexhaustible supply of plan B’s and a willingness to plug away until he gets things right. That is probably as good a definition of a top professional photographer as any.