Category Archives: Masters of Photography

My Favourite Photography Books No.3 Greg Heisler-50 Portraits

Greg Heisler: 50 Portraits

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.

 

 

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My Favourite Photography Books #1 – The Americans, Robert Frank

 

Elvis Presley might have sprung to fame as The Americans was being made, but the photographs are pure jazz.Robert Frank shoots with a bebop rhythm. His images are dissonant improvisations on the theme of 50’s America.

With the publication The Americans, Robert Frank is often credited with producing the first modern photo book. His photos flouted the then contemporary ‘rules’ of photography –  a focus on single images  staid, precise compositions and larger formats to minimise grain. It was a photo essay, but one without the traditional beginning, middle and end that photo stories in magazine publications would have. Instead here we have all the glorious spontaneity of the 35mm image. Loosely framed, grainy and immediate. Frank shot 767 rolls of 35mm film (about 27,000 images), equating to around a roll of film per day for the year and a half it took to complete the project.

John Szarkowski wrote in 1968:

“It is difficult to remember how shocking Robert Frank’s book was, He established a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces.”

The Americans, Robert Frank

“Elevator—Miami Beach” (1955), photograph by Robert Frank

 

Although often misunderstood or derided at the time, it’s hard not to see the DNA of The Americans in much of the street photography that followed.

One thing that is hard to do when looking at a book of  photographs over fifty years old, is not look at them as a piece of nostalgia. Modern digital filters are often used to link images to the past. Frank’s work was shockingly modern when published, but it is almost impossible to see them that way now. Grainy black and white reportage is in large part a dying art and and if it is used it is often to connect to the past rather than look to the future. It important to remember that nothing nostalgic or sentimental was intended  in Frank’s work.

 

Robert Frank - The Americans

Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955, Robert Frank “The Americans”

 

I have owned my copy of the Americans since 1995, and it has survived on my bookshelf long after many other books were consigned to storage in the attic. In an age when a lot of photography presents a very straight forward and unambiguous point of view, Frank’s work is compelling because it so broad and diverse. Bikers in leathers and the shining chrome of 50’s Americana share space with men in top hats who could have been photographed decades earlier. These  images are despatches from the road, and one always gets a sense that it feels that Frank is always passing through each scene. If it is a quest, then it is one without a conclusion. If he lingers it is only for a moment and a few clicks of the shutter, and then he moves on.

 

 

 

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