An All-Nighter at The Vista: Greg Heisler's 50 Portraits
As cool as Gulf Photo Plus is in Dubai is every year, perhaps the very best part of the experience is the late-night conversation over beers at the nearby rooftop bar, the Vista. There, people leave the classes (and instructor/student roles) behind and simply talk photo until the wee hours of the morning.
An assumption is made that all at the table are just photographers. So the f/stops and shutter speed stuff is dispensed with in favor of everything that is the tapestry of photography. The resulting conversations are long, in-depth, very Inside Baseball and often funny as hell.
And a night at the Vista what Heisler's new book, 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, feels like.
(Click book pics for bigger versions.)
All over the country, photographers are today are hearing sound of a diesel UPS truck, followed by the satisfying ka-thunk of a coffee table book landing on their doorstep. If you pre-ordered from Amazon, your evening plans have just changed.
I pre-ordered on February 08, 2013, but I have been waiting for this book for 20 years. And it was worth it. Editor Julie Mazur, then of Amphoto/Random House, has coaxed from Heisler exactly the book a photographer would want to read.
It is remarkably open and honest, both from emotional/personal and technical/photographic points of view. And as beautiful as the photography is, you will not find the pictures the main takeaway from 50 Portraits.
That last sentence feels strange and somehow sacrilegious to write, but it is absolutely true. And the title is actually a good representation of the book's focus. I have sat across from Greg in those long conversations at the Vista, and this book feels like exactly that. The pleasant surprise is that he is actually a very good writer, and you can hear him sitting and talking with you as you read it.
This is not a lighting book. Although, to be sure, there is a lot of lighting information in it. Perhaps more value in lighting education than any book I have ever read. What this is, is a 360-degree experience.
Each of his fifty portraits gets its own little mini-chapter. The segment leads off with the photo, run full-page if vertical and double-truck if horizontal. The accompanying copy begins with the thought process leading up to the photo — all of the thousand little things that happen before you press the shutter. You are there, with him, inside his thought process.
And in so many of the portraits, I could see the multiple instances in which I would have failed to come up with the solutions to make great pictures. It's disheartening, in a sense. Like watching someone effortlessly navigate all the way through a video game that had repeatedly stopped you.
Except, it's not effortless. What you get from this is a true sense of the work ethic (or "thought ethic?") that being a great photographer requires. And there is so, so much pre-thinking that goes into consistently being able to make great photos. That may be the biggest takeaway from this. It has already changed the way I prepare to shoot.
There is also an emotional openness that is required for intimate portrait photography. This is so alien to me, and I am slowly learning that it is something I need to nurture.
On the other hand, it is gratifying to see the hard work and thought that goes into making these photos. It would totally suck if there was just a "great photographer" gene, and I didn't have it and never would.
The second written portion in each segment is "Thoughts on Technique," to which many here will be tempted to skip ahead. But don't. The first section sets it all up — it puts you there, and gets you thinking. Only then are you ready to consider the more technical and photo-related solutions.
Finally, Heisler includes what he unofficially calls the "Moron Section" in the back of the book. (As in, "For more on this photo…") There you'll find camera types, lenses, film, exposure, lighting gear specifics, etc.:
Oh, and here's that video I promised:
How to Absorb This Book
50 Portraits feels like Heisler is writing to his twenty-year-old self. It's the book you'd write if you wanted to put all of the important stuff into one place, as opposed to just another book on photo technique.
You're a photographer. So the first thing you'll do is flip through it and look at the photos. You'll see many of his most famous images, interspersed with ones you have never seen before. Or have seen, and did not know Heisler took them.
After that, the challenge is this: Do you pop a cold beer and blow through it in one long sitting? Or do you read (and re-read) it slowly, learning as much as you can from one chapter at a time.
I'd vote for the latter. In fact, I am going to slowly go through it at the rate of one photo a week. And just for the record, if I were teaching a photo class in college, this would be my text and I would teach it in chunks, drawn out over the semester.
50 Portraits is the opportunity to rent the brain of perhaps the best living portraitist today — and to do so to a remarkable extent. That this book costs less than $25 is almost ridiculous. (List is $40.) Be glad it doesn't cost what it is worth.
Gregory Heisler's 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer is $24.48 at Amazon.com.
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