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BTS: Heisler Photographs Alonzo Mourning

Having just spent a week with Greg in Dubai at Gulf Photo Plus, I have now heard him express the following thought multiple times:

There is light you create that is a photographic reaction to light as it exists in the world, and there is light you create just because it's cool.

I think it's safe to say that this photo he made of NBA star Alonzo Mourning, for ESPN Magazine, is the latter. How he did it, below.


First off, this has always been one of my favorite holy-shit-where-did-he-come-up-with-this lighting schemes that I have seen from him. I don't know if I could ever even conceive this (maybe some experimenting with LSD? I dunno.) And if I did, if I could pull it off. Honest answer: no.

Heisler explains it:


First, and as with the Phelps photo, Heisler meticulously planned this shot in the studio, and transposed the whole scheme to the location.

Interesting tidbit: Heisler long maintained a studio in Manhattan (now it's elsewhere) but he almost never used it to shoot a job. Maybe a couple dozen times over many years. But he would test out ideas and schemes there, nailing down every variable before he transported the idea to the location.

Depending on the complexity of the shoot he might even lay paper out on the ground and mark every light stand and tripod leg. Translation: you don't just fall into light like this while on location. Especially not in the few minutes that a pro athlete would give you to make his photo. Not even Heisler. It's all about serious advance prep.

To me, it's comforting to know that a photo like this doesn't just materialize out of a combination of luck and/or freakish talent. Heisler works and thinks and perseveres harder than any photographer I have ever met. Maybe there are people who work harder, but I have not met them.

Second, that blue key light. Love that. But if you were to try it on a white guy, it'd look like "undercooked fish." Those are Heisler's words, and I love that visual. But suffice to say this is a very specific response to a specific situation. Or maybe he is just trying to keep us from trying it. Which would be even better.

So, you go to all that trouble, then you watch Mourning walk off set after the first Polaroid—to return with a freshly shaven head—and the photo doesn't even make the cover. That's right, ESPN Mag chose a different shot for the cover.

They nixed it as a cover so they could run this one inside as a double-truck vertical photo. As in, rotate-the-magazine-ninety-degrees-to-see-it.

If that is not validation from a magazine for your having made a stopper of a photograph, I don't know what is.


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