My Week With Heisler, Pt. 1

Let's say for a moment that you found yourself embedded as an assistant with arguably the world's best living photographic portraitist. And let's also say that, beyond your primary duties as an assistant your secondary goal was to be observant as possible and report back on what you learned.

That's exactly what happened to Italian photographer (and occasional Strobist contributor) Sara Lando, who as you can see above was not at all excited about her assignment at Gulf Photo Plus earlier this year. She looks almost bored, dontcha think?

This post marks the first of a three-part series on what she learned from her experience. Today, the intangibles: the stuff you'd never consider because you are too busy worrying about a gridded beauty dish or something…

By Sara Lando -- Some days it's kind of hard not to brag about the fact that my job is better than yours, for example the day David wrote me asking if I was interested in spending 10 days in Dubai assisting Gregory Heisler and then write about him for Strobist. You might be the guy tasting samples in the Nutella factory, and I'd still be all "in your face dude!"

Then I got really anxious about it: I'd have 10 days to make an ass of myself in front of a genius. What if I'm too stupid to really "get" what he's teaching? What if I have him *right there* and forget to ask the right question because I freeze? What if I ask the wrong question and he punches me in the face? [Editor's note: Or what if, at the end of the week, you somehow manage to throw a glass of water in his face in front of 350 people?]

Long story short, I came back with 25 pages of notes and a blown mind. And even though prior to GPP I had read and watched everything the Interwebz had to offer about the man, having him in person was a whole new level of awesome.

Before I go into the more technical stuff you probably are waiting to read the most, I'd really like to spend this first post introducing the non-technical Heisler. Because who he is as a human being explains a lot of what he does as a photographer, in my opinion.

There's a small anecdote that got stuck in my mind. On the second night we were sitting at the Vista Bar and the waitress came to take our orders. He ended up ordering a "Bombay Dirty Martini, up." And even though he received something completely different the first time, he thanked the waitress. And when people weren't noticing, he silently sneaked away with his glass and came back five minutes later holding a proper Martini glass, filled with the exact drink he wanted.

In the following days I have witnessed the same thing over and over: he would set for something complicated in a situation where it could have been a recipe for disaster, and then he just didn't settle for anything else and got where he wanted, always with kindness, without making a fuss out of it and in a very quiet way.

Which is another thing that really struck me: see, Heisler is a very tall man. I could probably use his shoe as a sleeping bag. Yet he has a way of making himself small, unnoticed. Let's be clear: he owns a shirt decorated with cartoon banjos, he's not trying to blend in, or something, but he's not there to be the center of attention, nor are his photos: his subject is.

He said in class that the photo shouldn't make people tell "who's the photographer?", but rather "who's the subject?". And if there is something he does beautifully over and over, is to make people want to know the person in the picture, and the story that goes with it.

These days, the talk with photography seems to be all about style and branding yourself, and delivering a consistent product for your clients and sure, that might be a great business decision... but.
But, to use Heisler's words, "if you have a style proactively... it's just a technique: if someone else does it, it looks the same". Technique is like a pair of gloves, that you can take off and put on whenever you need them. Your style is a fingerprint, and when it comes to style you get to recognize it in hindsight (so, if you've been taking pictures for 6 months, finding your style might not be what you need to do right now).

Of course you have to have the technique part down and dusted. You have to have plenty of techniques, because if two different pictures have nothing in common in terms of subject, assignment or story, they simply shouldn't be shot the same way. This simple concept alone completely changes the way I approach my jobs now: it's not about trying to express my voice, but rather finding the best way to use my voice to tell a story.

Each photo, according to Heisler, should be built on the 5 Ws:

1. What's the assignment?
2. Who's the subject?
3. Who's the picture for?
4. What's the story?
5. WHOA, DUDE! (I might have added this one, but it was consistently there, so I'm just reporting back)

He has no "personal work", in the strictest sense, but each photo he shoots is taken as if he was shooting it for his portfolio. My first thought was "the horror! Personal projects are essential for an artist!", then I remembered that Michelangelo and Leonardo's masterpieces are commissioned works (don't know about the other ninja turtles).

The whole point is taking the risk to present your idea to the client and in Heisler's case, since he has usually thought about it way more than they did, they use it. Isn't that why they hired him in the first place?

That's also why you won't see him snapping photos to keep as memories: he just can't take pictures lightly.

For a whole week I've seen him taking pictures to show as a "quick example" to the students, and then getting sucked into tweaking and changing and "do we have a gridded beauty dish? I think it might look better this way. Maybe with a double CTO? Thanks". He sees the potential and it seems like it's painful for him not to bring it to life. Once he's after a photo, he just cannot let it go.

Photography, for him, is being an observer of the world and then come up with his personal response and he takes this task very seriously. Seeing him at work was fascinating: if he was a lens, he'd be a 10-600 zoom.

He walks on set and he is wide open. He doesn't commit to anything, he just observes and thinks. (This might be a good time to go watch the video of the 2012 GPP shootout. That's not for show: this is exactly how he works. And if you're assisting for him, you are on the side, having an heart attack.)

He looks at something and he's taking into consideration something else that might work better. When time is running out I tend to run around like a headless chicken and shoot everything, hoping something good will magically appear in my camera.

He might freak out a little inside (and I learnt to tell "happy-nice-Heisler" apart from "leave-me-alone-nice-Heisler"), but he doesn't let time mess with his cool and he doesn't commit to something he's not happy with.

(Heisler's tip for location scouting: only stick a tripod under your camera AFTER you have decided your frame. Once the tripod is there, you stop moving around, you stop experimenting with possibilities and you're stuck with a photo that might not be the best one to take.)

Exploring the possibilities is something that comes up over and over when he talks, like the concept of "finding the opposite picture". If the first thing he thinks of when he arrives in a room is "frontal light", backlit picture it is. If he thinks of a shot from above, he ducks.

But once he has decided, his field of vision becomes that of a sniper. His focus shifts to "insane" and he keeps at it until the photo is done, which usually happens very quickly, with very few shots. He's completely present.

If you just see the photo shoot or just happen to watch a video of him telling how a specific picture was taken, you might find yourself under the false impression that he's just very talented (which he is) and knows what to do (which he does). What I had the privilege to see is all the stress and hard work that happens before the curtain goes up: for the first few days he was sick, sleep deprived, tired as a dog, yet he gave his all the whole time and never complained once when his bossy italian assistant cornered him every time he was on a break to ask him about details for the next shoot.

I'm pretty sure he still watches his back every time he steps out of the door, to make sure I'm not there waving a schedule.

Him and the sight of McNally on the elliptical after a LONG exhausting day made me realize that talent might be a great thing to have, but if you're asking the gods of photography to grant you a wish, ask for stamina. Or stubborness. Or relentlessness.

And I also realized that their generation can still kick my generation's ass and then go out for drinks while we stay home and whine.

You might get the idea that Heisler is a very serious human being, but the truth is, he's one of the funniest people I have met. He could transition into stand up easily if the photography thing didn't work out ("When I first heard of 'historgrams' I thought it was an operation my mum did when she turned 50". Also, did I mention banjo shirt?) and this is a great asset to have when you're working with people.

I've witnessed the same thing with NcNally, Arias, Hobby, Harvey... there is a particular mix of wit, curiosity, sense of self worth and humility that makes them cheeky without ever be offensive, that makes them adventurous enough to be trying new things without being reckless and flunking the job.

When I think back at the experience and try to answer the question "what makes a great photographer?" I must say the technical know-how is there, but it's not the answer I'd give you.

And I'm still not completely sure what my answer would be, but I know I met a great photographer: let me tell you about it.

NEXT: At The Cavalli Club

Sara Lando is a commercial and portrait photographer based in Italy. Her previous series for Strobist include On Photographing People and On Being Photographed.

This series on her experience of being embedded as an assistant leads into the launch of Heisler's new book,
Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, which will be released on October 22nd.


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