Gregory Heisler: 50 PORTRAITS Book Review

When you open Gregory Heisler’s 50 Portraits for the first time, you will want to show it to everyone around you. The photographs presented are so immediately powerful that you feel obligated to the artist to spread the love. In particular, the first image that struck me was Heisler’s 1998 portrait of O.J. Simpson for the cover of Esquire.

the juice

It’s disquieting. It’s complex. It’s symbolic and subtle. It’s thoughtfully conceptualized and perfectly exposed. In other words, it’s everything a good portrait should be.

Heisler is a genius when it comes to creating portraits. You know that when you look at his work. The art that goes into making the photographs is obviously meticulously crafted, but instead of calling attention to itself, what is revealed is the subject, or as Heisler refers to them throughout the book, “the sitter,” perhaps more fully and more clearly than they want to be revealed, but with a deep empathy and appreciation for their complexity.

One of the more striking aspects of 50 Portraits is not even the images but the writing. Heisler’s explanations of technique and his deeper thoughts on the craft of portrait-making and how he interacts with his subjects are illuminating and clear-headed insights. Through his observations, you gain a greater respect for the demands of portrait photography, and for the kind of thinking it takes to reach the level of artistic achievement that Heisler has reached. I suspect that Heisler has an innate genius that even he doesn’t fully understand, but he does his best to impart some of that wisdom to us. He writes about his decisions with the ease and lack of superfluity of someone who knows his craft inside and out, who breathes these words every day, and it’s a real pleasure to watch his mind unfold on the page.

There are a lot of topics covered here–not just f-stops and ISO and focal lengths, but the considerations that surround a photograph, the moments that come before the shot and the resonances afterwards. One of my favorite parts in the book is when Heisler answers the question that every subject asks: “What do you want me to do?” Heisler lays it out: “So, as the photographer, you have four choices: (1) be satisfied with whomever they show you; (2) tell them exactly what to do (this can be dangerous); (3) distract them with music and chitchat; or (4) just do nothing and silently bore them until (hopefully) something natural happens.”

What’s interesting is that none of these options are ideal, right? At least, Heisler doesn’t make them seem ideal. He’s realistic about what it takes to make a good photograph, and he finds ways to wrestle amazing images from situations that are conspiring to defeat him. (Check out the bit about photographing Olympic diver Greg Louganis.)

The subtitle for 50 Portraits is Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer. I understand the label, as Heisler is meticulously insightful about the process of creating a photograph. But I think  calling him a “photographer’s photographer” is a little unkind, or at least a little narrow. Heisler’s empathy for his “sitters” extends his art way beyond the limitations of being a “photographer’s photographer.” Obviously every photographer who is interested in creating portraits should read this book. In fact, this book could also be called The Portrait Artist’s Bible as far as I’m concerned. But I also think that every photographer should show this book to people who aren’t photographers. They’ll come for the images, but they’ll stay for the insight. There is something in here for everyone.

This is a phenomenal book that will be a lifelong resource for any photographer. We are now selling copies of the book in store, and Heisler himself will be at Midwest Photo Exchange this Saturday, December 21, from noon to 2:00 PM, to sign copies. So you can pick up the book and thank the man himself for sharing his thoughts with us.


Midwest Photo

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