When he was just starting out, Gregory Heisler showed some of his photos to John Loengard, an accomplished photographer and future picture editor of LIFE magazine. Loengard’s advice was, “Shoot what you can’t help but shoot! These will be your best pictures. In hindsight, you will develop your own style.”
This sage advice preceded a highly successful career for Heisler. His portraits of celebrities, politicians, business leaders and sports figures have appeared in LIFE, Sports Illustrated, GQ, GEO, ESPN, Fortune and The New York Times magazine, among many others. He has also photographed over 70 covers for TIME magazine. He has been honored with the Leica Medal of Excellence and the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award. His new book, Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer, presents some of his best work and reveals the stories behind his iconic photographs. Originally published in October 2013 by Amphoto, this book is already in its third printing.
When asked what initially inspired him to pick up a camera, Heisler says, “The earliest memory I have was on a high school field trip to Washington, D.C. I brought a Polaroid snapshot camera with a flash cube on top.” He remembers composing scenes with framing elements like railings or balusters. He loved shooting pictures that day, and enjoyed the “instant gratification” of being able to see results quickly. Heisler notes that this was 40 years prior to digital imaging, where now “instant gratification is the name of the game.”
He became the school yearbook photographer, an exciting experience because “I got a ringside seat, an inside view of things.” He shot everything from portraits of the homecoming queen and the chess club, to football and basketball games. One of his passions was astronomy, and Heisler purchased a telescope. “I also bought a good camera to take pictures through the telescope, but I wound up selling the telescope to buy new lenses for the camera.”
In college, he studied astronomy and math, keeping photography as a hobby. However, his day-to-day studies weren’t as interesting as taking pictures. “Photography stayed with me,” he notes, “and I wound up really pursuing it.” He says that his college education consisted of “three freshman years in a row,” with his third freshman year at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. It was at RIT where he began his full-time photographic education.
Ultimately, Heisler found college frustrating because he couldn’t shoot as often as he wanted, and because he had to choose between photo illustration and commercial photography. After a year at RIT, he left to become a photographic assistant. In 1975, he contacted photographer Arnold Newman, who Heisler describes as “my idol beyond all mortal men.” Newman took him on, and Heisler assisted him for about 10 months, doing everything from creating exhibition prints to setting up photo shoots.
“It was an incredible experience,” he says. “Newman was all about photography — it wasn’t about being groovy or hip — it was just about making the pictures. He had an uncanny, unbelievable eye, and his influence has stayed with me to this day.” Heisler also cites Irving Penn and Richard Avedon as major influences on his portraiture. After his stint with Newman, he assisted several other photographers, including Eric Meola, who was renowned for his bold work in color.
But soon Heisler was ready to open his own studio. “I built up this big appetite where I just wanted to be shooting,” he says. Some of the photographers he had worked for referred him to his first clientele. “The first assignments weren’t big ones,” he says, “but I worked very hard on them.” One thing led to another, and he got repeat business from each of his clients. His editorial career started at TIME Inc., and he went on to shoot for Fortune and Money. “I was referred to the people at LIFE, and that’s what really put me on the map.” Then Sports Illustrated saw his work, and he made the rounds of shooting for other major publications after that.
Has he always gravitated towards portraiture? “It was my favorite thing,” Heisler says, “but from the beginning, I’ve shot a lot of different subject matter.” He started working for LIFE around 1977, and until 1985 or so he photographed diverse stories for the magazine. “What was exciting about LIFE was that they didn’t pigeonhole you,” he remarks. His first LIFE cover was an image of Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a nuclear accident occurred in 1979. He adds that the LIFE essay that got him established was about low riders in East Los Angeles. Neither of these assignments involved shooting portraits.
“Portrait work probably didn’t kick in as my primary focus until the late 1980s,” Heisler explains. In 1988, he did a story on Muhammad Ali and his entourage for Sports Illustrated. “It was a black-and-white essay, and there they hadn’t published many of those.” He describes it as the first time he applied the technical know-how he had amassed over the previous 10-15 years to a heartfelt story. “Instead of using my technical skills to solve a problem,” he says, “I used them to portray more emotional content.” Today, half the assignments he gets are black-and-white.
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2014 issue