Only two days remain till Gregory Heisler gives his lecture at University of Toronto’s Hart House. Do you have your ticket? We were lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with Gregory. We asked him about his illustrious career, his memories of his various subjects and more. So, without further delay, here’s our exclusive interview with Gregory Heisler!
How old were you when you first realized photography was a passion? What kind of project were you working on at that time?
It happened in stages. The earliest memory is from a sophomore year high school trip to Washington, DC. (I was 15 or 16 years old.) I had a Kodak Instamatic and I framed up a landscape through a balustrade – boy, did I think I was creative! Next was when I was an assistant to the great portraitist Arnold Newman and I became immersed in his work and making exhibition prints for him. (I was 21.) After that was when I was 23 and I began to get my first little assignments… I was being paid to make images the way I thought they should be. It was very heady stuff.
How do you break the ice with your subjects, getting them to feel comfortable in front of the camera?
I talk to my subjects the entire time I’m making their portrait to put them at ease. I tell them what to expect, how long it will take, and what we’re going to do. I’m very friendly, very chatty; I try to be light hearted yet respectful. My dad was a salesman and I think I picked up his repartee a bit.
Are you still shooting with film at all, or is your work completely digital?
I’ve been exclusively shooting digital since about 2005, but I haven’t sold my large format cameras. I’m continually amazed by the quality and seduced by the control of working digitally, yet I know I’ll return to film as a creative choice eventually. Right now, I’m still trying to master the constantly evolving digital medium.
What’s your go-to gear these days?
I work primarily with the Canon 5DMkIII camera and their series of phenomenal tilt/shift lenses (my favorite is the 24mm t/s). This camera/lens combination gives me the kind of quality and control I enjoyed with my large format gear. I also work with the 24-105 IS zoom which is just an incredibly useful all-around lens.
What key advice would you have for someone just starting out as a photographer today?
There are so many photographers creating so many good images now that you have no choice but to just be your authentic self. Shoot what you love exactly how you want to shoot it. There’s no point in trying to second-guess the marketplace.
At this point, we asked Gregory to share some memories from some of his most striking portraits.
Tim Burton was quiet and cooperative. I think his interest was piqued by the kind of images I was making; he seemed to appreciate the thought and effort.
Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race car failed to show up, so we were left to make a picture without it. I had set my camera on the banked track, then looked through it and saw his legs angling improbably out of the frame!
Senator John Glenn
It was kind of surreal to see Sen. John Glenn’s 70-year-old head popping out of a space suit. Like the final scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Hard to believe the space program had been around that long.
Hugh Grant was a real ham for the camera, which is usually terrific, but I tried to find an off-moment; a sort of in-between, quieter kind of picture of him to contrast with the charming, nervously bumbling leading man he usually plays on-screen.
Shaquille O’Neal is like a 7-foot, 300-pound 12 year-old kid. Playful, mischievous and funny. This image was made very early in his professional career, when all the talk was just about how big he was. So I thought about making him really small and remembered Lily Tomlin’s little character Edith Ann, swinging her feet from an oversized chair.
Denzel had just nixed the only idea I had for his portrait (because he never revisits his characters once he’s finished filming), so I had no choice but to improvise. Fast.
Liam Neeson showed up feeling not so well so I just let him be and let the environment carry the weight of the picture for him.