Photo Journal: Gregory Heisler - Exploiter of Light


By Jim Colton

George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak company, once said: "Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography."

Perhaps nowhere is this truer than the art of portraiture. Using light (artificial or natural) and understanding its nuances, is an art form in itself. The subtleties imbued with light and shadow can make or break a compelling portrait. And few in our industry, embrace, admire, love and know light as well as Gregory Heisler.

Gregory Heisler by Maja JutandaIn addition to the 70 plus covers he has done for TIME magazine, Heisler’s portraits have also graced the covers of LIFE, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, GQ, GEO and The New York Times Magazine. His commercial and advertising clients have included American Express, Merrill Lynch and Nike. Heisler’s work has been recognized with prestigious photographic awards including the Leica Medal of Excellence and the Alfred Eisenstadt Award.

One of the portraits he is most noted for is the January 7, 1991 TIME magazine "Men of the Year" cover of the 41st US President George H.W. Bush. The cover line read, "The Two George Bushes," and showed President Bush in two profiles as a multiple "in-camera" exposure, not created after the fact in Photoshop.

After its release, then US Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater was furious claiming the magazine lied to him and only wanted to show the President as a "two-faced" politician which resulted in the temporary revocation of Heisler's and TIME's White House press privileges. They eventually reinstated them and Heisler has photographed several sitting Presidents since that time.

He is currently an Artist-in-Residence at the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, Massachusetts where he devotes much of his time giving back to students there as well as photography workshops and lectures in Maine, Santa Fe and Dubai.

Greg was always the “go-to guy” when I was at Sports Illustrated when we needed a dynamic portrait. I am sure I speak for many of my brethren in the industry who felt the same way. You always knew he would come back with the goods. 

Jim Colton: Can you tell us a little about your early years? When and how did you first get interested in photography and who were some of your early influences?

Gregory Heisler: My humble beginnings were just that; high school yearbook, college papers. In 1973 & 1974 I did some stuff for the University of Wisconsin's Daily Cardinal as well as the Rochester Institute of Technology paper "The Reporter."  I also photographed for the University of Illinois in Chicago. So it felt like I had three freshmen years in a row and that’s when I really committed to photography. As far as early influences, I was attracted to the black-and-white portraiture of Irving Penn, Yousuf Karsh, and Richard Avedon and to the color work of Ernst Haas, Jay Maisel, and Pete Turner. The summer after college was when I made the fateful move to New York to work as an assistant to the legendary Arnold Newman.

JC: What was that like? What was he like to work for?

GH: It was an amazing introduction to New York and to the world of photography at the highest level. What was great about working with him was that it was all about the pictures. It wasn't a "groovy" wasn't fancy…it was cigar smoke and Dektol. It was a wonderful learning experience. 

He was difficult to work with. He wasn't very patient, he had a very good sense of humor (but not with me) and he wasn't really one to "teach" us but he went about doing what he did and we would learn by observing. And at night, to be able to go through all his files was an education in itself.

JC: What books would we find on Greg Heisler’s bookshelf? (Photographic or otherwise)

GH: Well, I'm bouncing around between my love of fiction, nonfiction, photography, astronomy, and letterpress, so here's what I'm currently (and intermittently) reading:


  • The Whore's Child by Richard Russo
  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  • My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
  • The Printed Picture by Richard Benson
  • Gist of Art by John Sloan
  • Observing the Moon by Gerald North
  • American Wood Type by Rob Roy Kelly
  • The Vandercook 100 by Heather Mitchell


JC: You've photographed hundreds of politicians, artists and other notable people over the years. Do you have any favorite shoots or covers that are near and dear to you? 

GH: Favorite shoots might include the great jazz singer Carmen Mac Rae, Joni Mitchell, and Hillary Clinton, because they were charismatic, cooperative, fascinating and a joy to shoot, and my daughter Lucy because, well, she's my daughter! My favorite TIME cover might be Rudy Giuliani for its evocative quality. Favorite essays to this day are still “American Sheriffs” for Geo magazine and Muhammad Ali and his entourage for Sports Illustrated. Some images just have staying power and remain near and dear to my heart after many years.

JC: What's the oddest or weirdest thing that ever happened during one of your shoots?

GH: Many years ago I was photographing a mad scientist who created full-on lightning in an enormous, old B-52 airplane hangar in Wendover, Utah. The lightning confounded all my strobe synch options: It repeatedly triggered my radio synch, fired my optical slaves, even my hard-wired cables acted as antennae and made the strobes go off. I finally disconnected everything from my lights, and they continued to flash nonstop anyway!!! He just watched the whole thing and smiled. It was spooky.

JC: There was a lot of publicity regarding your January 7, 1991 "The Two George Bushes" Men of the Year cover for TIME. Why the multiple exposures "in-camera" as opposed to doing it in post-production?

GH: I think there was just something to it, it was pre-Photoshop. To me it was almost like pulling off an Olympic know, like doing something with one hand tied behind your back and juggling three balls at once. The fact that it was done in-camera--which was more of a photographic solution as opposed to an illustrative "Photoshop" solution -- is kind of cool. 

Could you do it now in Photoshop? Sure. Would it be easier and cleaner? Yeah.  But the thing that's nice about it NOT being done in Photoshop is that photographers (me included) have their anal side come out in Photoshop. And they make things too perfect and they squeeze the air out of all their pictures. I would have probably tried to make it too perfect. The fact that it isn't 100% perfect is what makes it more interesting as a picture.

JC: You were blacklisted by the White House for a period of time after that image was taken. Looking back at it now over 20 years later, what are your thoughts about all the fuss back then?

GH: After the shoot, I went back to the White House and my clearance had been pulled. And two interesting things happened afterwards.  I went to a dinner with colleagues in Washington DC...and I got an earful from a photographer who covered the White House who said, "You know you just made it really difficult for ALL of us now...I hope you're proud of yourself!" I never saw that coming...I didn't think I had done anything wrong...and to this day, I still don't feel that.

The President was upset because he sat in on his own skewering in a sense....but the truth is, if the story had been that he was "twice as visual," as any President before...he probably would have asked for a framed copy! There is nothing inherently evil about the picture...both faces were quite handsome. But the Press Secretary at that time, Marlin Fitzwater, was not happy, and even accused TIME magazine of lying.  

Then a funny thing happened a few years later when the name George W. Bush was being floated around as a potential presidential candidate. I went down to Texas and photographed him for a TIME cover. His PR person was literally poking a TIME magazine editor in the chest and saying, "I don't want any of that deceptive we had before with his father," and then looked directly over to me and said, "Do I make myself clear?" So with the biggest smile on my face I said to him, "I'm about to take a picture of your boss...I think you want me in a good mood!"

JC: I consider you a master of lighting. How does one go about learning that very difficult and very technical aspect of our industry?

GH: I don't carry a camera around with me, but I'm always looking at light: its direction, quality, color, and intensity. Light I see around me in everyday life, light as represented in paintings, light used on film sets, in movies, or on television. I note it, store it, figure it out, and then retrieve it later when needed. And I test, test, test!

JC: You have been designated as an "Explorer of Light," for Canon. What does that mean and what responsibilities come with that title?

GH: I think of myself more as an exploiter of light. Canon very generously sponsors me to give talks at schools and professional associations, and I appear as a go-go dancer in the Canon Booth at the big shows from time to time. Contrary to popular belief, they don't give me cameras or lenses, and they make no demands on me to actually pitch their gear, though it is what I use almost exclusively now. 

JC: You just published your first book, "Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits." (See link below) What can the viewer expect and why did it take so long to publish considering your tenure in the business?

GH: Honestly, it's the book I'd always wanted from photographers whose work I admired. Rather than the pictures having to speak for themselves (which they hopefully do anyway) it's direct from the horse's mouth (I wrote every word) and it addresses the "why" more than the "how" in the creative process behind each picture. Because it's in my voice, I'd like to think the reader would get a more complete sense of the person as well as the picture. It took this long to gestate because I think I wasn't ready; I didn't want yet another "me too" book. 

JC: As someone who has worked through the analog to digital transition, what's different about the business for you now? Are you doing more commercial work to augment a declining editorial market?

GH: I feel I can't comment on the current business climate because my emphasis has really been on education for the past five years. I still do editorial and commercial shoots from time to time, but I'm primarily a teacher now. And while commercial work is challenging and profitable, my heart will always be in editorial photography.

JC: I've had the great pleasure of not only working with you over the years but being on the same faculty at places like the Eddie Adams Workshop. And I know that you are also teaching now as an Artist-in-Residence at the Hallmark Institute of Photography. How important is it to you to "give back" to the industry and what other workshops do you do during the year?

GH: The Hallmark Institute of Photography has given me a very free hand. The school is basically a very intense 10-month program…almost like a vocational school. You don't go there to become a curator or a go there to learn how to open up a commercial studio. You can literally go from not knowing the difference between an F stop and a bus stop to opening up a studio in ten months. It's very intense! We get people in there for whom the only pictures they had ever taken before they came to school...was with a smart phone!

So I do everything there; from an opening day lecture on "What is an Exposure?", where we discuss the relationship between ISOs, F stops and shutter the most advanced lighting classes…including location lighting. And it's not like it's an elective or you wait until your junior is ten months and everybody gets everything in that time period. It’s a great place...especially if you know exactly what you want. It's not where you go to join a football team or a fraternity. It's a terrific place to learn about photography.

I also teach workshops in Maine, Santa Fe, and Dubai and do many seminars and lectures throughout the year. I selfishly find it immensely gratifying to get photographers excited about making pictures. They see and feel my passion for the medium and it gets them fired up. I only teach what I know, what I have personally experienced, and the students recognize the authenticity of that. There's no bullshit.

JC: Lastly, what advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing a career in photography today? Any parting words of wisdom for our readers?

GH: Shoot what you can't help but shoot. It'll be your best work, it'll come naturally to you, and it'll be what people will respond to. Then they'll hire you to shoot more of what you can't help but shoot, and the good news is that you can't help but shoot it anyway! This cycle will continue and in several years, in hindsight, your vision, your style, will have been revealed. Style isn't something you aim for; it's in your DNA!