'50 Portraits' by Gregory Heisler

If you want to think more deeply about your own practice of photography then buy '50 Portraits' by Gregory Heisler. It's that simple.

50 Portraits is like a Bible to me. When I feel beaten, when I feel stuck, when I want to deepen my understanding, I open 50 Portraits. I get a bit quieter. I breathe a bit deeper. I remember that little voice, and why I picked a camera up in the first place.

I'm also challenged. 

I'm challenged because Heisler's work is technically excellent and matched by a sensibility for narrative, character, and design that is a joy to behold. 50 Portraits sets a high bar, and in a world of increasing volume of images and 'everyone being a photographer now anyway,' I think this is a good thing.

Implicitly for me 50 Portraits makes the statement that images matter, they are meaningful and can be held with reverence. This is not a book of snapshots.

This is also not a book merely about craft. It's about more than that. Craft is acknowledged as deeply important, but vision even more so. Don't buy this book if you want someone to tell you what aperture you 'should' be using or what lens is a 'portrait lens'. Buy this book because you want to ask questions, questions that will stay with you for years, questions you can really chew on, questions that will help you grow as a craftsperson, and as an artist. 

So, what questions come up for me reading (and re-reading) 50 Portraits?


Composition. Heisler has remarked that we're in a sort of composition-neutral culture in photography, the 'Whatever' School of photography. Composition is seen as kind of, you know, old fashioned, and, you know, like, trying to hard, not 'real,' and expressive. For Heisler composition is the bones of an image, what gives it structure and stand on it's own two feet. 

50 Portraits shows us that composition is not just about where we put the four edges of the frame, but asks us to think about;

How we depict space within our frame - is it flattened, elongated, still, frenetic, askew, level, calming, or jarring? Is our subject right in our face, or a small part of a bigger picture?

How we use focus - does focus guide our eye around the image, or does it stop our eye in one place? Is everything sharp, or out of focus, is only one thing in focus, or does the focal plane cut through the frame? 

How we use graphic elements - is the design of the image fast with lines speeding into the background, or is the image slow like a Montana horizon? Is the image layered to create a complex narrative, or is everything given to us up front, and full frontal?


Lighting. We can't look at Heisler's work without thinking about lighting. Heisler's lighting is incredibly beautiful and evocative, and never by rote. For Greg if composition is the bones, lighting is the flesh.

Qualities of light include - it's harshness or it's softness, it's specularity or it's smoothness, it's contrast or it's subtle transitions, it's colour or it's neutrality. 

The kind of light used also creates an atmosphere during a portrait session.

If we use modifiers are they large, theatrical, showy and 'professional' looking? If so they might impress some subjects and make them feel every bit the star, bringing out the best in them. Other subjects may feel intimidated and pressured to perform.  

Are the lights used flashing, and noisy, do they startle the subject, or does the subject anticipate the flash? Are the lights quiet, continuous, and soft, creating a contemplative atmosphere conducive to the portrait you want to make? 

Location. Greg credits Arnold Newman, a mentor of his and pioneer of environmental portraiture, for his fantastic use of location. Location, or seeming lack thereof, goes a long way to making a portrait. All the previous considerations about composition and lighting are applied on location.

Where is our subject and what story does this tell us about them? Are they powerful, glamorous, brave, or free-spirited? Is the location we choose a place where we'd usually think of our subject being? Does this help us see them in a new light? 

How does the location make us and our subject feel? 

Is our subject at ease and in a familiar environment? Might their guard come down? Is our location new for our subject, might we see a different side of them that's usually seen? 

All these questions and more are provoked and explored in 50 Portraits, which has my copy being very well read. I truly think this is a landmark book on photographic portraiture, and resonated with my own feeling that bearing witness to people is deeply important. I'll end with a quote from Greg in the Introduction;

"Portraiture is a peculiar pursuit. Documentary photographer Gary Winogrand once remarked that he photographed to see what something looks like photographed. Let's take that one step further: I photograph people to see what they look like, photographed. So that they can be held, studied. And truly appreciated."