TOP World Headquarters, a.k.a. my home office, is, as regular readers know, sprawling.
It sprawls over more than 121 square feet (indeed almost 122) in a my 1950s ranch house in a town that's quiet to a fault in a let us say "out-of-the-way" State in the Midwest.
Not only that, but the Official TOP Library of Photo-Related Bookery overspills even these capacious facilities, occupying an uncomfortably large amount of space in what would probably be known, were I currently espoused, as "the living room."
Despite having all this space, there is regrettably not limitless room for all manner of photo-related bookery, and I have accordingly neglected several genres. For instance, photographer biographies. I have read and enjoyed several of these, and I have about two dozen of them, but I find myself somewhat put off by, say, the idea of buying a second damn'd thick, square book about some famous photographer when a first one about that selfsame individual is already squatting there on my shelf, glowering balefully down at me, persecuted by my neglect. Biographies of Stieglitz fall under this head. I am fated to die and turn to dust without reading much more about Stieglitz. Something about that fellow just flips my bored switch. I don't know what it is.
Another genre I am short on is what might be called the "How-I-Shot-This" genre. These veer perilously close to mere how-to books. The premises groan already with far too many of those, many inflicted on me against my will by hopeful publishers who haven't noticed yet that I don't promote them.
I suspect the distinction between the two largely concerns the accomplishment and renown of the author-photographer, and the accepted relative goodness of the pictures. With a no-name author, it's a How-To; when it's a famous or at least a rich photographer, then it's a How-I-Shot-This. If the pictures are a bit bleh, and might not be worth looking at except insofar as they illustrate the text, then it's a How-To; if the book discusses famous and good pictures, or at least pictures commissioned for large amounts of money by serious clients, then it's a How-I-Shot-This.
Moving on. This type of book can be very entertaining, now and then. I like to use them as an occasional accent in my Photobookery Consumption—that is, sparingly. One every so often. Sort of like Ethiopian cuisine. I might not eat Ethiopian cusine as often as once a year. But when I do, I soldier through, pronounce it good, and then proceed to take another long stretch of relief from it. That is how I digest How-I-Shot-This books, too.
The How-I-Shot-This genre probably has a long and storied history; I'm not sure I'd know. The oldest clear example of the genre (i.e., not shading too much into the How-To genre) that I know but don't own is probably Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams, published in 1984. I was in Photo School in 1984, and had a very restricted photo book budget. In fact, it was a photo book budget which imposed itself significantly into the food and nourishment budget—and still didn't amount to beans. So I used to stand atop the stairs in the old Olsson's Books & Records in Georgetown, D.C., and read whole books without, erm, buyin' 'em. The bookstore employees either tolerated this or did not notice. So I have read Examples clear through.
I might actually own a copy now. If so I cannot find it, which is very similar to not owning it.
Another great How-I-Shot-This book from the same era worthy of all but the most hard-hearted photography enthusiast's attention is Mountain Light, c. 1986, by the late Galen Rowell.
More recent examples that I have enjoyed more than Ethiopian food are Annie Leibovitz at Work and The Life of a Photograph by Sam Abell (although the first Sam Abell book you should have is still Stay This Moment).
Annie Leibovitz at Work works for me more and more as time has passed since its 2008 publication date. Although I'm not a huge fan of Ms. Leibovitz's work in general and especially not of her recent rampant Photoshoppery, which is heartrendingly far removed from the beautiful simplicity of her early 35mm black-and-white work for Rolling Stone, it's not to be denied that her very best shots are spectacularly good, and she's been to some amazing places and met many fascinating people. And, as presented here, she's a good writer. And the book is very well done. It's a special little book. Very enjoyable. Although I digress. Although you cannot tell.
So anyway. The newest book making a splash in this category is Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits which, as we collectively established not long ago, is being discussed all over the photo blogosphere.
Ctein will be reviewing the Apple iPad Air next week. I recently got one as well, with the idea of investigating how it is to look at pictures on the thing. As Ctein will inform you in due course, it has a "Retina" viewing screen. "Retina," which I thought already had a settled meaning, is a word that, in this case, means "good." I'm actually not digressing this time.
Now add that dearth of free space at TOP World HQ I was talking about.
I took a deep breath, girded my loins, steeled whatever it is you steel, and downloaded The Kindle version of Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits.
A first for me. Never have I downloaded an e-book version of a photographic book before, of any sort.
And you know what? It's okay. I have survived. I've enjoyed reading the entertaining, well-presented text, and the pictures look quite nice on the "Retina" (sorry, I have to put that dumb name in scare quotes every time I use it) screen. Better than good enough. I mean, I'm certainly used to looking at pictures on computer monitors, and they look fine on the iPad Air as illustrations.
Partly, I have to admit, that's because I'm not overly enamored of the pictures. Purely a matter of personal chemistry, but I've never been particularly fond of Greg Heisler's work. To me it seems like good, solid commercial/editorial portraiture that accords well with accepted '80s-and-onwards fashions in such work. But I don't get from it a clear sense of personal style or outlook—that is to say, I'm pretty sure if I came across a Heisler portrait in a context where it wasn't clear who took it, I wouldn't be able to guess it was his. His lighting is always excellent, but it's chameleon-like, without any common stylistic thread. Like most commercial portraitists, he borrows various tropes from a variety of sources.
I should tell you that I've always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about commercial photographers horning in on art-photography venues, markets, and even vocabularies. At least I've been consistent about this over the years. It pushes those buttons just a little that the subtitle of this book is "Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer." Excuse me? Not to me. That term might uncontroversially be applied to Danny Lyons or Ray McSavaney or Pentti Sammallahti or Saul Leiter or Ray K. Metzker or Lee Friedlander or a folder-full of other photographers depending on what type of photography floats your boat, but no commercial guy since Penn deserves to be called that if you ask me.
Why am I telling you this? Not to be obnoxious, although it's always a bit obnoxious to intimate, even gently, you don't really care for a good worker's good work. Only to emphasize that this is why I'm perfectly happy to read this book in its Kindle version on the iPad—because it's not close to my heart, either in terms of the book's genre or that of the photography. I don't really need to see a picture of Shaq sitting in a giant chair any better than I can see it on the iPad. I get the idea. But it's just this style of portraiture that I don't particularly care for—Gregory Heisler is very good at it, and the stories of how he worked to make them are excellent. The book is informative and easy to read and not condescending at all.
You might well feel differently than I do about the work; lots of people love this style. So if that's the case, maybe you'd be better off getting the paper version of this book and Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits in the Kindle version for your tablet, instead of the other way around.
Either way you'll enjoy it.
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Featured Comments from:
stephen: "Oddly (or maybe not) the thing I liked best about the Heisler book was Heisler. He is, no doubt about it, a master of lighting, but, in the writing, he comes across as a genuinely nice guy, enthused about what he does for a living."
Gato: "I bought the Heisler book when you mentioned it a while back, not because I'm fond of his photography but because I like the way he talks/writes about photography. Tte majority of the text deals with his creative process and how he works with his subjects, which is what I hoped for. Technical details get a pretty light treatment, with hardly a brand name in sight. And I am liking more photos than expected, though I largely agree with you that Heisler is too much the chameleon. Although I bought the hardbound this does seem like a good candidate for a tablet. Much of the interest is in the text, and Heisler's photos, intended for magazine reproduction, depend more on content than reproduction quality to make their point."
Bruce Van Valen: "I was fortunate to have spent a week with Greg Heisler this past summer as a participant in his 'Lightwork' workshop at Maine Media. I think if he were to read your comments he would get a good chuckle at the notion that he is too much of a chameleon because I think he would say that that is exactly his intention. In fact he is very conscious in his avoidance of developing any trait that runs through the work that makes it identifiable, what he refers to as becoming 'a thing.' He is definitely a guy who enjoys his work and he is obsessed with light of all kinds. If any readers have the opportunity to attend one of his workshops I highly recommend it. He is a very down to earth guy and a great teacher."