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Friday, 22 November 2013


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It's certainly difficult to think about professional commercial photographers marketing their photography as "art", as anyone who IS a professional commercial photographers knows how much input almost everyone has on a shooting job, from the art director and asst. art director, to the photography asst. and even lighting person (if you have one). Pretty hard to draw a correlation between that the the single-mindedness and focus of a single person working in photography as an "artist".

Greg Heisler (and of course Annie Leibowitz) certain do fine quality commercial work, technically to the "nth" degree...but "art"? Maybe not. I've always said Annies Leibowitz is going down in history as the Phillipe Halsman of her time (not an insult, for sure, but like we say on the farm: "...she ain't no friggin' Irving Penn!"...). In fact, in my "great book expulsion" of the mid-2000's, without even a second thought, I dumped all my Annie Leibowitz stuff. Even a year or two after buying them I felt them to be "trite". I'm kicking myself for selling my Keith Carter tho, was I dumb, I was on the Carter train early and had all his books, first editions, I was nutz to sell them!

Anyway, I've looked at regional "greats", like Chicago's Mark Hauser, as being closer to artists than others, because he's taken his skills (and money) to use in personal "in-depth" projects, and then maybe that's the definition?

Stieglitz? Bored switch? Some years ago, after having viewed his "Clouds" series at the Phila MoA, I commented to my wife, "Stieglitz sucks." I doubt I would change my mind, were I to see the same series today.

One of my favorite photo-book subgenres, related to the How-I-Shot-This subgenre, is the Contact Sheet book. Favorites in my collection include AMMO Books' "The Contact Sheet," Jim Marshall's "Proof," "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans," and "Magnum Contact Sheets," among others. Alex Selwyn-Holmes's (no relation) Iconic Photos Web site also sometimes includes contact sheets from which famous photos were drawn. http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com

Early on in my photographic life a professor in art college (after I had already trained and worked as a commercial photographer) told me that my work was esoteric enough. It seems to me that you are making a similar complaint about Greg Heisler's portraits, that he isn't achieving something that he wasn't trying to do.

No, they don't jump out at the viewer and say "Greg Heisler shot this". It isn't art or self expression. It is editorial work or at least mostly that.

I liked the book. It is far more than "how I show this". It gives you a look inside the person being photographed as well as the technical aspects of making the photo and Greg's approach to shooting. I don't like all the portraits. I like a few more than others and a few not at all but I see photography as being a very being a very broad field and I like looking beyond the limited scope of my own chosen genre if only to be aware of what else is out there.

[Hi Jim, I'm not criticizing Greg's work--I'm just explaining why I don't care for it. I'm not claiming that he isn't good at what he does, or saying he should do anything differently. I don't have the right to do that. But on the other hand, I have an absolute right to determine what I myself respond to and why. --Mike]

I was thinking of picking up the Heisler book, not because I'm crazy about the photos, but because of how instructional I might find it. Ditto a couple of Joe McNally's books. I already have "The Moment It Clicks", but was considering "Sketching The Light" or "Hot Shoe Diaries". I may skip them because this is borne out of a notion that I really *should* learn to shoot with artificial light. I saw that Joe McNally has a new print portfolio out (there's a video on his blog that shows all the pages). There's no denying that the photos are all excellent, but they come from a commercial photographer and I don't really think I'd enjoy going through the book more than once or twice. I think Joe's talents are incredible; his consistent ability to create great shots for clients makes him the consummate pro. But other than possibly learning how to apply his knowledge to my photography, his photography doesn't translate out of context for me (i.e. in an art portfolio, rather than in the context of whatever medium it was intended for). I do think of Joe and photographers like him as "photographers photographers" in the sense that they're the guys you can ask to do anything, and count on them to do it well. They're problem solvers. But I know what you mean. They're not what many of us enthusiasts aspire to.
The photographer I most admire happens to have done commercial work in the past - Jay Maisel.

Funny - just started reading "Annie Leibowitz at Work" yesterday. A really good read, methinks.

I also find it interesting how she moved - artistically - from 35 mm b/w documentary style to Medium Format colour and lots of "arranging stuff", if you like. Martin Parr also went through a (somewhat similar) radical change, while other great photographers stuck to a certain style throughout their carreers (HCB, Erwitt, Adams, Sieff). Maybe this could be the subject of a future article here on TOP - great photographers, who have changed their style over time ?? You seem to have a lot of spare time on your hands :-)

I actually like that Gregory Heisler does not have a "style". If I remember correctly, he states that portraits of different people require different styles. This seems to me the correct approach. But then I am not a fan of photographers who take the same photo of different people. And of course a happy medium would be best.

I admit to having never heard of Greg Heisler before recently and persistently being sprayed by publicity for this book (which I've not seen). That's not a statement about Heisler but rather that I'm just not very interested in photo portraiture. That personal failing aside, however, the few Heisler portraits I have seen (on the Web) suggest that he's an excellent studio craftsman. They also suggest that he's infinitely more talented and creative than your run-of-the-mill "professional" corporate/school portrait photographer. That also means that he must be quite good at getting some big egos to comply with his vision, something that Yousuf Karsh excelled at. And speaking of Karsh Heisler's work suggests an answer to the question, "What Would Karsh Shoot Today?".

Art? Not art? Meh, silly question. Tom's suggestion that too many fingerprints disqualify the final product as art sounds convincing. Making photographs for people who want to use them to sell stuff does not automatically disqualify them from consideration as art even though the images will likely never find a home in any significant collection.

Forget the taxonomy and just look at the work. Whether or not you like the style of lighting, the poses, or the subjects you have to admit that Heisler's work is on par with some of the most celebrated photo portraitists of the 20th century.*

So, no, I don't think I'll buy the book. My shelves are overflowing, too, and awaiting a few big soon-to-be-released additions. But I'll still toast Gregory Heisler's work. The man's clearly a 360-degree craftsman**.

* This comes from a guy who's not a fan of portraiture but has nevertheless seen a remarkable amount of it spanning the medium's history in various museum and private collections.

** A "360 degree" craftsperson in photography is someone who exhibits strong skills in every aspect of the medium. In the case of studio portraiture it would be the creative vision, the camera, the lighting, and psychology.

I'm sure in that pile of recent releases there must be a copy of Morell's " The Universe Next Door"... both a book of photography as 'art'?:) and one of 'curiosity' as to the how... just a stunning retrospective!! ..and along those lines I have been back with Tuberville's works of 'art', where the camera seems obscura :)




Have you ever watched a movie on TV? It always starts on time, the seats are good, parking is close and the snacks are tasty and well priced.

There are advantages to the electronic arts.

There's a way of thinking about some of these books, and that's to ask, "What if I didn't know who the subject was?" For example, Leibovitz made a famous shot of John Belushi, and for as much as he resonates with boomers, who, in fifty years, will know who Belushi was or will care? (Actors, even famous ones, have a pretty short half-life.) In your example shot of O'Neal, what would it mean if you didn't know that he's a very large basketball player? One major difference between "art" and everything else is that in most cases, all you have to bring to "art" is yourself. With Leibovitz and others, you have to bring a knowledge of pop culture, and that's a knowledge that by its nature, being pop, is transitory.

As for Stieglitz, he was really most notable as a dealer and gallery owner, with almost prescient taste -- but his own work has never impressed me that much. (Although he almost single-handedly, through his photography, made Georgia O'Keeffe into an icon that her work itself would never have achieved for her. IMHO.) I was reading a book of essays on photography a year or so ago, and the fellow who wrote it made a funny and shocking and to some people, I'm sure, tasteless observation about Stieglitz's photography of O'Keeffe that I can't repeat here, because Mike probably wouldn't allow it, but it said something quite significant about Stieglitz that amounted to the observation that unlike really great artists, he wasn't willing to push an issue as far as it could be pushed...

The way I deal with my curiosity on these types of books is by using my library which carries them all. If my library doesn't have it (very unusual) I use interlibrary loan. I get the pleasure of holding and reading the "real" book but don't have to own it afterwards. A great way to enjoy the buffet of lovely books without breaking the bank or crowding myself out of house and home with books I may never look at again.

I just glanced through my copy of the Heisler book - without reading any text yet.

Completely mediocre work with not a single inspiring image - commercial, editorial, or otherwise. The cover image is the only mildly interesting picture and that is a derivative of Penn's work. I laugh at the audacity the publisher has to call this guy a "Photographer's Photographer" and the chutzpah to put that phrase on the cover. Excuse me, where does that put Penn and Avedon?

I've been slowly making my way through Heisler's book for the past month or so, absorbing the lessons and stories.

I think Heisler is a master photographer, but it's certainly no slam to say he's no Avedon or Penn or Newman. I would class him as an editorial portraitist rather than an art portraitist, and so I find it more interesting to compare him to Leibovitz and Joe McNally and Dan Winters among many others.

And even in that crowd, it's true that he doesn't have the kind of consistent style that you'd call a signature. Dan Winters has that palette and those sets, Leibovitz has her gloomy thunderstorm-sky Photoshopped backgrounds, McNally has his Hey-I'm-a-Mile-High-on-this-Antenna-with-my-Wide-Angle-Lens thing.

But to give Heisler credit, I applaud his willingness to forgo a single style and to instead shoot in service of what's going to do best for that subject on that particular page. If I were photo editor of the Times Magazine or National Geographic or Sports Illustrated, I would certainly reach for Heisler's phone number for certain portraits.

For what it's worth, I read the phrase "a Photographer's Photographer" very differently. It actually strikes me as a very honest statement. Most photographers are commercial / editorial photographers. Most of those are probably churning out portraits: of students, of children, of executives, of celebrities, for holiday postcards, for public speakers, for aspiring actors, etc. In that context, it seems to me that he isn't trying to claim he is an artistic photographer aligned with Lee Friedlander, et al., but is very clearly aligning himself with all the workaday photographers out there trying to make a living by shooting whatever gigs they can get.

Okay, continuing to read Heisler's book, I finally came across the page where he specifically says that he eschews the kind of signature look that many portrait photographers are known for. He believes that the look should be dictated by each subject rather than be "imposed broadly and indiscriminately by the photographer." That said, if Heisler does have a recognizable style, I'd say it's represented in his portrait of Orlando Diaz-Azcuy.


If I'd turned a page and seen that image, I'd have guessed "Heisler." But you know what? That subject actually looks a bit like Heisler himself.

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