Light Work with Gregory Heisler at the Maine Media Workshops - Part One

Heisler bookSurrounded by so many images every day, it’s rare you come across one that arrests you and pins you by your ears. When first I saw the cover of Gregory Heiser’s recent book, 50 Portraits, I felt jolted. The image, mostly velvety black, was the portrait of an older African-American man, bathed in a pool of light, his enormous hands wrapped around his lined face. It was extraordinary; simple yet beautiful and interesting, and it grabbed me and made me want to know all about this person caught in the pool of light. I later learned that he was the life-long masseuse of Muhammad Ali, but it almost didn’t matter, because I could see who he was caught in that moment.

Heisler’s book is an unusual photo book, in that it was just as well-written as it was photographed, with a wry, kind, and humorous voice. He has photographed more than 70 covers for Time Magazine, and is known for his evocative portrait work. Gregory, or Greg as we came to know him over the week I spent in Rockport, Maine at the Maine Media Workshops working with him, is exactly that in person. I had been considering taking a longer workshop relating to my portrait work this year, and I knew from reading his book, and seeing him on YouTube, that I would be in good hands with this master photographer as my teacher. I remember my heart pitter-pattering when I signed up for the workshop back in April. Not only I was so excited to meet Gregory, fan-girl like, but because it was quite an investment to take a week-long workshop, and a working photographer can buy a lot of equipment for the price of a workshop! However, knowledge is the investment that always pays back (at least that what my student loan officers say ;-).

The advanced workshop I chose was called Light Work, and the majority of my classmates were working artists and photographers.The first day we reviewed five images by each of our fellow class members, as a way of introduction. They ran the gamut; one was an editorial photographer, another a fine art photographer, another an architecture photographer, another a food photographer for a major supermarket. I was one of the few folks  who had a lot of experience with commercial portraiture, but others were certainly more technical. A couple of folks were retired, and were conducting photo projects around the world. Some had gone to art school, some hadn’t, some were sent by their employers, but most weren’t. It really ran the gamut. Some of us had a lot of experience with strobes and artificial continuous light, and others primarily had shot using ambient light. Seeing each other’s images was a great introduction, especially since I’m famously bad at remembering names, but I always remember what they shot, their senses of humor, and their character quirks. Heisler thought my portraits were lovely - I showed five of my recent author shots - and that certainly brought out the warm fuzzies on my end of things! He was similarly encouraging to the others in the group as well.

Visual introduction of my recent work for Gregory Heisler's class
The second portion of the day was Greg introducing his work, and explaining exactly his light set-up for each shot. We saw images of presidents, famous actors, mayors, monks, and authors (yay)!. Of course, all were beautifully lit. As he patiently walked through each set-up, Greg was generous in answering questions and giving feedback.

In the evening, we went to the Rockport Opera House to watch two of the faculty members present and speak about their work. One was our own Gregory Heisler, and the other was the very inspiring and rather wonderful fine art photographer, Cig Harvey, who presented her beautiful visual storytelling work. She was so lovely and personable, and her work took my breath away with its depth and emotion; I hope to take a course with her sometime soon. After the talks, we students chose to bumble around Rockport, photographing available light that we’d imitate in the studio the following day.

iphone photo of streetlight falling on TJ for finding light assignment. IMG_5796

The second day, after our critique and a morning demo and practice, we went out into the field, so to speak, and shot in a church in groups of three using continuous light with different color balances. I became very close with my team-mates, Sam and TJ, and we remained as thick as thieves for the rest of the week. Sam does beautiful fine art work of landscapes, and TJ is a headshot and underwater photographer from Dubai transitioning to Chicago, who has trained with the headshot guru Peter Hurley (shebang! He really does talk like that. Hurley, not TJ.).
Practicing with tungsten and incandescent lights in studio with TJ and Sam.
We buddied up with one of the models that Maine Media provided for us, Peter Paton, who was wonderful, with a fantastic craggy face of great character. The goal of the day was to figure out how to DIY any lighting setup with continuous lights that can be bought from any retail store to beautiful effect, and also to provide a visual story with one image. The exercise helped us understand the various colors of light, how to create effects through directionality, and how to mimic ambient light. Heisler has lit heads of state using lights he picked up from Home Depot. It ain’t about how fancy your lighting devices, it’s about how you use them. Applies to many things in life!
Photographing Peter Paton 2014-07-18_0005
To be continued...