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Gregory Heisler on Photographing Herman Shaw

By Gregory Heisler


Herman Shaw photo by Gregory Heisler
© Gregory Heisler

Below is an excerpt from Gregory Heisler's book 50 Portraits, in which he talks about making this portrait of Herman Shaw. Check out "Gregory Heisler Shares the Techniques That Go Into His Portraiture" to read more excerpts. 

… Herman Shaw was 90 years old, one of the last remaining survivors of the infamous Tuskegee [Syphilis] Experiment. How to go about making his portrait? …

I left my gear in the rented minivan as he took me on a little tour [of his house in rural Alabama]. I try to have my antennae on high alert, sensitive to anything that might catch my eye: a corner, a texture, a slash of light. Often I’m looking for something specific. It might be a spot to turn into a makeshift studio for the afternoon. It might be a room with a view. It’s a search for the telling detail that opens a window onto my subject, helping to tell a piece of the story—like the old truck that he drove to the hospital for 40 years to get his painful “checkups” (which included excruciating spinal taps to get out the “bad blood,” or so he was told), the unused tractor sitting in an overgrown field, the faded, framed photo of a relative who didn’t survive the Tuskegee “treatments” or the hand-carved cane he never lets out of his sight. I walk, look, listen and learn.

All of these are choices; each tells a different piece of the story in its own way, immediately and nonverbally. It’s up to me as I search for context and meaning. If I allow too much time to pass, I’ll overthink the situation. The possibilities become limitless, the potential overwhelming …

So I wasted no time getting started and made several black-and-white images that afternoon. The first was a strong, low-angle image of him as a survivor, cast against a stormy sky. The magazine ran one of those. The second was a pulled-back picture of him walking his farm, a lone figure in the late-afternoon landscape. I also made several portraits as he sat in an old sprung sofa on his rickety front porch … But my favorite was this simple one, because it didn’t depend on context. To me, his gaze told a story of betrayed trust, hurt, and endurance.

Thoughts on Technique
… Mr. Shaw was sitting on an old sofa on his front porch, speaking in a gentle voice, reminiscing about his youth in rural Alabama. I had been photographing his lovely, weathered hand gripping the equally worn old cane, but the overcast sky gave a flat cast. I longed for the glow of late afternoon, now lost to dusk. I set up a tiny tungsten light off to one side, barely brighter than the existing ambient illumination, like a ray of soft sunlight to reveal the texture of his skin. He grew quiet and reflective; as I moved up to his face, his eye came into crisp focus and I gently pressed the shutter.

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