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Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits Print-ready version

by Gregory Heisler
Amphoto Books
October 22, 2013

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In another life, I'd have dropped to one knee and proposed on the spot. I was mesmerized, besotted. Joni Mitchell was warm, welcoming, conspiratorial, and game for our little portrait session. Oh, and did I say beautiful? So beautiful.

We were at her heavenly home in Beverly Hills, making portraits for LIFE magazine's special issue commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the concert at Woodstock, New York. Although she hadn't actually performed at the event, her song had long since become its anthem, so the magazine's editors had chosen to feature her as one of the artists in the story. I had decided to take her lyric "back to the garden" quite literally and use her own lush private gardens as the setting for our portraits. Since the story was slated to run in black and white, the colorful flora wouldn't overwhelm her but would provide just the right context.

Typically, I prefer to scout around, narrow my options down, and focus in on one particular scenario that best sums up the story. That afternoon, though, I just didn't want to leave. I shot all of my ideas. I made many different pictures, trying disparate approaches, working with an arsenal of favorite cameras in a variety of locations in and around her home. She playfully posed among her plants, literally pranced along a garden path with her parasol, and generally flirted with the camera shamelessly all day long. In some of the images, she was just a small figure in a sweeping verdant view; in others, she was alone in a room with her garden visible through a single window. This intimate photograph, with its cascading waterfall of fragrant Mexican orange blossoms, is the one the magazine chose to publish on its cover.

Mitchell seemed to be in no particular rush that day, offering us lunch, chatting, chain-smoking, and playing us tapes from her upcoming release. I was at my most charming, doing everything I could to elicit that deliciously radiant smile.

THOUGHTS ON TECHNIQUE

Different cameras for different pictures. Seems obvious, but it's always been a powerful part of my image-making process. Some cameras are painfully slow, deliberate, and precise. Others are fast, loose, and intuitive. Some are responsive, while others are positively dictatorial. Some make me keenly aware of the edges of my frame, while others allow me to focus first and foremost on the content. And whatever the camera, they all affect the response of the sitter in different ways. Contrary to popular myth, the camera never disappears, not to the subject and certainly not to the photographer. For the photographer, it can occasionally be a marvelous tool that helps us to see more perceptively; more often, it's this confounding machine that's always in the way.

There's usually the right camera for the job: the one that lets you work more quickly and intuitively, or the one that allows you to study and contemplate your subject more carefully. On this occasion, I brought a selection of tools so that I could choose the one to suit my muse of the moment. For one image, I elected to work with the Widelux, a 35mm camera that makes extralong panoramic photographs, and employed infrared black-and-white film to render her lush green garden as a dreamy sweep of snowy, luminous whites. For another, I worked with a medium-format Hasselblad for its neutral, square format. Back to the garden. The magical world of Joni Mitchell, her backyard in Beverly Hills, captured with a Widelux panoramic camera on 35mm infrared film.

This image, however, was made with a fairly unwieldy 4×5 large-format studio camera for several reasons. First, I wanted to use its ability to manipulate the plane of focus. While I loved the dancing cascade of flowers, I wanted to focus on her dazzling smile; otherwise, I'd be paying more attention to the flowers than to her. And second, the sizeable sheet of film would yield a greater range of grays with which to paint her skin. Plus, since one can't look through the camera when the exposures are being made, it would prevent me from being obscured as I photographed, allowing me to interact with her as I worked. These kinds of decisions, though, were made on the fly, not worried over in advance. On this day, I chose my tools as I worked, hoping they would allow me to connect in just the right way, without getting in the way.

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