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Legendary Photos: The Stories Behind 9 of Gregory Heisler’s Iconic Portraits

Go behind the scenes with a master portrait photographer

Photo of Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen, 2002

We’d been at Bruce Springsteen’s house all afternoon, though not the house he lived in. I had hoped to shoot in his house-of-residence because I’d heard it was equipped with a complete recording studio, in which he’d laid down tracks from his latest album, The Rising. But it had been made clear that it wouldn’t be an option; rather, we’d be working at another house he owned nearby. It was a simple, beautiful 19th-century farmhouse that, he’d explained, he and his wife Patti Scialfa had fixed up for friends who came to visit. When they decided to repaint the place and started stripping decades-old wallpaper and began patching the cracked plaster beneath, they found, to their surprise, that the resulting textures and hues suited their taste, so they simply sealed them and left them in that half-finished state. The effect made for an ideal photographic backdrop.

I picked a spot at the top of the stairs. It had a beautifully aged wall as well as a window through which I’d be able to throw some light. The window, a nearby doorway, and edge of the stair railing would serve as a frame around him. He hopped up the stairs and stood in place. The setting looked great, but it felt like something was missing. I asked if he could bring a guitar to place into the picture. Not to play, but as a prop, as if he’d just set it down for a second to have his picture taken. He obliged, but then seemed unhappy with the little scene we’d assembled. It was the wrong guitar.

He wasn’t prima-donna unhappy. He was I-like-your-idea-and-just-want-to-make-it-better unhappy. He’s quite a serious amateur photographer himself and seemed to rather enjoy the process of collaborating on what promised to be a good picture. In fact, I’m pleased to report that he was one of the most likable people I’ve had the opportunity to photograph; sincere, curious, good-humored, and patient. He made a phone call, then explained that he’d just sent someone to retrieve his favorite vintage guitar, which he’d left at a nearby rehearsal venue.

About half an hour later, I was ready for him, and he reappeared, a happy man with his beautiful old prewar Gibson guitar in hand. He very gently set it down in the corner next to him to complete the picture, then he leaned against the wall, looked into the camera, eyebrow cocked, and gave me his best, most serious rocker face.


Technical Digression

I’m a bad person. I don’t carry a real camera with me every day. I’ve tried, at various times, bringing some new favorite camera to capture photo opportunities: my daughters’ soccer games when they were little. Once I have a camera, I’m looking for pictures all the time rather than experiencing my life first-hand and I ultimately miss the best ones anyway because my mind is someplace else. In the end, I find that I’m not invested enough in the resulting pictures to want to go to all the bother of developing them, naming, and keywording them, archiving them, and backing them up; let alone printing, posting, or otherwise sharing them. For the most part, I’m content to have simply had a satisfying moment of seeing.

This window light was created from a memory; a sort of “greatest hits” of window light rolled into one. I’m not a huge fan of softboxes. They always seem like the too-simple solution. They often, however, replicate window light. The ersatz “window light” they emit, though, is chromatically one-dimensional. It’s just white. True window light can have elements that are cooler and warmer (depending on the weather, time of day, and reflecting surfaces nearby), or even greenish (if there’s a brightly lit lawn outside). These are the conditions I love to subtly replicate with my lights and softly colored gels.

Special attention was lavished on Bruce’s window light because I knew my 8×10-inch color transparency film would faithfully record it. Since the light was supposed to look like it was coming from the actual window in the frame, the only place to put our big softbox was on the other side of the window. Fortunately, there was an available porch roof. We taped on a pale blue gel to simulate cool north light and added a smaller softbox inside with a warming gel to echo lamplight as a fill. Taken together, they cast a beautiful, believable light that washed over Mr. Springsteen, creating subtly tinted highlights on his skin and throwing soft multihued shadows on the wall behind him. This window light is phony, but the effect is real. Only he and I, and now you, know the truth.


Bruce Springsteen Photo Data

Camera: Vintage Deardorff 8×10 view

Lens: Vintage 10-3/4-inch F6.8 Gold Dot Dagor

Film: Fuji Astia, ISO 100

Exposure: f/16 for 1/100 sec., EI 100

Lighting: One Profoto large softbox with a half CTB gel, one Chimera extra-small softbox with a half CTO gel

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