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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 Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg at the 9/11 Memorial

I had spent the day with my assistant scouting locations in and around the as-yet unopened 9/11 Memorial site for a portrait of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It was being unveiled the very next day, and his office had called to arrange for a formal portrait to be made featuring the site as a backdrop. Our first location was at the twin 9/11 Memorial Pools themselves. Another spot featured the “Survivor Tree” that had been rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Hunting for a location that would offer a view of the entire site including the new One World Trade Center, I had just cajoled my way onto the rooftop terrace of a private club atop a hotel overlooking the entire scene. It was about 5:30pm. I had paused in the lobby of the hotel to take stock of the images we’d made when my phone rang. It was Deputy Mayor Patti Harris calling to tell me that they actually needed to make one of the portraits that night at 7:30!

My assistant, Briscoe Savoy, and I just looked at each other. Saying no was not an option; my job was to make it happen. We quickly drew up a (long) list of all the equipment we’d need, and he immediately started assembling a crew of digital techs and assistants, secured the necessary lighting and grip equipment (quite a feat considering that all the rental houses had just closed for the day!), sourced a raised platform for our subject that could be assembled on site, and booked a truck and driver to pick it all up and deliver it to us at the Memorial. In an hour.

The trickiest part of the picture was to see down into the Memorial Pool while looking up at the mayor to give him the appropriate presence in the picture, all while keeping the vertical lines of the buildings vertical. I had to be about eight feet in the air to see over the chest-high surrounding wall and down into the pool. But I didn’t want to be looking down on the mayor, so I needed a platform to raise him a bit above my eye level. With all the up and down going on, there was only one wide-angle lens to tackle the task: the Canon 24mm tilt/shift. Instead of tipping the camera up to look up, or pointing it down to see down, I just aimed it straight ahead, dead level. Then I just turned a little knob on the lens that shifts it up and down, so I could see up and down without distorting the image. The resulting photograph doesn’t betray all the optical gymnastics; it’s just a dramatic picture.

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