Gregory Heisler on Photographing Daniel Boulud

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 chef Daniel Boulud. Check out "Gregory Heisler Shares the Techniques That Go Into His Portraiture" to read more excerpts. 

… [Sometimes] the client presents a concept that’s just awful, an idea that’s trite, hackneyed, inappropriate, poorly thought-out, unoriginal or altogether stolen …

This portrait of chef Daniel Boulud was made in response to an editorial assignment to photograph several top New York celebrity chefs. The magazine’s photo editor had an “idea.” She wanted animated, colorful chefs shot full-length on a bright white background. She wanted them smiling. She wanted them juggling food. I had already seen such pictures, and I didn’t like them the first time.

I asked if we could try another approach. It seemed to me that what these gents do is very serious business indeed. It seemed they shared a deep respect, a reverence and a visceral passion for food that far transcended what most people experienced. I wanted to somehow get that across—their relationship to the stuff of food … I suggested we ask them each to bring a carefully chosen example, along with a favored utensil they work with on a daily basis … I described the image as more of a dual portrait, as much a portrait of the raw item as of the person. The light would be directional and dramatic, emphasizing form and shadow. The focus would be extremely shallow, highlighting the surface texture. The phone was quiet. She was thinking. “Do you have an example you’ve already shot that you can show me?”

… I didn’t have anything to show her … I wanted to improvise. After all, this was editorial work. Creative freedom was the partial trade-off for low pay. It was supposed to be fun. 

She warily agreed to my plan … The chefs … appreciated the idea and had given great thought to their choices. They were quite taken by their portraits; even I was surprised by the images. Apparently so was the editor. The pictures ran, but the magazine never called me again.

Thoughts on Technique
This is a portrait of a tomato. With a guy. It’s a dual portrait …

It’s focus that tells the story here. It sets up a hierarchy of things to look at, a sequence: tomato, face, blade, hand (then back to the tomato again in a triangular tour around the picture). This photograph would suffer greatly if everything were in focus; it’d just be a nice picture of a guy holding a knife with a tomato on it. Focus and depth make all the difference. The tomato is closer to the camera than he is; that depth makes it look half as big as his head. That’s one big tomato. Held in the same plane as his face, it would’ve seemed much smaller …

Heightening this effect is the “swing” of the lens, angling the plane of focus toward the tomato and away from Boulud’s shoulder. To achieve this, the lens is angled from its characteristic parallel position in front of the film or sensor and “swung” like a door by turning a knob that alters its attitude. The plane of focus runs on an angle from the tomato in the foreground back toward his face and beyond. This skewing of focus makes his face a bit sharper, while keeping his shoulders soft. It’s an incredibly expressive and useful technique that acts like a tour guide, telling your eye exactly where to look.

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