When deputy picture editor Cathy Mather asked Gregory Heisler to take the photographs for Gary Smith's story, Ali and His Entourage (page 47), Heisler was surprised by one aspect of the assignment: Mather wanted him to work in black and white. Heisler has a reputation for sensitive portraits, skillful lighting and versatility. Still, he says, "I think I'm usually perceived as either a color specialist or a technical problem-solver. I thought she'd pulled the wrong number from her file."
This is an article from the April 25, 1988 issue
Surprise quickly gave way to delight. "I love shooting black and white," says Heisler. "Black and white is more content-oriented; it moves the subject a step away from reality. You can concentrate more on mood and feeling." Of Smith's text he says, "Gary wrote a very visual piece. It's about relationships and emotions. It immediately conjured up a jumping-off point for each portrait."
Heisler is particularly fond of the close-up of Luis Sarria, Ali's masseur (pages 58-59). "There were lots of possible shots of Luis," says Heisler. "But when I thought of the hours Ali spent with him in which they didn't talk because Sarria doesn't speak English, I decided I wanted a sense of his sweet soul and his strong hands."
Heisler, a native of Chicago, moved to New York in 1975 to study with portrait photographer Arnold Newman, who took the photo of him that appears on this page. Among Heisler's credits are covers of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner for Life, ballet dancers for Geo, cars for Connoisseur and Bill Cosby for Newsweek. He was given the 1985 Corporate Photography Award by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. In 1981, while working on a book, A Day in the Life of Australia, Heisler met Prudence Taubert, a clinical psychologist. They were married 10 days later. Prudence now works in the photo department of Fortune.
Ali held a special fascination for Heisler. "I perceived him as a hero of the people, not specifically as a sportsman." The champ didn't disappoint him. "He was wonderful, very playful and mischievous." Partway through the session that produced the cover shot, Heisler recalls, Ali broke into a grin. After a while, Heisler could no longer contain his curiosity. "I asked him why he was smiling. He said, 'You really love what you do, don't you?' No one had ever said that to me before."