The spotlight this week is on photographer Ken Heyman. This accomplished photojournalist has contributed greatly to our world history as well as the photographic community. He is celebrated internationally and has work hanging in museums including the Smithsonian and MOMA. He has worked for multiple magazines, including LIFE and was a full member of the Magnum Photo Agency. He has photographed famous icons including Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe. And has published over 40 books.
He was a student of the distinguished anthropologist Margaret Mead and continued working with her for over 20 years. The book FAMILY in which they collaborated was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. When asked what type of photographs he shoots, his answer is “people”. However his mentor, colleague and friend Margaret Mead would tell it differently: “Ken is a photographer of relationships.”
To prepare for this interview I spent time getting to know Ken from his website which is rich with information and fascinating stories. He invited me to his studio in Greenwich Village to talk about his career as a photographer. I was excited and a bit anxious to meet with a man of his stature. He was very generous with his time and gracious answering my questions. I hope you are as taken with this photographer as I am.
T: When did you first start working with photography?
K: In high school it was my hobby. I was a quiet kid, kept to myself a lot. And was just an “OK” student. Played football because I was big. I went to Columbia College and was studying to be a Social Worker; I graduated in 1956. (There were two years that interrupted my studies where I was in the army.)
T: Did you have any formal training in photography?
K: The summer between my junior and senior year at Columbia I took a class at an art institute in the city. I was kicked out because they thought I wasn’t serious enough. Working for LIFE Magazine was my training ground.
T: Why did you choose to take a class with Professor Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist? Can you tell us a little about her?
K: Margaret Mead was the most important professor at Columbia, so I took her class. She assigned a final paper that allowed us to include additional abilities such as photography. She was taken with my work and asked me to join her graduate class the following semester.
After I graduated, I spoke to her class about photography. Then one day, she asked me if I wanted to join her on a trip to Bali. Of course my response was yes. The first of many trips with her was in 1957. We worked together for 20 years and I visited over 60 countries around the world, through books that we did together.
T: What did you accomplish while working with her?
K: We co-authored two books: the first was FAMILY published in 1965 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The second was WORLD ENOUGH, published in 1975.
T: How did she change your life?
K: Margaret Mead was my mentor; she opened the world to me.
See more of Ken and Margaret Mead here.
T: Tell me about a lunch you had with a friend that changed the course of your life.
K: My best friend from high school had recently inherited a lot of money. He asked me to go to Havana with him. (At this time in 1956, Havana was the playground of the Western World.
I was eager to go.)
T: What happened next?
K: A few days later I told my mother and brother. John laid down a challenge; he said he would bet me $20.00 that I couldn’t photograph Ernest Hemingway. At that point in the conversation my mother stated that she could help. She knew Hemingway’s editor and could get me a letter of introduction. I accepted the challenge. Of course at the time I didn’t realize Hemingway was a recluse, and not easy to gain access.
T: So photographing Hemingway was not a strategy for you as a photographer to build your portfolio?
K: No. I didn’t think that way, as photography was still a hobby at this point. I was just looking forward to having a great vacation with my friend.
T: So did you have a chance to meet Hemingway?
K: I went to the gate of Hemingway’s home with the letter of introduction and the man behind the gate let me up to the house. I had a quick visit with him at that point.
T: How did that go?
K: He asked me if I just came from New York. He was interested in the fight with
Sugar Ray Robinson that happened the day before. He was pleased when I told him Sugar Ray had won. I think that was an icebreaker.
T: Did he allow you to photograph him then?
K: No, he invited me to come back the next day, to visit him on the set of
The Old Man and the Sea. After a days shooting then I could take some pictures of him on the dock. Well, I could not find the location. I thought I missed my opportunity.
So on the third day, I went back to his house early in the morning and sat at the gate. I was finally invited in after waiting a long time-Hemingway commented on how “persistent” I was, he liked that.
He invited me for a swim. I said that I didn’t have a suit. His response: “No one swims with a suit here!” I swam for a bit and then heard the bell ringing from the main house up on the hill. I quickly dressed, grabbed my shoes and gear and headed up. Mama was ringing the bell for dinner.
Up at the house, I stood in the room where Hemingway did his writing. The room was filled with stuffed heads of animals from his hunting expeditions. Standing near a podium he says to me “I always do my writing standing up”. Mama yells that dinner is getting cold. Hemingway replies: “The kid shoots fast!” And so I did.
T: That is amazing! Thank you for sharing this. Did your brother ever pay you the $20.00?
K: Yes he did!
T: And what did these photographs do for your professional career?
K: They were terrific to include with my portfolio. My agent would place one image as the lead photograph-it helped me with many future assignments.
See more of Ken and Hemingway here.
T: You worked with LIFE Magazine quite a bit; over 150 assignments.
How did that begin?
K: I was shooting a project for myself that I called “Broadway Islands”, pictures of people around 112th Street, near Columbia. I walked into the magazines’ office and showed them these images. They accepted the work and included it in their series known as “Speaking of Pictures”.
T: Where did it go from there?
K: They told me to talk to the assignment editor. The editor said, “I want you to shoot an image for the last page of the magazine. (This usually was a funny picture.)
The assignment was somewhere in New Jersey. I was to photograph an owl watching a prizefight. Well, when I got there and began shooting the strobe frightened the owl so much that it took off from the handler, and in so doing severed an artery. I was able to put a tourniquet on the woman (training from army days), but the owl flew off into the cornfield and I never got the shot.
T: What did the magazine say?
K: When I got back and told the editor my story, he thought it was so funny that he called additional people in to the office to hear it! I thought they would never give me another assignment. Instead I became a contract photographer for the magazine. I had 3 assignments with them before I graduated college and over 150 throughout my career.
T: Most of your photography was of celebrities. Why was that?
K: They saw that I had a way with people, so that is what my assignments would cover. I also had a friend that did PR for the film industry. It was great publicity for the film to have a “LIFE” photographer on their set. So I was able to shoot stars like Elizabeth Taylor. It was also great for me, as I would get paid from the magazine and also from the film.
T: What was your day rate on the magazine?
K: It was $100.00/day
T: And what was a typical shoot?
K: I would shoot about 300 images a day. The film would go back to the lab for developing. The images would be edited down to about the 10 best shots. And then I got an assignment for the next day.
See more of his celebrity work here.
T: From all the people you have photographed, is there anyone that stands out for you?
K: Margaret Mead and Leonard Bernstein.
T: I was curious how you view the changes in photography and how you transitioned from film to digital.
K: Now I shoot digitally. I am intrigued by how a digital file can be blown up to cover the side of a bus. I find that the digital sensor picks up so much more light than the eye can see, and so I find I don’t use a flash. It’s great!
However, I see many photographers today looking at the back of the camera instead of evaluating and composing the scene before shooting. I think photographers are not always “seeing” what they’re shooting. They should take a moment, evaluate what is before them, see the emotions in the scene and shoot at the right moment.
T: And how about working in a virtual darkroom now?
K: I don’t like Photoshop, except to use it for editing.
T: You have been a member of ASMPNY since 1955. Why did you join the organization?
K: It was important when I started out, I also got my medical insurance through them.
T: Did you ever participate in any group events?
K: I don’t get involved with the organization because I don’t enjoy the politics. Even to this day, I rarely work with an assistant. I tend to work alone.
T: Each of your earlier personal projects opened big doors for you.
Your Harlem project with Margaret Mead; your Broadway Islands project with LIFE Magazine, your Hemingway images with future assignments. Are you always working on a project?
K: I feel that projects are very important. Doing a personal project you can relax, you can focus on the story that you want to tell. I think that photographers should always have a personal project going on, something that could be done maybe over many years or something that has a shorter timeframe; it helps your other work too. I went to Woodstock on my own. And the photograph of John F. Kennedy’s funeral was also something I did on my own. In my opinion, photographers should always have a project.
T: What are you currently working on?
K: It is a book called Seeing Ourselves. It’s my most important project. At this time, I’m waiting for a publisher.
T: And going forward?
K: I will be putting together a book of 100 celebrities and their stories. I worked closely with so many people; they have so many different, funny stories to share.
T: Any advice that you think is important for photographers to heed as they work with clients?
K: One thing I found after working with many people is to respect them and their space, to engage them before shooting. For example, when you go into someone’s home to photograph you should never come walking in with the camera blazing. You should have your camera in a bag and when you enter put it down by the door. Admire their children and/or apartment and/or what they collect, etc. Try to break the ice with them, put them at ease. Sit down with them and discuss why you are there; have a conversation to bring everybody together.
Ken, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with me. It has truly been a pleasure!
To learn more about Ken, and see full length videos of his interviews please visit his
Until next time!