A conversation with Terry Heffernan

Terry Heffernan is a San Francisco-based tabletop director and photographer. With a career spanning three decades, his work has refined the craft of still life imagery. From the slightest nuances of texture, a minimal palette and clear narrative, to the precision use of light that floats across his subjects, Terry's body of work is at once something of a dream, but also in the moment. He has photographed campaigns for major food, product and automotive brands, in addition to historical books on American culture, and public and private museum collections. Presently, Terry is offering limited edition prints of his most revered photographs through his brand, American Icons. You can view the collection at americanicons.net

I recently had the opportunity to discuss with Terry the early part of his career. The following is what he shared.

You’ve credited Edward Weston, Irving Penn and Phil Marco as having influence over your work. What about these photographers spoke to you early in your career?
Weston, Penn and Marco had simple, graphically arresting images. They all created imagery that forced you to pause, made you think, and usually say, “WOW!”.

Former teacher, and working photographer Andrew Russetti played an integral role in developing your ability to see a photograph. In your words, how did his teachings shape your creativity?
Heroes are hard to find. Andy was my teacher, mentor and friend. He connected the dots for me--showed me that it was important to always shoot your own photos and your clients would come.

Creatively, how did you approach a photograph? What were you looking to draw out of your subject?
I am a visual storyteller that tries to pre-visualize my images with objects that tell the story. Once the objects are on hand, I work at creating as simple, graphic, and compelling composition possible. Most of my time is spent in this phase of the process. From years of experience, I take light for granted. But, I am still in “aah” of it. I love to love it!

You have a tremendous sense of design and hierarchy, and your work throughout the 1980s used light as a visual path through your compositions. Where did the Heffernan look come from?
I try to steal from the very best. From a window in my parents home in the most overcast town in the country, Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a giant soft box there most of the year.
Your compositions relied on great depth and even light from the top of the frame to the bottom. How crucial were the lighting tools to your work?
Depth is created by contrast and light fall off. A single-source light depending on how close it is to your subject will give you both. A judicious fill card will draw your shadows. Balance is what I labor for; it's the curse of a Libra--or, precariousness is the essence of balance.

How did you make the transition into commercial photography?
After attending Cooper School of Art under Andrew Russetti, I learned that you could make a living doing what you loved to do. After seeing a Phil Marco photograph for Kodak, I decided that I wanted what he had.  

Was there a big break?
My first break was a direct client contact with Armanino Farms in San Francisco. I realized that this client needed everything so I took on the entire project. I hired Richard Garnas, a very talented graphic designer, and Graphic Arts Center to print the job. The final product brochure got into the Communication Arts Design Annual. Richard also designed an exact three-dimensional cardboard replica of an 8x10 film holder, containing eight of my promotional still life bleed images. This simply designed, and beautifully crafted self-promo piece, helped fuel the move to San Francisco, where it received great reception with creatives, and created a buzz about Light Language (Heffernan's joint-studio business at the time with photographer Jim Sadlon). In 1983, Communication Arts magazine gave Light Language a feature story--that was advertising that could not be bought. Also, national clients wanted to come to San Francisco to shoot. It was apparent to me very early in my career that I wanted to be surrounded by the best designers that I could possibly collaborate with.

How did you establish a working relationship with Kit Hinrichs? How did that early collaboration influence the direction of your career?
Kit Hinrichs moved to San Francisco from New York around 1977, a year before I transitioned from Cleveland to
San Francisco in early 1978. Kit had moved with his partners (Johnson, Pederson, Hinrichs + Shakery) and quickly
became the client to work for. My first project was with Linda Hinrichs: a series of still life photos for the drug company Smith, Kline and French. Kit had just finished a beautiful annual report, shot in New York with Phil Marco, for Warner Brothers. After seeing that book I made up my mind that Kit was one gifted designer that I wanted to work with. The project that I was working on with Linda featured still lives that featured mental illness in the Chinese and Irish cultures. Chinatown’s herbal shops provided me with a rich array of objects and a call to my mom in Cleveland’s Irish West Side finished my propping for that project. I learned early on that authentic artifacts are the cornerstone for my work. I was completely stoked about getting to work with Linda Hinrichs, and I could not wait to get Kit’s reaction when my 8x10 transparencies from the Smith Kline and French project made their rounds at their office. That was the beginning of a thirty-seven year relationship.

What was your first major account/client?
Early on, after transitioning to San Francisco, I worked on several projects with Mauricio Arias, of Arias and Serellie, for
Amfac Hotels. I was also fortunate to parlay my work with great graphic designers and began to work with young writers
and art directors, such as Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstien.

You’ve enjoyed great success in the Publishing industry, having photographed many rare and priceless collections. To what extent do you have creative control over the look of the photography?
I have been fortunate and privileged to photograph several priceless museum artifacts and collections. I have always been cognizant of the political sensitivity of handling these jewels. Having lighting, compositional and editing authority, or “creative control”,  are important considerations that I treasure. Some clients might weigh-in, and shooting it both ways is always a good solution. Normally, my clients allow me to do what I do because they support the body of work that has
preceded their project.

Do you have a favorite campaign/publication?
The 10 years of working with Kit Hinrichs on American Presidents Line calendars, and working with Goodby/Silverstien on “Got Milk” are high on my list. Graphis and Communication Arts were high watermarks for getting work into publications.

How were you approached about shooting your first TV spot? How long until you felt the time was right to direct?
I had seen the transition of several studio still life photographers from print to film and I was intrigued. Once I understood that I could design motion as several shot pieces that would transition from one to another, motion became an extension of my print. Breaking motion down to smaller pieces helped. Beautifully shot footage, appropriate sound track, organic sounds, great voice over and editing became the tools to developing my reel. I most often found myself re-cutting my work from the commercially-driven agency cut.  I wanted to create image pieces rather then retail commercials. Ultimately, the idea was the most important aspect of my directing. I would be planning my cut, or keeping crews on to shoot my idea to build my reel.

Did you fully commit to TV, or were you shooting the accompanying print campaigns?
I was 100% into directing when I had the financial support of an agency. I also had several opportunities to shoot both the motion and the still campaign. However, I never left print to shoot motion. I refused to give up my “first born” in favor of my “second”.

Did the Heffernan look change for TV? Did you feel a need to recreate the atmospheric light from your print work?
I incorporated a single-light source philosophy with my transition to motion. I also found out that a good DP (Director of Photography) could help mentor me. I really enjoyed working with extremely talented film crews, and had a blast on most of our shoots. Often times, the experience of shooting was far greater then that of seeing the commercial on TV,  “All that work for that”?  Print was always the gift that kept on giving!

With a career spanning over 30 years, you’ve effortlessly adapted to all the changing styles. Has the art of still life changed in your opinion?
My heroes have directed my change in lighting style: Weston and Penn! With outliving Kodak, the onset of the internet, and the Walmartization of the world, I believe that print and “the art of still life”, in general, have declined in demand and importance. 

What’s next for Terry Heffernan?
I am currently involved in a new venture called American Icons. This work represents the best of my still life work, creating co-branded products from museums, and historically significant collections. I have long been of the opinion that museum retail stores sell very little that has anything to do with their actual collections, mostly because they do not have the content. I am developing my content into Museum Cards, Prints, and Boxed Sets, some limited and signed, some unlimited and signed. My goal is to produce a product line that becomes commercially viable and opens doors to the best collections of American Icons. This project was just launched in Hartford, CT, where I attended a Museum Retail Association trade show. My packaging, website, trade booth, business cards and overall branding was created by my long-time friend and associate, Kit Hinrichs. Great design: graphic or photographic, is what it's all about!