Two days after he graduated from college, David Heisler drove 1,630 miles for 22 straight hours fueled by six Red Bulls. The graduate of what is now Texas State University — who raced to Los Angeles in 2004 in order to assist celebrity photographer Greg Gorman — never drank Red Bulls again.
As soon as he pulled into the Hollywood Hills, Heisler joined Gorman for a photo shoot. The subject was actor Pierce Brosnan. Gorman’s $5 million studio encompassed 4,000 open square feet bathed in natural light outfitted with huge cycloramas and a rooftop option.
"I’m coming from college," Heisler says, his eyes wide with wonder nine years later. "A kid with an 8-by-12-foot room to shoot stuff in."
Heisler, who returned to Central Texas last year, won the career lottery when Gorman — sometimes compared to Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz — asked him to become his retoucher, archivist and, eventually, digital assistant.
He helped Gorman capture such luminaries as Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone and Al Pacino. Later, after starting his own business, he shot folks such as Paris Hilton, Catt Sadler, Janice Dickinson and Jason Mraz.
And yet Heisler’s strategy with celebrities was the same as with first-time models.
"I make people feel at ease and laugh and have fun," he says. "I help them let their guards down. So you swallow your pride. Make a ridiculous idiot of yourself. Let yourself go to allow them to let themselves go."
Heisler, 31, still retains the tuft-topped scampiness from his early years as a skate punk and the quick-shifting agility from his later time as a competitive tennis player.
Growing up in the Kingwood area of North Houston, his first camera was a digital Minolta Dimage 7i. He shot his friends skating, playing tennis or just at rest.
"I knew that I had a talent for it," he says. "Friends would say: ‘Dude! Those are the most amazing pictures!’ From that experience, I grew into the artist I became."
In college, he delved into the old analog, dark-room realm. "It all goes back to light and master craftsmanship," he says. "It was important to know how hard it was."
His mentor was police commander and forensic detective Carl Deal, who taught as an adjunct.
"He had an amazing historical house with a studio and rented apartments to students," Heisler says. "I ended up living there. I pretty much had an in-house studio. … School didn’t end at the end of the day."
During a road trip across the American West with Deal and other interns, he met Gorman and, over wine, told him about his dreams. When he returned to San Marcos, Heisler sent Gorman fake ads and movie posters he had composed in Photoshop. Eventually, the master craftsman called him to LA.
It sounds like a cliche, but Heisler later fell for one of his subjects. Girlfriend Crystal Truehart worked as a high fashion model — she later became an Austin real estate agent. The couple met on a fashion reality series three years after Heisler started his own business in LA.
"For two or three years, we were just buddies," he says. "That changed in one crazy night, after both of us had broken up with our partners. We saw each other in a whole different light. It was awkward, but we talked until the wee hours of the morning."
Meanwhile, Heisler was growing weary of the industry in California
"It’s all about the money," he says. "You end up shooting for paychecks. My parents taught me to make it about other people, not about myself. When I started my business, it was about landing people as real clients because they trust you, they like you, they believe in you and they could honestly say we were there to collaborate on amazing imagery."
He started researching Austin and discovered that there was enough fashion, advertising and head-shot business to keep him busy. He opened a studio inside a former art gallery on East Eighth Street.
"I was always rooted in Texas," says Heisler. "But because of my years in LA, my style and expertise is different."
What does Heisler notice when he starts a shoot with a client?
"I see insecurity first," he says. "You can read a lot about a person when you get them in front of a camera. So I act like a silly madman. I start taking them out of ‘we are taking pictures’ and make it about ‘we’re hanging out today.’"
He might take hundreds or even thousands of shots to get just the right image: "You have a very small window to get that great shot before they look awkward again."