The Grand Masters: Charmaine Heyer

In our struggle to become better photographers, some concentrate on equipment and technique, but this is not where success lies. At the foundation of great images are ideas, concepts and imagination, which transform a craft of mere capture into the art of modern photography. No longer is a professional’s output represented solely by the press of a button on a hand-held device, rather it’s demonstrated by conceptual photographers like Charmaine Heyer who have grown the art of digital image making, forging a path for others to share.

Portrait masters of last century, such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, were leaders. They didn’t lazily replicate the work of predecessors, rather they pushed the technology and ideas of the time into new areas of research and presentation. Charmaine is also a portrait master. She is a Grand Master of Photography earned with her striking portraits and a willingness to direct our art in new directions. There are few photographers who impress me more on an intellectual level and I commend her to aspiring photographers as a mentor and role model.

– Peter Eastway, FAIPP HonFAIPP HonFNZIPP APPL GMPhotogII MNZIPP

In this series, we look to celebrate AIPP’s Grand Masters: eleven photographers who have been recognised by the Institute for being at the pinnacle of their professional and creative practice. In this post, we talk to Charmaine Heyer, AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year in 2009 about her journey to becoming a Grand Master, where she finds her inspiration, and her photographic legacy.

Now Time (2016)

Major Awards:

AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year (2009).

Five-time Australian Illustrative Photographer of the Year (2005, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2019)

Australian Creative Photographer of the Year (2016).

Dancing In The Moonlight (2013)

We talked earlier with your partner Peter Rossi who shared how storytelling is pivotal to your photography, both in your business and in your creative pursuits. How does storytelling play a role for you?

Just as Peter said, storytelling and emotion is the heart of all of our work. It’s a thing that drives my personal creative process. Over time we’ve learned that the storytelling aspect of our image-making is what the client can’t do themselves, and what a lot of our customers are craving. Our clients appreciate that we can craft something that goes beyond just beautiful image capture. It’s helped us survive in the industry in a world full of smartphones.

Life’s A Circus (2009)

Where do you begin when creating your images?

My approach to photography brings together many of my loves: creating art and collecting beautiful things, like hats, vintage clothes, clocks, antique musical instruments, old kids toys, flowers; all of which come to life in my images at some time.

Inspiration for a creative image can start with the object and then the question: how do I decorate this and give it love and emotions?

Rise Up (2019)

I’ve been a photographer since I was 17, and I started out shooting weddings and other things, but the portraiture part, and the digital post-production is what most excites me. I love playing with colour, design and post-production techniques, all in the pursuit of storytelling and creating something new.

I’m also fascinated by how you can take an image and add layers and details to build meaning and significance. When I start with post-production, I’m always searching to take the image further. Giving a client  two versions too is often at the forefront of my mind through the shoot. I see a place where two art images are needed. Perhaps something old worldly and then something very contemporary, which is more about illustration than a portrait. They hold different messages, messages that can both be related to. Both views are great, making it hard to just choose one. Decorating different areas of a home with different artwork creates conversation when they have them framed on their walls. Sometimes one piece leads into the other, double joy. 

Look at the King (2013)

This process is a journey of trial and error, of exploration. One thing I’ve discovered is that it’s okay to not know exactly what you are after until you are into it. It’s okay not to have all the answers on the first shoot, but to dream a little about it afterwards. That’s part of the creative process. One of our personal sayings at the studio is “the second shoot would be the best”.  Occasionally we need to bring the subject back for more detailed illustrated work, once my ideas are more solidified.

Pears and Apples (2009)

Tell us a little about your journey to becoming a Grandmaster. 

You could say I’m a bit of a late bloomer. My pathway to becoming a Grand Master was definitely a long one. My weathered APPA folio case is a testament to that. It’s become a piece of art in its self (haha).

The desire to become better has fuelled my journey. Aspiring to make work at the standard of my peers has inspired me to be more innovative and original each time. 

Old Man Winter (2019)

Are there areas in your craft where you feel you are innovative or pushing the boundaries?

That’s a hard question. Creating portraits with purpose is what lights my fire. Getting to the heart of my subject: what they are about, what makes them unique, and then to challenge myself to give them choice when they come to view is the exciting part. Setting challenges when I’m planning the shoot script also forces me to go to different places in the design.

All In A Day (2016)

How do you see ‘story in a subject’?

Conversation with the subject is paramount – asking questions about who they are, what makes them tick, what are they passionate about? Lots of notes are made during our talk; we explain how we need info for us to build a story.

The question that really gets them involved is asking a client what they want their portrait to say? That’s the moment they realise how important this could be. Once you have that answer, you know firstly if they are on the same page as you when it comes to creating something amazing and how much you need to do. A spark from what they say can start the creative engines. Also sometimes it’s a story that I want to tell and they are the star in the production (similar to an actor in a movie role).

It’s really important that we allow ourselves to always be open to possibilities, to not make assumptions about our subjects. We’ve had many shoots over the years that have really tugged at our heart strings. I can remember one of our shoots was a burns victim who had suffered burns to 80% of her body. Carol was such an inspiration to all who met her. After her shoot when we were downloading the images, we both just sat there and cried our eyes out. Through the shoot we had been engaged in making her feel comfortable and we were overwhelmed with her wonderful attitude to life. It wasn’t until we sat down and really looked at the images the emotions flooded out. We find we learn so much from our subjects.

Abundance (2018)

Can you discuss a few images that were important on your journey?

My love of clocks was inspiration for my image Time Warrior.

Time Warrior (2019)

This image was for a commercial client. I went into this image knowing it would feature one of my clocks but open to everything else. I dressed Mazona in the clothes I wanted for the image, and afterwards I photographed my own clock. When I began playing with it after a sketch up, I realised I needed more story, so I added the client’s children to add to the story (haha – the second shoot concept I mentioned before). The children with the keys in their back was one aspect that began to build more story; she was a working mum, and I think that part of the image is something people can relate to. The decoration of clock and numbers in the sky hint about time management.

For APPA, I presented this image in a square format.  After I’d sent it off, Peter suggested it could have been really good in a circle. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought about it (good one Pete). I did change it into the circle for the client who purchased the artwork.

For another image, the inspiration was more personal. Dog’s Best Friend emerged from a client we had previously photographed. From conversation, I knew Roger played chess. I also knew Roger and Nyree loved their dogs. I thought it would be an interesting image, a man playing chess against a dog.

Dog’s Best Friend (2012)

While, discussing the idea with Roger, I discovered his dog Jesse was quite sick and on medication to keep alive. Armed with this information I started planning the shoot.  I purchased two neck cones from our local pet shop and sketched up a design on paper. The composition needed something above, which was a light bulb moment. Roger at first didn’t want to wear his cone. I said let’s do two, one for you without and one for me with it on, and see which one hits the mark. I mentioned to him that wearing the cone showed his compassion for Jesse and brought in a sense of unity (by the way, they loved the two cones). This was a very simple shoot.  The studio background looked good, but to me I wanted that “what else” factor. I photographed a Japanese wallpaper from a local hotel and added that in to give that feeling they were in a Men’s Club.

I had tears in my eyes when I shot the image, and I knew it would have really strong emotional impact. Sadly Jesse passed away a month later, but Roger and Nyree have such a wonderful memory of their beautiful Jesse. 

Dreaming of Circus (2014)

Tell me about the titles of your images?

Peter and I started naming our pieces of art years ago. When the piece is named, it helps create a bond between the client and their art. It’s all about giving it the respect it deserves and further continuing the storytelling. Otherwise it’s a bit like having a pet and not naming it. We love seeing the anticipation on their faces, when we present the art piece and its name.

What is your greatest achievement?

My AIPP Australian Photographer of the Year win in 2009 was something I’d aspired to for many years. Also my six national category wins from 2005 – 2019 gives me a good feeling. I know I still have lots to discover, and I’m still excited about learning more and challenging myself.

People think after you win an award it gets easier, but it’s never easier. The pressure to wow yourself is always present, but I find that is very necessary.

My Own Garden (2019)

What would you like your legacy as a photographer / image-maker to be?  

I hope my audience can see me in my images. My greatest joy with my photography is adding the “what else” (ranging from the simple to the very complex). I feel it always helps my storytelling, and it gives me a chance to say something more; instead of using words I can do this in a photograph.

I am so grateful photography gives me a chance to express what I want to say, and in the way I want to say it.

Inspiration is all around us, and I hope our conversation here helps others to go out and create beautiful stories.

I want to give thanks to the many AIPP photographers that have inspired me over the years (thanks to Peter R, numero uno).

My last piece of advice: “do the style of photography that comes naturally to you and makes your heart sing.”

Judgement versus Judgement (2015)

6 Comments

  1. Doug Porter on June 21, 2021 at 2:18 pm

    Inspiring 🙏



  2. Carl Liongson on June 22, 2021 at 12:47 pm

    These are very helpful tips indeed for illustrative photography!



  3. Desmond Williams on June 26, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    With a medium that Women can equally attain greatness where such luminaries as Diane Arbus, Lee Miller/etc and not forgetting Annie Leibovitz today–Charmaine stands with those at the very top of her game.. Her ability to make simple images into paradoxes with her incredible insight into what Photography can achieve to elevate her subjects to wondrous and intriguing portrayals.
    The superb work ethic together with her Partner Peter Rossi is beyond reproach.
    Clients are indeed fortunate in Australia to have this myriad of Talent to the fore here.



  4. Charmaine Heyer on July 6, 2021 at 10:04 am

    Hi Doug, Pleased to hear you found my info inspiring.



  5. Charmaine Heyer on July 6, 2021 at 10:07 am

    Thanks for your message Carl.
    Wishing you the very best in your photography career. Inspiration for creating is all
    around us.



  6. Charmaine Heyer on July 6, 2021 at 10:14 am

    Thanks Desmoi,
    I better start living up to these wonderful words of yours.
    I’m a big fan of the photographic work you’ve produced over the years too, and your technical guidance.
    Cheers to many more fun times.