The photography of George Heinrich

By Glenn Gordon

The temperature not long after the sun rose over Minneapolis on the morning of the winter solstice in 1989 was around zero degrees. Those puffs of white you see at the top of the building in George Heinrich’s classic photograph of Cesar Pelli’s handsome Norwest Center are not clouds but steam, venting from the building on a bitterly cold day.

The cold that day penetrated to the bone, making it difficult to perform subtle adjustments on the 4 x 5 view camera—those slight tweaks to focus and the position of the bellows that make the difference between a snapshot and a fine, closely thought-out photograph. His tripod set on a spot staked out to catch the optimal few moments of light on Pelli’s great striated pillar of stone, Heinrich exposed nine sheets of film that morning—some color, some black and white, all of them (going by the position of the hands on the clock through the series) captured within the space of just a few minutes. The steam plume, so expressive in this exposure of the exhaled breath of a building, was quietly given a little more emphasis in the darkroom.

This picture and many of the hundreds of other powerful architectural images Heinrich has produced in his long career were shot on film and printed during long séances in the darkroom, before film gave way to digital and Photoshop. Not resistant to progress or professional survival, Heinrich has been shooting digital just as skillfully since it became viable, but he remains a strong exponent of classic large-format architectural photography and the occult rites of the darkroom.

Heinrich is a craftsman in the lineage of the great photographers of midcentury Modernism—Balthazar Korab, Ezra Stoller, and Julius Shulman—and he is full of respect for an even earlier generation of photographers who, for the sake of print quality, continued to shoot and print from glass-plate negatives (a photographic process used from before the Civil War) up through the 1940s. In his library is a portfolio—a lodestar, given to him by the late John Kammerdiener, a Minneapolis architectural photographer who worked in the 1920s—of contact prints made on fine rag paper from large glass-plate negatives, prints that in their texture, tonal range, acuity, and archival purity are equal, if not superior, to anything done today.

Aware of whose shoulders he’s standing on and skilled with the old and new tools of the trade, Heinrich is a searching, restlessly inquisitive scholar of photography. Largely self-taught and hungry for mastery, over the years he has sought out and had exchanges with some of the masters and mentors of American photography and cinematography, among them Cole Weston, Ruth Bernhard, W. Eugene Smith, and D.A. Pennebaker.

Just under the surface, not visible but its pulse there to be felt, runs another vein of influence on Heinrich: his love of and immersion in jazz. Subliminally, his work is infused with the music of Monk, Miles, Mingus, and Coltrane; it’s playing on the turntable whenever you walk into his studio.

The 42 covers of Architecture MN graced with Heinrich’s photographs since 1980 only hint at the range of his work. His elegant depictions of architecture by firms large and small throughout the Midwest and beyond—the alertness and sensitivity in his pictures to qualities of form, structure, materials, and textures, and to how a building is expressed through light—have contributed to their buildings’ garnering of countless regional, national, and international awards. The photographs in this folio speak of the drive and the discipline to be there for those few minutes—often just after dawn or not long before dusk—when the way the light touches a building will make it sing. If, as Goethe once put it, architecture is frozen music, George Heinrich is there to hear it for us with his eyes.