Portrait Photography Tips: How Henry Horenstein Captured a Killer Image of Jerry Lee Lewis

©Henry Horenstein

The Killer was an hour late, but most of the folks in the audience had had a few drinks and were in a good mood, so nobody minded.

The Killer is Jerry Lee Lewis—if you want the origin story of his nickname, it’s searchable—and on that night in 1975 he was past his rockabilly and rock-and-roll days and into his country music career. Photographer Henry Horenstein was at the Ramada Inn in East Boston on assignment for Country Music magazine to photograph Lewis between sets.

Things don’t go quite according to plan.

“Jerry Lee finally arrives,” Horenstein says, “and he sings one song, and then halfway through the second song he stops and says, ‘You either come here to listen to me or you come to talk. You got a choice.’ And he walks out.”

At that point it doesn’t look like any pictures will be made, but Horenstein stays put and an hour later Lewis’s manager shows up and tells him that Lewis will see him.

“I go up to the penthouse—which is the fourth floor in the Ramada Inn—and I knock on the door and Jerry Lee himself opens it and says, ‘C’mon in, killer’—it’s not only his nickname, he calls everyone that—and he proceeds to set up the shots.”

Wait…what? Lewis sets up the shots? Well, yes. The way Horenstein tells the story it was like, You can take the pictures I want you to take or you can leave. You got a choice.

“I didn’t do much more than push the button,” Horenstein says. “He’d do poses and say, ‘Take this one,’ ‘take this one,’ ‘take this one.’”

Which, of course, fulfilled one of the goals of a portrait: the revealing of the subject’s self. Jerry Lee Lewis is ultimately a controlling performer.

After a two-hour break, Lewis went back downstairs and played the second set—“a couple of hours,” Horenstein remembers, “and no one in the audience said a word about it.”

Who’d Dare?
Country Music magazine featured the photo, and it appears in Horenstein’s most recent book, Shoot What You Love, a volume that’s a story in itself. It’s subtitled Tips and Tales From a Working Photographer, but that’s just the surface of a memoir of a life in photography combined with a meditation on the nature of building a career as a professional photographer. It’s the story of a photographer who has published some 30 books from how-to instruction to monographs, and an educator who is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design.

And who, when facing The Killer, calmly followed instructions.

Tech Talk: Henry Horenstein made the photo with a Rolleiflex Wide-Angle twin-lens reflex with a 55mm f/4 lens. He used a Honeywell flash with a bare bulb (no reflector), the film was Tri-X 400, and the settings were 1/60 second, f/8, and manual exposure. These days he chooses between a Mamiya 7 film camera and a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Images from Shoot What You Love: Tips and Tales From a Working Photographer, as well as photographs from Henry Horenstein’s other books, are featured at horenstein.com. Music fans might want to pay special attention to the images and notes in the Honky Tonk section of the site.