Charlie Heck in Black and White
From the U.S. Air Force to his career as an attorney, this Bayou Artist has been developing his photography skills for over 50 years.
article by Barbara Leader
photography by Brad Arender
Leaned against a wall in attorney Charlie Heck’s office an incredibly lifelike photograph of a brightly colored bird peeps out of the top of a half opened box. The Painted Bunting and its background of nearly identical blended colors were captured by Heck’s artistic eye and the moment preserved by his camera, as the bird perched on a reed in its habitat at Black Bayou. The photograph is one of hundreds that are mounted or propped along the many walls of Heck’s makeshift art gallery in his law office on the fourth floor of Premiere Plaza in Monroe.
Walking through his office, Heck casually gestures toward the photograph. “I was into nature photography at the time,” he said. “I used bird calls to call the birds. I was sitting in my car and I turned on my call and in flew that bird. Many people think we don’t have those at Black Bayou, but there it was. It took a while for me to get him to quit sitting on my windshield wipers, but he finally lit on a bush beside the car. I had a flash on my camera, it was just a mess.”
Heck chuckled as he remembered fumbling with his camera to get the beautiful shot. For him, each photo represents a memory of the circumstances surrounding the photograph and a special moment in time preserved for others to enjoy.
CHOOSING A VOCATION
Heck, 73, was born in Shreveport and grew up in Calhoun, the third child in a family with six children. In addition to his art, he practices civil, trial and business law and owns a title company. His career, he says, was selected for him by a teacher at St. Matthews High School in Monroe. “I was taught by some nuns who were pretty demanding,” he said. “One or two of them told me I was really strong in the languages. One day one of them told me that I’d make a good lawyer and I said ‘ok.’ The Sister at St. Matthews planted the seed for Heck’s law career while debates and extemporaneous speaking at school nourished his desire. “They couldn’t shut me up, so they said, ‘Go be a lawyer,’ he said laughing.
Heck joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (now Louisiana Tech University) during the military draft. He entered the U.S. Air Force as an officer and was stationed stateside for his 4 year commitment. But, he knew that the military was not the life he wanted. “I wanted to do my duty and spend my time, but I didn’t want to make a career out of it,” he said. So as soon as his commitment was done, Heck used the GI Bill to pay for law school. But not before discovering his talent for photography quite by accident.
DEVELOPING HIS HIDDEN TALENTS
“I didn’t do anything with cameras or photography while I was at Tech,” he said. “But I got married after college and I went into the Air Force. I had a wife with a birthday coming up and I wanted to surprise her. So, I went to the Base Exchange and I bought her one of those point and shoot cameras. In the group that I was assigned to was an elderly sergeant who worked in the photo lab. I very proudly showed him my acquisition for my wife and he looked at me and said. ’Lieutenant Heck, take it back! He said, ‘you don’t want that.” I took it back and he made me order a box camera twin lens reflex. It didn’t even have a light meter or anything on it.”
Heck purchased a light meter and began working closely with the sergeant to hone a talent that would eventually become a big part of his life. “He started teaching me to develop film and take pictures,” he said. “My wife never saw that camera.”
Heck said the sergeant lit a fire in him for photography. “We were doing black and white. To get into the dark room and have the smell and feel and watch the images come up was so exciting.”
More than 50 years later Heck’s photography has been included in juried exhibitions and hangs in many homes and businesses in the area. He’s never had formal training in photography, but he learned from other photographers.
PROCESSES OVER THE DECADES
Despite owning several digital cameras and printers, he’s nostalgic for the old processes and the times when he had to find creative ways to develop his pictures. “I liked making big prints, but my wife enjoyed using the bathtub. When my enlarger and the developing trays were on it and I needed a dark place to hang my film, I was a very unpopular guy,” Heck chuckled. “With digital, I don’t have to turn off any lights and I don’t have to sit with my computer in the bathtub,” he said.
Despite the improvements to the process, Heck fondly remembers those early days. “There’s nothing quite like it. Being in there with a red light on – a safe light,” he said. “Your image is in the developer and all of a sudden that piece of paper starts to show some tones and you can make out an image. You had to know when to take it out and put it in the wash and then in the fixer. It’s the same thing with developing your own film. You’ve got a closed canister in which you do the developing. At the end of the time, you hesitate, take the top off, pull it out and hope like hell there will be an image on there.”
Today he enjoys using digital photography and large printers to produce high quality prints.“I worked with film cameras forever, but then came digital and now I get better images than I ever did with film,” he said.
Heck refers to his photography as his ‘hunting and fishing.’ “I tell everyone that I get to shoot things more than once,” he joked.
CHANGES IN HIS CAREER AND HIS HOBBY
While fine-tuning his talents, Heck worked as a defense attorney for more than 30 years. But working as a plaintiff’s attorney in a tragic case changed his course. “In 1991 when the plant in Sterlington exploded, my brother-in-law was the plant manager that was killed,” he said. “I met a lot of really sincere, really interesting people in that case – people who were really hurt. That was the first case that made me realize the need for psychiatrists and psychologists. I’d sit across the table interviewing those fellows and they’d be describing what happened and tears would be running down their cheeks and they’d be breaking pencils in their hands and not knowing they were.” He worked the case for ten years and reached a settlement to benefit the families of those impacted by the explosion.
Over the years, Heck’s interests in photography have shifted focus as well. Nature photography was his first love, but in time, he became more interested in scenic photography– capturing entire vistas instead of focusing on smaller subjects.
“When I first started off, the key to photography was the lens because you could almost get a shoebox and put a good lens on it and if your glass was good, you could get a good image because the lens controlled it,” he said. “But in the digital age, the cameras have developed where they almost process your image and you have to marry the camera to the lens. If you get a lens that’s not sharp and put it on a good camera you’re going to mess yourself up because your images are not going to come out as sharp as you’d like.”
AN ARTIST’S EYE FOR OPPORTUNITY
Although Heck is quick to give his equipment credit for his inspirational work, it’s much more than cameras, lenses and printers that makes his work stand out among that of other photographers. “I just see shapes and things that jump out at me and they seem worth preserving,” he said “Paying attention to detail separates the amateur and the artist. Looking at what you shoot whether it‘s shapes or a winding road or whatever that goes through the picture that catches your eye. There are a lot of things that go into it. I don’t know why I do it or how I do it. It’s just fun to me.”
Heck’s constant awareness makes his work special. “My brother and I were out on Highway 15 and he was looking at butterflies. I was just walking around and saw that cloud formation,” he said pointing to a black and white print on the wall. “So I setup my tripod and took a picture of the field.”
Many of his favorite images started out as unexpected opportunities. “Once I was in Santa Fe at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum,” he said. “Everyone was looking at the museum, but I turned around and across the street with my back to the museum was a big adobe wall with a little tree and a yellow curve running through it. I took a picture of that and enlarged it.”
“It’s just looking around,” he said. “I guess I’m constantly composing when I walk around with a camera in my hand. I’m looking for form and texture.”
“One time, I’d been up all night in Port Arkansas shooting the lunar eclipse,” he said. “We were coming in and the sun was just coming up. There was this old house across the street from some business and I shot it. I never printed the lunar eclipse. It just didn’t appeal to me as much as the house.”
Heck sells limited edition prints of some of his works, but some of his work he won’t sell. “There was a creek that I took a series of seven or eight exposures of side by side to get the whole creek and stitched them together to get about an eight foot mural,” he said. “But it was long and narrow. I displayed it using magnets over at the (Ouachita River Art) gallery. Some guy from Kansas came in and said he wanted it, but he didn’t want all of it. He wanted it to be shorter and wider. I said,’ so what you’re telling me is that you want a ‘piece’ of art because that’s only a piece of the art.’ I said ‘no I’m not going to do that.”
THE FUTURE OF ART IN THE TWIN CITIES
Heck will be the featured artist in February in the Ouachita River Art Gallery on Trenton Street in West Monroe. The Ouachita River Art Gallery is the oldest artists’ cooperative in Louisiana, having recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
He’s also very active in the Art Crawls in downtown Monroe and West Monroe. While he’s encouraged by the development in the downtown areas, he’s afraid that it will hurt those that started the renaissance. “It all started with the artists,” he said. “Art Crawls publicized the artists and were funded by the artists in the beginning. When it started producing visitors and customers the cities became involved because of people coming to downtown.”
Artists are allowed to sell original works or limited edition photographs without collecting taxes from their patrons, a benefit that helps encourage sales. Tax incentives are also fostering further development downtown.
Heck hopes for more partnerships between the cities and the artists where city-sponsored events in the cultural districts attract more visitors and help foster a growing art scene.
“Whenever I go out, I can always find a picture,” he said. “If I put my camera equipment in the car, I will find an image that I want to take and do things with it and make it special for me. That’s the beauty of photography. The fact that when I walk down the halls of this office and every photograph that I’ve got is a memory and I remember how I took it and when I took it and why I took it – it’s meaningful to me reliving those experiences. I shoot mainly for me.”