Each year, Grant Heilman set a goal of making four trips by car between his home in Colorado and his stock photography company in Lititz, Penn. His mission: Capture stunning images of the countryside, a place close to his heart having lived for years in rural Lancaster County.
"He felt that if he got one good marketing image for every 100 that he photographed, that was successful," says Sonia Wasco, owner, Grant Heilman Photography, Inc. "He was a very prolific photographer. We have well over a half-million images in our library, and I would say easily 150,000 are his. He continued to shoot up until just a few years ago."
Heilman—whose iconic pictures appeared in advertisements, encyclopedias, billboards and greeting cards for more than 60 years—died Feb. 25, 2014 in Buena Vista, Colo. He was 94.
While Heilman graduated with a degree in economics from Swarthmore College, his legacy as a photographer began with his honors thesis, which captured the life of an agricultural Alaskan community established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. He and the woman who would become his third wife, Conrad Nelson, met when Nelson worked at his photography studio as a high school student.
"I’d be sitting there in front of this bank of file cabinets with these (photo) transparencies to file, and I would look at them as they would go in the drawer," Nelson recalls. "I would think, ‘Now how did he manage to make something spectacular out of something that is so ordinary?’ He just had this gift."
After serving in covert U.S. Army operations overseas during World War II, Heilman went on to found one of the oldest stock photo libraries in the U.S. in 1948, living for years in Pennsylvania. The location afforded him access to both the country and the major marketing cities of Philadelphia and New York.
"They didn’t really know what a first-calf heifer was, or how big corn is when you apply a certain type of product," Wasco explains. "So it was important to Grant that somebody here knew how to get customers the types of images that they were looking for and also correspond with our photographers so that we had the right images."
The studio’s bestselling image, an aerial shot of farmland in Lancaster County, was taken by Heilman.
"It just shows the artwork of agriculture," Wasco says. Another iconic Heilman piece is a close-up of a field of wheat that became the cover of a Bible.
Heilman authored multiple books during his life, including "Farm" in the late 1980s. The book sold out, got reprinted and sold out again. He published an earlier book, "Farm Town", after purchasing a collection of 6,000 photos taken by a Horton, Kan., resident. He hand-selected the best images to go into his book and interviewed the photographer’s widow to write down the stories of the people and places they depicted.
Both his first wife, Marjorie, and his second wife, Barbara, died earlier. After moving to Colorado in the 1970s with Barbara, he continued to encourage employees of his company to do what they loved and to come into their own in the business. He believed in quoting customers a fair rate rather than providing overpriced services.
Meanwhile, he reconnected with Nelson, who was in college getting a fine arts degree with emphases in printmaking, mixed media and photography. She wanted to move to the Southwest, and Heilman invited her to tour Colorado with him. The two were married and went on to invest heavily in the nearby town of Buena Vista—through the Arts Council that Heilman founded with Barbara; contributions of time and money to a new college and hospital, as well as the educations of multiple local students in college; the establishment of a conservation easement for more than 500 acres of ranchland surrounding their home; and a successful tax mill levy campaign to save the local humane society, among other projects.
"We really did make a wonderful team," Nelson says. "I know there was a difference in ages, but that actually worked in our benefit because I’m a real energetic, do-it-all kind of person, and Grant was very laid back. He would calm me down, and I would rev him up."
He incorporated the agency in 1987, setting into motion a decades-long legacy plan to hand over the business to the next generation. Wasco remembers him as a mentor who encouraged her to be active in trade associations such as the National AgriMarketing Association and the American Agricultural Editors Association. He stayed on as chairman of the board until 2011, and he continued to go to his office daily up until five days before his death.
"It just tells you how much he loved doing what he was doing," Wasco notes.