May 01, 2000

By Claudia Glenn Dowling

Noon in New York City. Martin Schoeller is looking at things — it’s his job. He eyes the stage door of the Belasco Theatre, off Times Square, gazes at the placement of the mirrors in a dressing room, prowls the bowels of the building and contemplates the stage elevator that is said to have lifted an elephant for a magic trick performed by Houdini. Schoeller has to pull off an illusion in this theater too, and it’s four hours until showtime.

His assignment: to photograph Christopher Walken for Entertainment Weekly. The actor is appearing in James Joyce’s The Dead, and Schoeller will have a half hour between the matinee and the evening show to make his picture.

He has prepared — gone to the show to see Walken in the flesh, watched the movies in which the actor plays a variety of villains. Now it’s time to go into action. Dressed in black, his fair dreadlocks bobbing, Schoeller, with his two assistants, lugs a vanful of black cases down to the dungeonlike cellar. A rattrap snaps as Schoeller kicks it aside. He will set up lights for two environmental portraits. He will also erect a ministudio to shoot the big head shot he has lately popularized. “I try to capture a moment when the person is open,” says Schoeller, a faint German accent betraying his origins. “People who are not experienced at being photographed are easier.” His work puts him in a privileged position, he says, one where he can hear jazz great Max Roach drum or see Christopher Walken act. “There are times when being a photographer is the best job in the world.”

At 32, Schoeller can be selective. He just got back from shooting a blue-collar loudmouth in Colorado for Rolling Stone and tonight is off to shoot a businessman in Rhode Island for The New Yorker. “It is kind of frightening to think that I am already working for my favorite magazines,” he says. Indeed, last fall he became one of The New Yorker’s three staff photographers. “There is something very spirited and youthful in his work,” says the magazine’s visuals editor, Elisabeth Biondi. “Martin’s pictures are very much like he is — alive and attractive. He’s unspoiled and a delight to work with.”

The lights pop. Ben Baker, who met Schoeller when they were both assistants — not that long ago —is holding a light meter up to his nose in Walken’s dressing room. He is pretending to be Walken, who is, at the moment, onstage. “What time is it?” asks Schoeller, who isn’t wearing a watch. It’s after three. The team has to be out of the dressing room by the curtain at 3:40. Pop go the strobes.

“Actually, get a reading at a 60th,” says Schoeller, looking through the viewfinder of his large-format camera. He crouches under Walken’s overcoat hanging in the corner. Pop. “Eight,” says Baker.

“One more time,” says Schoeller. “Reflection in the mirror, cool.” He studies the Polaroids, chews his lip. “Ben, come closer. More toward the mirror. Now, we just do one last one.”

As a child in Frankfurt, the son of a librarian and a literary critic, Schoeller had no idea that when he grew up, he would be setting up lights and mirrors, trying to pull an elephant out of a hat. After high school, a friend applying to photography school in Berlin showed Schoeller the assignments required for the portfolio — a journalistic photograph about Russia, a still life of a musical instrument, a portrait of an old man. He urged him to try out, too. Schoeller bought a cheap camera. Of 800 applicants, he was one of 40 who got in. (Ironically, the friend who helped him did not.) After a two-year program, including chemistry, optics and printing, Schoeller set out to learn his trade as a photographer’s assistant. In 1992 he arrived in New York City.

His dream was to intern for Irving Penn, Steven Meisel or Annie Leibovitz. He landed a spot rolling up extension cords and sorting filters for Leibovitz and stayed three years, studying her lighting and her approach to a shoot. On his last day, a fellow assistant used an excuse to get him out of the studio. When they returned, the elevator doors opened to a sushi bar, a deejay and a crowd of coworkers in dreadlocks. Schoeller was touched.

He started taking head shots of his friends for his portfolio, did a project on a homicide squad, a series on street people. Then he shot quarterback Troy Aikman and tennis star Andre Agassi for Sport magazine: “All of a sudden I had head shots not just of my friends.” In 1997, assignments from Rolling Stone started to roll in; in 1999 from The New Yorker. Assistant Baker teases that Schoeller’s fiancée, a graphic designer he met on the subway, never sees him anymore.

It’s time for the star to appear. Suddenly, the lights, jury-rigged with extension cords and the plug for the wardrobe man’s iron, blink out. Frantic action. The lights go on.

The big head shot comes first. Schoeller likes to shoot straight into the eyes. “My lighting is very stark, in your face, not too pretty,” he says. Actor Tim Robbins and record exec Clive Davis objected, but most people don’t mind: Schoeller’s pictures are clear-eyed but not unkind. “All in all, I like people,” he says. “Photography shouldn’t be about a subject’s ugliness or prettiness. It should go beyond appearance to personality, to philosophy, to whatever it is you’re trying to say.”

Walken doesn’t mind a closeup. He sits on a stool, a professional. Then they descend past the elephant’s elevator for a shot in the cellar.

The assistants load film as fast as they can. Everybody runs up several flights of stairs to the dressing room for the last shot. Assistant Seth Schikler crouches outside with a bucket of sodium sulfide solution. As Polaroids are shot, he dunks the negatives to clear them. The black-and-white images are beautiful but fragile and have to be rushed to the lab.

It’s 4:45. After four hours of setup, a half hour of shooting and with two hours of packing up yet to come, team Schoeller slumps in the basement. Schoeller studies the Polaroids of the day. “I got a great head shot,” he says. He studies Walken’s face. “That scary look of his, is it just him or something he does to enhance his image?” He decides: “That’s the way he wanted it.”

Presto. The elephant appears.