Sep 28, 2007

By David Ng

Have you ever wanted to count the lines on Meryl Streep's face? Or get a good look at Brad Pitt's nose hairs? How about getting up close with the bags under Jack Nicholson's eyes?

The more than 60 faces on display at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills belong to some of the most photographed people in the world. But this solo exhibition by Martin Schoeller isn't your ordinary paparazzo blitz. The German photographer, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, GQ, Vogue and many other magazines, looks to turn celebrity portraiture into an act of contemplative scrutiny and artful asceticism.

Schoeller's trademark approach is uniformly blank-slate: a mercilessly tight close-up on a face that is drained of all emotion and actorly expression. These are stars not as we're used to seeing them but rather decontextualized and "de-famed," as the photographer puts it.

"I hope people understand these to be portraits in the classical sense," says Schoeller, 39, on the phone from his New York studio. "I'm interested in capturing part of their essence."

Schoeller worked for Annie Leibovitz before launching his own career in 1996.

"I learned a lot from Annie, but my pictures are very different from hers," he says. Schoeller's main influences were the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who are perhaps best known for their series on water towers. "I didn't quite understand their idea of shooting every water tower the same way -- the same angle and lighting," he recalls. "But I've come to like them a lot over the years. And I started photographing people in that way, same eye line, no expression."

During a typical 15-minute photography session, Schoeller will shoot as many as 300 frames of film.

"I talk to my subjects. The images you see are the in-between moments after they've been laughing or thinking what to do next," says Schoeller, who has photographed close to 800 subjects in this style in the last 10 years.

The show also includes photographs of indigenous people, including members of a hunter-gatherer tribe from Tanzania, as well as an isolated community called the Pirahã in Brazil.

Schoeller says he hopes to photograph more tribal people in the future, if he's able to fit it in between his celebrity snapping duties.

"I'm not very versatile in the celebrity world," he admits. "When I get an assignment, I usually have no idea who they are. I was at a party the other day and I was standing next to Cindy Crawford. I didn't even recognize her until my wife told me who she was."