Portrait of an Artist

Feb 11, 2011

by David Travis

In the history of studio portrait photography, there have been only a handful of, practitioners who have created an, unmistakable lighting style of their own., George Hurrell,  Helmar Lerski,  and Yousuf, Karsh come immediately to mind. Each, of them addressed the face with theatrical, flourish,  as was appropriate through the, 1920s and into the 1950s. Just as stunning, but without the excesses of sculptural suavity, or sensual geometries,  is the work of Martin, Schoeller. Although Schoeller is as versatile, as he is inventive in the fields of journalism, editorial illustration,  and documentation,  it, is his close-up portrait technique that has, become his signature style.

“In 1997 and 1998, no one was doing close-ups. It was all about glamour. Everyone was trying to imitate Annie [Leibovitz]. And here comes this German guy with these unretouched, super honest, gritty portraits. But people tended to like them, and Time Out gave me some assignments to photograph New York preachers.”

Portraits by Martin Schoeller are intentionally, anti-theatrical,  allowing for expression only in, the subject’s eyes and lips. Everything else is a, flattened topographical road map of the rest of, the face. Internet sites are abuzz with comments, speculating on how Schoeller’s detailed,  but even, and forgiving,  lighting is achieved. It is undoubtedly a recipe, perfected by trial and error. Its stock ingredients are two tall, vertical Kino Flo light boxes set very close to the face laterally., This setup is usually spiced with two much smaller beauty, dishes placed at an angle above and below the subject., And then,  as with many great recipes,  there are other secret, and subtle additions. Extreme as the primary light placement, seems,  it results in several enormous advantages. For one, the curved reflections of the thin Kino Flo boxes in the sitter’s, eyes give them a lively sparkle,  but at the same time create a, mesmerizing,  almost eerie,  presence. We spoke with Martin, Schoeller in the early evening of Friday, February 8,  2011, after a hectic day that those in the freelance commercial, photography world must have the strength and patience to, survive. A call from Time Magazine had come in suddenly with, an assignment to photograph Rahm Emmanuel, in Chicago, on a rooftop, with a characteristic view,  and with snow,  on, Sunday—just two days away. The photographer, assistants, office help, and interns scrambled to the phones to determine, locations, acquire access and security,  and commission snowmaking, experts. They began to assemble and pack equipment, and book lodging and transportation. By the end of the day, it was all miraculously achieved. Then, the magazine called, back. Events in the rapid downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, were creating a new reality in the ancient kingdom by the hour., All news channels and front covers would be attending to it., The photo shoot was scrubbed just as fast as it had come in., We connected with Martin an hour after the dust had settled, and the shell-shocked studio personnel had vacated the, premises for the slightly less-fevered spots in one of the great, frenetic cities of the world. He was calm, aided by a glass of, whiskey,  and mentally energetic,  as,  rumor has it,  he always, is. As we spoke it became obvious that the artist with the most, singular lighting style in contemporary portraiture practice is, no one-dimensional technician with a lucky formula. His story, reveals a man who has a sense for modern culture in both its, commercial vigor and its artistic self-reflection, something akin, to Edward Steichen’s frame of mind when he began working, for the Condé Nast publishing empire in 1923.

Tell me about the series of big heads,  the ones that make up, your book Close Up. What picture was the first one that you, recognized would be your path forward?
I worked with Annie Leibovitz for three years and tested a lot, of lighting techniques. Often I would come in close to see, what really happens in the face lighting-wise. I’ve always been, fascinated with close-ups and even in my application to photo, school one of the assignments was to photograph an old man., Even with a 35mm camera and the horizontal format I went in, really tight on this great-looking old man with a cigar. Maybe, I’m not afraid of coming in close because I like people. I, always felt there was something to be found in people,  that we, had something in common. So all these things combined led, me to take a lot of pictures close-up. Annie obviously never, took any pictures close-up,  or not many. She was rather quite, the opposite,  huge setups,  with a lot of props,  styling,  and, beautiful clothes,  in beautiful locations. It was the opposite, of being close-up. I played around with these Kino Flo lights, like those used on movie sets,  and I showed the test to Annie, because I thought they looked really interesting. She didn’t like, them at all because it wasn’t her style,  I guess. After I left her, in 1996,  I photographed all of my friends in exactly that style., And I’ve been working in this style pretty much ever since., At that time,  I put a huge portfolio together,  but no one, was really interested. It was basically a straight translation, from the water tower photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher whose work continues to inspire me. Once it clicked and I, understood what the Bechers’ idea was,  I thought it would be, great to photograph faces in the same style.I would call [my, first trials] “face studies” rather than “portraits” because my, early portraits didn’t allow for any expression at all. Women, were not allowed to wear make-up. Everybody had to pull, their hair back. It wasn’t about the hair. It wasn’t about the, make-up. Nobody could wear a shirt. Everybody had to wrap, a towel around their chest. It wasn’t about the clothes either. It, was more rigid than what I’m doing now. And I shot everybody, with an 8”x10” camera.
I printed that big,  beautiful portfolio,  spending three weeks, in the darkroom,  getting all the tonalities exactly the same., Then I showed the portfolio around and did not get one, single job. I took it to Germany and showed it proudly to my, father and he just said,  “This is what photography has come, to now? These really boring, pictures? Like they’re out of, a passport picture machine.”, So,  he totally hurt my, feelings. But then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be quite, so German,  maybe I should, allow for some expression., And that’s when I thought, of doing the kind of lighting, that I’m doing now. I like it, a lot because it really brings, out the eyes and the lips., Empathy is really in the eyes, and the mouth,  where the, expression of the face lies., Those pictures seemed to go, over a lot better.
In 1997 and 1998,  no, one was doing close-ups., It was all about glamour., Almost everyone was trying, to imitate Annie [Leibovitz]., And here comes this German, guy with these unretouched, super honest,  gritty portraits., But people tended to like, them,  and finally Time Out, Magazine gave me my first, assignment to photograph, New York preachers.
Then they hired me, to photograph Vanessa, Redgrave for just ten or, twelve minutes in a hotel, room—during one of those, press junkets. She was tired, because she had to do, about ten photo shoots in, a day. She looked good in, these lights because they are, very forgiving and very flat.
And I got this beautiful little smirk out of her. Time Out ran, it full page. At that point, I knew I was on to something with, the close-ups. A lot of people I had sent the portfolio to or, had been bugging began calling,  and that was definitely a, changing point—that one photograph.

I like the fact that you have refined this technique—this, perfected lighting recipe—so far that people become an object, to scrutinize,  a “face study.” Then all of a sudden, a new thing, happens. They become a parallel person to whomever you are, photographing.
Yes, but after my first success,  I was suddenly confronted [with, more work and] with all these publicists,  big egos,  moody, people,  clothes,  styling,  make-up,  and everything. Besides my, close-up portraits,  I needed to do many different setups and, often found myself thinking that these pictures had nothing to do with a person. The, subjects were completely, interchangeable. That feeling, back then has multiplied, now. I mean, if you look at, magazines nowadays, there, are hardly any portraits in, them. They call them portraits, but the people in the photos, just seem like objects.
When photographing, [celebrities] you have people, hovering over you,  looking, over your shoulder,  jumping, into your picture,  and, fumbling around with hair., But with my close-up lights, which are pretty big and, have sidebars,  it’s almost like, sitting in a box. I shut out the, surrounding environment. All, the people are cut off,  and, it’s just me with that person, and no one can interfere, much. And the clothing is, unimportant, the status is, unimportant. You don’t see if, they are rich or poor. It’s all, about that person’s face.

I like that. You’ve taken the, technique far enough that, curiously there is something, more to get now that you’ve, eliminated so much. The poet, Wallace Stevens said that, poets were always writing, about two things at once: the, true subject and the poetry of, the subject. In photography, there’s something in front of, the camera and then you do, the photography in your special technique. It seems like you’ve, gone through a door or over a mountain, returning to one, focused aspect of the true subject. You let us scrutinize the face, again.
And then,  I was really getting tired of big expressions,  those, over-the-top theatrical pictures that photographers,  even I,  fall, back on. I wanted to take subtle portraits. There are moments, after a smile or after a laugh that are those in-between, moments. So I try to be an entertainer with bad jokes at times to, get people wound-up or intrigued. When they stop laughing, that’s often a really good moment because they haven’t, thought about the next expression. The face has not caught, on to their thoughts yet. It’s not that they’re uninterested or, laughing. It’s kind of an honest,  glowing in-between moment, and that’s what I’m striving for. Quite often the personality, comes out even in very subtle expressions or in the way the, wrinkles have set themselves. When I started editing my book, Close Up in 2005,  I had taken about two hundred close-up, photographs of famous people,  of which I chose only forty-five, because I couldn’t find that moment in the other photo shoots., [Note: there were portraits of non-famous people included in, the seventy-plate book.] Actors are really hard because they’re, always acting,  and it’s hard to get a moment that feels right, that feels revealing., Yousuf Karsh knew this difficulty with actors and politicians, in getting the camera face-mask off their faces. He would, engage them constantly in conversation to put them at ease. Is, that what you do?, Right,  right. My crew and I,  we are just like a whirlwind. While, shooting,  I may be talking to an assistant so my subjects, don’t think I’m looking at them for a minute. There’s always music playing and I ask them what music they like. I talk, about politics or the weather or anything. I must sound like a, complete idiot,  but then sounding like an idiot might be the, right thing because people are less intimidated.

Because the faces are so close,  and you can see so much, do you think of the expressions and the subtleties on the face, more like a theater or a landscape?
More like a landscape.

I think that is the genius of your successful portraits because, the theatrical expression is so hard to pull off except for those, subtle expressions you sometimes get. I know you have a, charitable side because I discovered that you photographed, foster children at the Heart Gallery in New Jersey in an effort, to find adoptive parents for them.
Yes. A woman from my former agency called to say she had, this project to photograph kids who are in foster care to help, get them adopted. Their official pictures were horrible,  like, bad passport pictures. I asked how much time she needed., She said a couple of days,  and I said,  “Sure,  OK.” I did it a, couple of years in a row and it is really great that some of the, kids I photographed have been adopted since.

I think you had a good idea with your Close Up book. You, didn’t do merely a celebrity book; you included people whom, no one knew. What other kinds of work or experiences led up, to the Close Up book?
When I started out [after leaving the Leibovitz studio in 1996], I had no assignments. So I photographed in transvestite clubs, and in general the New York nightlife scene. I also made friends, with these deli owners, put a shower curtain as a background, on their window, and asked people walking by if I could take, their picture. So I photographed perhaps a hundred people on, the corner over a couple of days in the summer. There were, a lot of homeless people and crack victims,  even a murderer, who got killed himself,  and junkies., A friend of mine asked me to help him on a photo shoot in, Newark,  New Jersey. Being a German guy in Newark,  I was, just speechless seeing the incredible poverty and burned-out, houses left over from the riots in the 1960s. So, later, on my, own,  I went to the Police Department of Newark and asked, permission to photograph [with the patrols]. The PR officer, put me together with two robbery detectives,  and I never went, through him again. I just went back to the detectives and, showed up for the night shift. Those guys took me in. They, introduced me to the homicide squad,  so I was hanging out, with the homicide squad. Then I was hanging out with the, auto task force during car chases. Nobody ever asked any, questions. Eventually,  I brought a writer along and we sold the, story to Stern Magazine.

Martin, you should know that you have a soul mate in Gertrude, Stein,  who came to the University of Chicago on the South, Side in 1935 to give a series of lectures. When asked what she wanted to do most with her free time, she replied that she, wanted to be in a squad car patrolling the city all night. They, granted her wish, but nothing really happened.
The problem is, if you work for magazines,  you end up, photographing celebrities because that’s what they pay you to, do. But for me it is more about the idea to take these famous, people down a notch. They are so celebrated. Everybody’s, crazy about them, so interested in their lives. I just wanted to, show that they are no different from any other person. I am, putting everyone on the same platform by creating intimate, portraits that invite comparison. In the book, on Bon Jovi is, next to a crack victim. I put my mom and dad into the mix. My, wife is in there, as is her mom. And my sister is still mad at me, for not putting her in there,  too.

I see that you are a bit like the great nineteenth-century portrait, photographer Nadar,  interested in a thousand things. He, was a good caricaturist. He was a passionate balloonist. He, even photographed with artificial light deep in the catacombs, of Paris. And he gave his galleries over to the cutting-edge, painters of his time resulting in the first Impressionist exhibition, in 1874. He occasionally had to get himself out of the studio. Avedon also realized that the whole world was not parading, through his studio; they were just the people the magazines, wanted. So he often photographed other subjects outside, the studio: people getting married at city hall, his own father, in his dying last years,  an insane asylum,  and the extended, work for his book In the American West. The same is true of, Irving Penn with his Worlds in a Small Room taken in Cuzco, Morocco, and New Guinea. So you have the right genes.
I hope so.

This makes me want to know about your photographing the, Pirahã tribe in the Amazon rainforest of northwestern Brazil. How did that come about?
The Brazilian tribe came about through The New Yorker, Magazine. They were doing a piece on the linguist Dan, Everett, a former missionary, who had lived with this tribe for, twenty-seven years off and on and studied their language.
He has come to the conclusion that their language doesn’t, fit Noam Chomsky’s linguistics theory of universal grammar.
So questioning Chomsky brought on this big uproar in the, linguistic world and The New Yorker did a story on him. I went, to the Amazon with Everett and photographed him and the, tribe. It was so rewarding that I talked Geo Magazine into, doing the same story again. Now my idea is to go a third time, to have enough pictures for a small book.
This assignment was similar to one concerning a tribe in, Africa,  the Hadza. Travel and Leisure Magazine wanted me to, photograph a safari,  but I didn’t think shooting rich people on, safari would yield any important pictures. But then they said, they would be stopping by a hunter-gatherer tribe for two days, and I changed my mind. Later I talked National Geographic, Magazine into doing a story on them and was able to go back, for a month.
So I’m trying to use magazines to finance any photographic projects I like.

How did you light the tribal portraits?
I did the same close-up style portraits with them. We took, generators, huge tents,  and tons of lights and equipment with, us. We had to bring everything from New York; it was quite a, big drag, but I wanted to do the same style portraits with this, tribe as I do with all of my subjects.

I imagine everything had to fit into a canoe.
No, we had a motor boat, but still the rain and the tents and the mud…

So tell me a fun fact about Martin Schoeller—like Edward Weston loved archery, and Alfred Stieglitz loved baseball, horseracing, and miniature golf.
You know, I like archery, too! I have a bow sitting here in my office and a target in the basement!

You really have the photographer’s genes! Any other fun facts?
I like to go snowboarding in Utah. There’s this little resort, called Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon—kind of a, freak-of-nature canyon—where they get at least five hundred, inches of snow each year. I like scuba diving too,  but now with, a lot of work and a staff to pay,  kids and family,  there is not, much playtime any more.

When you first came to the United States, were you married?
No. I came here in 1992. I had worked for a famous, advertising photographer in Hamburg, who was a difficult, man to work for. I realized then that being an assistant was, quite a commitment, working twelve or fourteen hours a day., So I wanted to work only for someone whose work I really, admired. The first person who came to mind was Irving Penn, and second on my list was Annie Leibovitz., I came to New York because the photography world in Paris, was too much of an insider situation,  kind of clubby,  and really, hard to break into. I saved up enough money for six weeks in, New York and on arrival immediately called Irving Penn. He, was really polite but said he didn’t need an assistant at that, point and maybe to call back again in a year. Then I called, Annie Leibovitz’s Studio and nothing happened there,  either., Eventually I had to go back because I was broke,  and I worked, again as a waiter in Frankfurt. Upon returning to New York, I found out that someone had been fired at Annie’s studio., Because I had called so many times and written so many little, letters and notes,  the studio manager broke down and said, “OK,  come on in.” The first assistant knew of me through a, still life photographer for whom I had worked for free and who, said how great and hardworking I was. He said to Annie,  “This, guy’s good, ” and Annie said,  “OK,  Bill thinks you’re good, so how about eighty bucks a day.” I said,  “Great” and was, in heaven. Then the second assistant left three months later, and the first assistant left not even a year later and I was on my own. I learned so much from her. She is incredible.

So as a photographer, you learned in a kind, of nineteenth-century, way, as an apprentice. How does learning as, an assistant compare, with what you learned, earlier in school?
In school I acquired, a lot of technical, knowledge,  and I think, Annie’s assistant really, liked me for that. I had, gone to a technically oriented, school. And, he probably felt that, I could back him up, when things went, wrong.

But you didn’t get stuck, just in the technique., Once the technique, makes sense and you, get the lighting recipe, just right,  you are on, to a different country., There you give the, viewer so much to do., I hope you feel the, same way,  because, sometimes artists do, things and wonder if, they are any good.
I almost never tell, myself,  “This is really, good.” I’m like,  “Oh, my god, what did I, do? It could have been, better.” As soon as my, subject walks out the door I say,  “Why didn’t I do this, why, didn’t I do that?”

I went to Richard Avedon’s studio years ago when he was, editing the portraits for In the American West, and he wanted, my unvarnished opinion of his first cut. “Tell me what you think., Here are the ones in the book,  and here are the reserves.” And I, looked and looked, and agreed with his selection. He said that, he didn’t know about drifters or card dealers or coal miners, and that this was not a sociology study. He just needed more, faces, interesting faces. And it was true that all the portraits, in the book revealed faces that were more interesting visually, and psychologically than those he had edited out.
He was really good at capturing these off-moments,  intimate, moments. Magazines in the 1950s, when Penn and Avedon, were going full steam,  were magazines for artwork to some, extent. You would see something in a magazine that you would, want to put up on your wall. How many pictures do you see in, magazines today that inspire you like that?

Most of them look, like advertising nowadays.

Avedon’s American West portraits were printed very large, almost in a modest mural size. How big are the prints of the, heads when you show them in a gallery?
Just about the time Close Up came out in 2005,  I had a show, in Berlin at Camera Work Gallery,  and I had no idea if these, pictures would sell or what people would think of them. I show, the work in three sizes. The largest is 50” x 60”, then 32” x 42”,  and the smallest is 20”x24”,  in editions of three,  seven, and ten,  respectively. It was insanity at the opening. People, were buying them like crazy. I was shocked,  because I thought, “Who wants to have Cate Blanchett on the wall? Who wants, to look at Angelina Jolie every day? Who wants to have Jack, Nicholson in his bedroom?” But apparently people do like, to live with these famous people. Obviously,  almost no one, bought any unknown person.

It seems so simplistic, but with a celebrity portrait you come, with some knowledge you think you have about the person.
Right,  right.,

But with the unknown sitters,  it’s a pure photographic, experience,  and you may say to yourself,  “I wonder if that’s, how they are?” I feel it’s something I can’t really know,  yet I, think I know something about George Clooney. Well, maybe, you don’t, but you’ve got something to go on, and then you, put that up against the picture and you can start working with, it. Of the celebrities you have photographed,  who has been, the biggest surprise from what you may have expected them, to be?
Sometimes you meet someone like, Steven Colbert,  and you think you know, him because you’ve seen the show,  and, he’s exactly what you expect him to be, like: this really funny,  nice guy who’s, constantly joking and lighthearted. He, is exactly what you would think he is. So that’s not a surprise. But sometimes, it is a surprise. When I photographed, Natalie Portman,  I thought she was, going to be a Hollywood diva,  an A-list, celebrity. That she might be difficult. But, she was the easiest,  nicest young woman, that you can think of. She came up to, everyone on the shoot and said,  “Hey, hello,  I’m Natalie.” Often the less wellknown, people are the biggest pains in, the ass. The really famous ones,  like the, Jack Nicholsons of this world,  are like: “I, made it.” They’re happy with themselves. It’s often the people who are on their way, up or down who are difficult.

How did you get that tremendous portrait, of Jack Nicholson?
I was allowed to go to his house, which, happens very rarely. But then it turned, out that we were allowed only in the, guesthouse, and the guesthouse is not so, personal. It’s less interesting for the shots, other than the close-ups. So it was a little, more difficult than I had anticipated. We, were setting up and his publicist was, just sitting around with her Blackberry, and he shows up wearing a red clown’s, nose—dead serious—says hello to his, publicist. And this super-famous publicist, says,  “Jack, what are you doing?” And he, says,  “What? What’s the matter?” She says,  “You want to wear, this nose for the photo shoot?” He says,  “What nose? I don’t, know what you’re talking about.” So he totally ignores her. My, assistants and I were laughing hard. We loved it. I took some, pictures with his clown’s nose, and obviously wanted to get rid, of it to take a serious portrait. So I asked,  “Mr. Nicholson, let’s, take a couple of shots that are more serious.” And that’s when, I got this expression. With him, he just looked that serious.

He’s looking right through you, through everybody. So tell, me a little about the bodybuilding women, because this must, have been something you did on your own rather than an, assignment from a magazine.
I was on the road with my assistant, who liked bodybuilding for, some odd reason,  and said we should go to a bodybuilding, show. I had absolutely zero interest. He had some bodybuilding, magazines, and I was shocked as I had never looked at one, of these before in my life. I thought,  “Oh,  my god,  this is, insane. This is crazy.” I thought,  “Why would a woman do, something that extreme to look less like a woman?” The men, you can kind of understand. Most women do things to look more feminine, more sexy. But these women, were doing the opposite, putting such effort, into it,  even risking their lives by taking all, these drugs and steroids,  and doing extreme, dieting. It’s really torture to get yourself to, look like that. So I thought maybe it would, make for some interesting portraits. We, went to one bodybuilding competition in Las, Vegas, at the Olympia. We rented a meeting, room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and set up, a huge studio with my 8”x10” camera. I hired, local assistants and flew in all this equipment, spending a lot of money. At first it was difficult, to convince these women to pose for my, pictures. As I found out over time, there is, a whole subculture of men obsessed with, female bodybuilders, and the women are, used to being paid for photo shoots. So in the, end I photographed sixty of them, everyone, in the same light, taken over five years in, different cities. I still like them a lot. I have, some on my wall right behind me. They are, in a show at Dartmouth Museum. They have, a grid [of the portraits] in the show. They’ve, been in a couple of group shows that deal, with beauty or femininity.
I had a huge show of them at Ace Gallery, in LA,  and invited five of these women to, put on a bodybuilding show. The gallery, is eight or ten thousand square feet with a, cathedral ceiling,  and I had the stage right, in the middle. There were well over fifteen, hundred people. The room was packed also, because Robert Graham,  an LA-based artist, had another show opening upstairs and he, knew everybody. It was a lot of fun,  one of, the most fun times in my life. But it cost me a lot of money, and the book got critically mixed reviews. I thought people at, first glance would ask,  “What is wrong with the women? They, have crazy bodies.” But then if they looked long enough,  they, would start comparing them and start seeing the expression, the humanity behind the mask of extreme physical expression, and dig deeper. But most people don’t dig deeper. Most, people cannot look beyond their first impression.

But did they sell well?
No,  no,  no. I sold five or six. It’s fine: you lose some, you win, some. All you can do is go out and do something you find, interesting and are excited about.

Do you have any other projects coming up or that are on the, back burner?
Famous people make for great subjects because there are so, many preconceived notions about them. Everybody feels as, if they know that person,  so when you take a picture you can, play on these expectations,  and that makes for a rich subject., But I want to continue photographing some tribes. I find great, pleasure in documenting cultures that will vanish. I want to, take warmer pictures of them than anthropological studies., I’m still straddling this old-school idea that you can be, an art photographer and a magazine photographer in one, person. This held true for generations before me,  but I think, it’s getting harder and harder. The art world is separating itself, more from magazine photographers. I always feel as if I am at, a crossroads where I have to decide which way I want to go.