Close-ups aren't supposed to be pretty

The EMP's new gallery of close-ups is more about truth than beauty. That's just the way New York photographer Martin Schoeller likes it.
Crosscut archive image.

Frankie, 2001.

The EMP's new gallery of close-ups is more about truth than beauty. That's just the way New York photographer Martin Schoeller likes it.

Photographer Martin Schoeller wants us to be impolite. To get so close up that we can see laugh lines and stubble and dye jobs and facial scars and the sweat beading on an upper lip.

Forty-eight of Schoeller’s large format, acutely intimate portraits are on view in a third-floor gallery at EMP — an invitation to examine the spectrum that is the human face. From the unnerving sumptuousness that is Angelina Jolie to the craggy landscape that is Henry Kissinger.

Everyone –- Hollywood celeb, politician, as well as indigenous person from the rainforest in Brazil – is posed in the exact, straight-ahead way. The same lighting. The same focus on the lips and eyes. Only the backgrounds change, sometimes sky blue, sometimes a mauve brown, but who cares? It’s the gaze that grabs you, affirming certain notions (Why yes, Paris Hilton does look vapid), upending others (Huh, Heath Ledger, more sweet than hot). It’s impossible to take in this exhibit without having an internal dialogue with oneself and imagining what each person was thinking when they gave Schoeller that look.

Schoeller is from Germany, where he studied photography. After graduation, he moved to New York and ended up working as an assistant to Annie Leibovitz. He shoots for magazines (The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic. That Nov. 24 New York Times magazine cover on the female ski jumper was his).  He’s also worked on ad campaigns. His Close Up photos actually started as a personal project when he was an unknown.

He was reached by phone at his studio in Manhattan where he lives.

Q: I feel like I should be doing this face-to-face, sitting really up close.

A: Well, come to New York! I haven’t seen the show in Seattle yet. Have they hung the photos too high? Oftentimes that happens and then they look down on you rather than being approachable. I want them to be approachable.

Q: Do you dictate how the photos will be placed? Bill Clinton next to Sarah Palin. Angelina next to Brad.

A: I hope they didn’t put all the indigenous people mixed in with the celebrities. They need to stay together. [Except for two photos, the indigenous people have their own space.] 

No, I don’t really like Brad and Angelina close together. It’s so obvious. They (the museum, the gallery, whoever is exhibiting this particular show) will send me a layout. But ultimately it’s up to the curator.

I like it when they put somebody more quiet next to somebody more expressive. Like Paris Hilton next to Bill Murray. She’s so empty looking [See!] and you look at him and he’s so full of life. You want to laugh.

Q: Who’s more interesting to photograph: the famous or regular people?

A: Well, I like it when people look at people they already know. When you feel like you’re seeing a person you’ve seen in magazines and on TV. And you think you know them.

But I like photographing unknown people because they get a lot less attention.

I put a lot of regular people, a lot of unknowns, my wife, my mother-in-law, drug addicts, junkies, in my book. (“Close Up”) Right next to the president. And to celebrities. And I found that very interesting. To invite comparisons. Who do you think looks more sympathetic? Is this person depressed or is this person bitter?

Q: How much time do you spend with each subject?

A: Sometimes 15, 20 minutes. Sometimes a half-hour. Oftentimes, this is just one of many set ups. Henry Kissinger, he jumped up after 6, 7 minutes. I had about 25 frames. He just left.

Bill Clinton, he gave me a half an hour. I love his portrait. He doesn’t care what he looks like.

Most people are posing, giving you one side of their face. They’re very self-aware, so concerned with their image. It’s very hard to get an off moment that doesn’t feel too staged.

Often people think I say, "Sit there and look serious." Normally, people look sad when you say serious. I’m going for something where the face hasn’t caught onto their thoughts. I’m looking for vulnerability. I’m never going to say I’m capturing someone’s soul. That’s cheesy.

You have hundreds of frames and then, I pick one. One split second. To show that intimacy. This is the person right there. It’s very subjective. There’s no objectivity in photography.

Q: Do you ask them not to come in with too much makeup?

A: When I first started out, I asked people not to wear any makeup. But it’s impossible in Hollywood. Your appearance is a big part of your work.

So I’ve given up. What I often do is when they’re in the studio, I ask the makeup artist to make sure they don’t plaster their faces with foundation.

I’m not trying to make people look bad. Look, they have more wrinkles! I’m not the paparazzi. But I’m not a beauty photographer trying to make everyone look fantastic.

I’m going for a classic portrait. Like a Richard Avedon or an Irving Penn. An old school portrait. I have a certain perception of that person. I’ll do a lot of research. I talk to them. I get to know them. And that leads me to picking out a certain photo.

Q: Has anyone told you they didn’t like their photograph?

A: Well, what usually happens is that I won’t be able to photograph that person again. Or, I won’t be able to photograph some other actor that their publicist works with. Before, it was easier to fly under the radar. Now, everyone knows about these close up portraits and not everyone wants to be photographed.

You have to understand, a lot of people don’t understand photography. They think my pictures are harsh. If you come so close to someone's face, it is more revealing. But I think my lighting is very flattering. It’s soft.

Q: What’s been the most surprising photograph?

A: In the early days, Time Out magazine gave me a break: to photograph Vanessa Redgrave. It was a breakthrough moment. She was a little bit older. She had this beautiful, open expression. It was a close up picture of an older woman and it was so revealing and at the time, everyone [else] was doing retouching. They ran it full page.

And then everyone started calling.

Q: Is there anyone you’d love to shoot?

A: Daniel Day-Lewis. Bob Dylan. Mick Jagger. Keith Richards. But those people are very hard to get. You can spread the word and someone could hire me!

Martin Schoeller’s next book, expected in 2014, will be a collection of his commercial photography. He’s hoping to issue a second volume of his Close Up portraits in 2016.

If you go: "Martin Schoeller: Close Up" runs through February 16, 2014 at EMP.


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