Close-Up by Martin Schoeller
Rating: 9 / 10
What do Jack Nicholson, Andre Agassi, Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton all have in common? Photographer Martin Schoeller.
Gracing the pages of such publications as Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, Vogue, New York Times Magazine, and most notably, the New Yorker, the international talent of this man cannot be underestimated. And now we have the voluminous hard bound pages to prove it.
Borrowing from the many shoots he’s undertaken, "Close Up" is a compilation of 75 portraits collected to showcase the unadulterated side of the many luminaries he’s photographed. Political figures, athletes, drugs addicts, musicians and street people are all laid bare to show the human elements prevalent in all of us. It’s raw. It’s true. It’s revealing. Perhaps this is why even the Shock Jock himself, Howard Stern, declined to have Martin take his picture.
When I spoke with Martin, he told me he had just conversed with Howard Stern, and was surprised to hear that Howard was "freaked out" to have Martin shoot his portrait. Could Howard be hiding something that might be unveiled in the shoot?
In viewing the images in this collection, one cannot help but wonder if Martin is aspiring to be the Mike Wallace of portraiture. Does he deliberately try to expose the underbelly with these larger-than-life portraits? Hardly.
Since 1996, Martin has undertaken about 500-700 photo shoots, averaging between 60-100 shoots a year. These 75 “Close Up” images, culled down from 300, were compiled from hundreds of celebrity and non-celebrity shoots, taken from 1998-2005, showcasing a rare glimpse into the unguarded sides of these people.
Case in point is Jack Nicholson, his favorite actor. Martin was amazed that Jack actually invited him to do the shoot at his house. Being in someone’s home will unveil someone in an neutral fashion, which is often hard to accomplish.
Most celebrities are accompanied by their publicists on shoots, and are very careful not to expose their clients’ private lives. "They don’t want you to see their house, their clothes, the cars they drive." Martin remarks.
It’s often the publicists who intervene in a shoot, as they want the photographer to portray a particular image, and they usually succeed. One publicist was adamant that Toby McGuire not take off his shoes during a shoot, even though it was a casual set-up in which being barefoot lended itself to the session.
Martin mentions that publicists can often get in the way as they’re like overbearing chaperones. Headshots don’t usually pose a problem, but doing a conceptual shoot often elicits paranoia from publicists. He cites that both Angelina Jolie and Christian Bale (not in the book) were comfortable enough with Martin not to bring their publicists. But you realize how challenging these shoots can be, especially since some celebrities also have their own quirks about what they’re willing to do.
We’re all accustomed to seeing celebrities in their tweaked and tamed forms, donning make-up, a stylist’s final stroke, and the magical effects of Photoshop. The portraits in "Close Up’ strip away all the facades of these figures, leaving only form and light to define the visual components of these characters. Pores, wrinkles, the graying at the temples are all larger than life, finally humanizing icons we’ve grown to admire, perhaps even worship. Has Martin leveled the playing field, making humans out of these grandiose personalities?
How does Martin get these images? Despite the fanfare surrounding this book, Martin didn’t set out to expose the crustier sides of these personalities. His goal was to wait, guide and inspire these people, so that they aren’t posing. In the shoot, he would tell them, "Don’t do anything. Just be."
So how does he achieve this look? Out of an estimated 44 set-ups he uses, on a portrait session he usually uses only 3-4 set-ups. From this, only one is a "Close Up" setting. These pictures in the book are a small sampling of hundreds of thousands taken over the years by Martin. In "a Close Up" setting, he waits for that off guarded moment, which he elicits by constant conversing with the person he’s shooting. In the case of a celebrity, he gets familiar with their movies, music, sports or political background, so that conversation flows easily. He often prefers shooting those with which he has an affinity.
Take the cover shot of Jack Nicholson, bringing back the persona of "One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest" or "The Shining." Did you wake up with this man? What has he done? Is there a gun under his bed?
Or look at Clinton without all the charm and grace that got him elected twice. Angelina Jolie’s sensuality will inspire the most timid to venture into the abyss of the unheard. Joseph Mosner, who resembles Lance after a horrific cycling accident, follows lance Armstrong’s photo. Coincidence? Hardly.
The pairing of these pages was carefully orchestrated. A friend inspired "Close Up" in 2004, suggesting Martin do a book of this stature before another photographer beat him to the punch. It’s well worth the viewing.
Look at Tammy Faye Baker’s eyes that stare at you like two hungry spiders. Or the depth of depression and desperation from Brian Wilson’s musical journeys. Christopher Walken looks like he walked out of a Stephen King cinematic slash. Whew. Pause is interjected with the random punctuation of white pages, giving readers a break from this visual assault.
Avedon and Leibovitz are recalled in many of these images, which is no surprise. Growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, his father hosted a TV show, entitled "Books Books, Books.” Perhaps this set the film boy in motion, as his sister is a film maker, his mother a librarian. Martin, leaving his family in Germany, came to the U.S. in 1992, wanting to work with the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Irving Penn. He assisted Leibovitz from 1993-1996, but soon launched his freelance business by taking portraits of people he met on the street. Momentum increased, and soon, his work, gaining recognition for its startling impact, started earning him a myriad of editorial assignments.
Martin has been deeply influenced by August Sander's portraits of the poor, the working class and the bourgeoisie, which inspired the ‘face study’ shots evident in his early work after assisting Annie Leibovitz. He also cites the influences of the German industrial art photographers who shoot water towers, and other industrial themes. Attracted to the uniformity of these shots, they have inspired him to do his portraits in this fashion. If you look at the images in “Close Up,” you can see the similarity in lighting, backdrop and tone, although 90% of these images were shot on location over several years.
Here’s how he works. He uses a Kino Flo light source for his portrait sessions, and strobe lighting for everything else. He sometimes uses his loft for his shoots, and also employs quite a roster of experts to assist him. These include a studio manager, full time assistant, and retoucher. Many shoots take 3-4 days, factoring in setting up the lighting, location, stylist, make-up, and hair. Things can get complicated as sometimes up to 40 people can show up if a celebrity invites friends to the shoot.
Martin is a loyal believer in film based cameras, and thinks that he’ll go digital, only when the film disappears entirely. He believes that the look and longevity of film is better, and the images, when enlarged, fare far better with film.
Mamiya RZ 6x7
Fuji 6x9, which is especially good for larger spread shots
Kino Flo light source
Momentum for his work continues to escalate. Upcoming projects include more portrait-type work. His recent visit to Africa inspired doing a project on its tribal people. He’s also undertaken a project on female bodybuilders, with the goal being to humanize them, as they tend to look rather grotesque. So far, he’s photographed 27.
As to whether he likes having his own portrait taken? "Not really…and I find most self-portraits are rather contrived, they seem staged."
So what advice would you give to those undertaking a career in portrait photography? "Don’t plan your work. Make it seem natural. Take a lot of photos, and don’t have a goal in mind. Just shoot a lot, and hopefully something will be revealed to you, and you’ll get something you like from the shoot."
Since joining the Saba Agency in 1997, he’s earned editorial credits in such publications as Rolling Stone, Us, The New York Times Magazine, Interview, Spin, Premiere, Worth and Newsweek, to name only a few.
Some of his accolades include:
Photo District News Photo Annual, 2003
American Photography, 1998-2005
Society of Publication Designers Silver Medal, 2002; for "Hip Hop Portfolio," The New Yorker
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum group exhibition, 2002; "Skin: Surface, Substance, and Design"
Communication Arts (including feature article), 1999-2002
Photo District News Photo Annual, 2001
2001 Society of Publication Designers Gold Medal, 2001; for "Sports Portfolio," The New Yorker
Society of Publication Designers Silver Medal, 2000; for "Cheerleaders," Rolling Stone
Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Best New Talent, 1999
Some of his corporate clients include:
Nike, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi.
We can’t wait to see what’s next.
Mary McGrath is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in many magazines, newspapers, books and on several web sites. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her web site at: www.marymcgrathphotography.com.