Photographer Martin Schoeller gets up close and personal with some familiar faces.
BEFORE he takes portraits, photographer Martin Schoeller thoroughly researches his subjects. If they are actors, he watches their movies. If they are writers, he reads their books.
“A lot goes into each shoot,” the photographer told the Artinfo website in 2008. He brainstorms concepts, scouts locations and sources props. All of which seems curious, as each of his photographs looks much the same: a passport-style close-up, enlarged to epic proportions, with shallow depth of focus – the eyes and mouth are sharp, the tip of the nose and the lobes of the ears are not.
Close-Up, an exhibition of Schoeller’s portraits, is now on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. The gallery’s walls are lined with his large images, some the size of muscle-car bonnets. Almost every square inch within the frames bulge with the (mostly) famous faces they contain, from a grizzled Jack Nicholson and an alien Paris Hilton, to a waxy Christopher Walken and a crinkly Helen Mirren.
The Schoeller exhibition raises an intriguing question: is celebrity, blown up and unretouched, still just celebrity? Or does it convey something more substantial? Michael Desmond, senior curator with the gallery, admits to some initial trepidation as to how the exhibition would be received, before it opened in November. “I was a bit cautious,” he says. “I thought people were over celebrity. They’re so familiar with Brad Pitt’s face that they might not come and see this show. Interestingly, they’ve responded really well. Most people come in as fans. Some come in slightly cynically – as I did – and are then converted.”
Schoeller was born in Munich, Germany, in 1968, and studied photography in Berlin at Lette-Verein – a training more technical than artistic. At 25, he moved to New York to be an assistant to Annie Liebovitz, the renowned celebrity photographer. He has since described that time as very challenging.
“My English was not that good when I first came [to New York], and she’s extremely demanding,” he has recalled. “She doesn’t have that much patience. I got along with her very well after about a year, but the first year was very intense and not very pleasant.”
After three years, Schoeller became a freelance photographer and later began contributing to The New Yorker and other prominent magazines, including Rolling Stone, GQ and Vogue. Dissatisfied with the glamour and commercialism of conventional celebrity portraits, he devised his trademark technique. “They allow me to walk away with something for myself – a very honest, simple portrait that no publicist can say anything about. You can’t see what they’re wearing and they’re not having to do anything, so no red flags go up. Only three or four times have people refused to have a picture taken that close,” he told Artinfo.
Schoeller, who is still based in New York, uses a long lens and simple lighting in his portrait sessions. He takes about 200 frames, talking incessantly to put the sitter at ease while he seeks an expression between expressions: a moment when the subject is temporarily not posing.
His headshots are often praised for their ‘democratic’ approach. By presenting every subject the same way, regardless of their status, the photographs can invite reflection and debate on the nature of celebrity.
“The images are commissioned by high circulation magazines, so in that sense, they’re reinforcing the cult of celebrity,” Desmond observes. “But, on the other hand, the way they’re photographed undermines it. They’re not necessarily flattering. When you are confronted with the images you think about what makes these people famous. Why this person? What are the things you actually see? The size is a bait to make you question the notion of fame.
“The large scale creates a sort of false intimacy,” Desmond says. “You’re forced to make an emotional connection. There’s a feeling that the faces are really close to you. Normally people only get that close when they’re either in love with you or you’re having a fight.”
Close-Up also includes a number of portraits of Indigenous people from South Africa and Brazil, shot and presented in the same way. But given the bias towards celebrities, is ‘democratic’ really the right word for Schoeller’s approach? Arguably, it’s only democracy in the most corrupt form: a means of placating the many, while reinforcing the power of the few.
But Desmond argues: “Maybe it’s an Australian version of democracy, where we bring the rich and famous down to our level,” he says. “They’re imperfect. Barack Obama is one of the most powerful men in the world, but when you see his face in the exhibition you’re conscious of how misshapen it is. He doesn’t look particularly powerful. Even the rich and famous are mortal.”
Desmond also believes the portraits transcend notions of celebrity. “In the end, you’re conscious less of the fame and more of the physiognomy: eyes, noses, mouths. Some are beautiful, some are engaging, some are quite freaky. You see so many faces that you leave with a feeling of the breadth of humanity, which is not something you expect when you walk in.”