Visual Culture

Martin Schoeller Captures the World’s Most Famous with Startling Intimacy

Few things are collected as avidly as powerful faces. In imperial Rome, coins bore the profile of the reigning emperor so that no matter how far you were from the capital, you’d know the face of your ruler. In the 1860s, after photographs became cheaper and easier to make, middle-class families collected card-sized portraits (cartes de visites) of prominent people—priests, military heroes, artists, and singers—and traded them among friends or displayed them on parlor shelves.
If any such catalogue existed of contemporary nobility, it’d likely be found in the portfolio of , the German-born photographer whose subjects have included nearly every famous (or infamous) person alive today. Close, published by Steidl, compiles 120 of these images taken between 2005 and 2018. A portrait of Taylor Swift abuts that of Julian Assange; tech CEO Meg Whitman is followed by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson; revered faces (Stephen Curry, Meryl Streep) are interspersed with the recently disgraced (Louis C.K., Woody Allen, our current president). Each portrait exhibits the tightly controlled environment that Schoeller has become known for: a frontal view of the subject’s visage against a white background; bright, even light; and a depth of field so shallow it blurs the edges of the face. Actors and politicians, adept at performance and posturing, wear neutral expressions. At such close proximity, you might believe you are seeing something pure and unmediated—a rare moment of vulnerability.
Schoeller’s cataloging impulse originated, in part, from his fascination with the typologies of . The German husband-and-wife duo spent decades photographing industrial relics—water towers, grain elevators, coal silos—from the same rigorous frontal angle, organizing the images into black-and-white grids. “We want to offer the audience a point of view, or rather a grammar, to understand and compare the different structures,” the Bechers said in a 1989 interview with Artefactum magazine. “Through photography, we try to arrange these shapes and render them comparable. To do so, the objects must be isolated from their context and freed from all association.”
Schoeller offers a type of grammar, as well, but one of facial features instead of architecture. In the late 1990s, he taped a shower curtain to the window of a New York City deli and photographed family, friends, and strangers. Even then, his process was exacting and systematic; makeup or facial expressions were not allowed. “Everybody was photographed exactly the same way with an 8-by-10 camera and this really flat lighting…as if they were water towers,” Schoeller said in a 2016 interview with The Photographic Journal. “I measured people’s eye height and brought the camera to the same level.”
In 1998, Schoeller was given 10 minutes to photograph the English actress Vanessa Redgrave for Time Out New York (it was one of the five assignments he’d receive that year, three of which were weddings). He’d recently begun experimenting with Kino Flo lights, the choice for nearly every major movie production since the mid-1980s. The softness of the light, so beloved by Hollywood cinematographers, comes through in Schoeller’s portrait of Redgrave: a tight shot of the face, eyes luminous. As his number of affluent subjects grew—he’d join The New Yorker as a contributing photographer the next year—Schoeller’s “water-tower” technique addressed the creative and pragmatic challenges of photographing celebrities: how to make an image of somebody whose face everyone has grown accustomed to, with only a limited amount of time. By going in close, Schoeller could make familiar faces strange again.
But Schoeller’s visual innovation also lies in what he strips away from each portrait. Early pioneers of portrait photography couldn’t help but be interested in social status; if the subject was a noble or a poetic genius, the viewer could likely glean it from their pose, the fabrics of their clothes, or the objects assembled around them. One of Schoeller’s influences, for example, was , a portraitist who spent more than 50 years building an inventory of German society figures. The 619 images in his volume People of the Twentieth Century are divided into seven categories, from “The Farmer” to “The Skilled Tradesman” to “The Last People” (a place for the sick or aging); the emphasis, in other words, was on “type.” A gentler observation might be made of , who, like Schoeller, photographed the most famous faces of his era. Though he, too, placed his subjects before a neutral backdrop, some context could be gleaned: the politician’s hand is outstretched; the artist wears a tortured expression; the coal miner’s face is covered in dirt.
Stripped of such cultural signifiers—clothing, props, and gesture—Schoeller’s portraits appear agnostic toward the subject’s life outside of the frame. As he said in a 2013 talk for National Geographic, he treated “people like objects, to some extent.” For a 2012 monograph, he replicated the approach with 40 sets of identical twins; a year later, with people of mixed race. Some of the portraits from these series are sprinkled throughout Close. At such proximity, captured with attentiveness, the “ordinary” faces are nearly indistinguishable from the famous ones around them. (One is reminded of another observation by Becher: “The photo can optically replace its object to a certain degree.”)
The word “honest” surfaces often in critics’ responses to Schoeller’s work, in how he places his subjects—rich and poor, famous and anonymous—on a level platform. But it’s curious to note that this effect is made possible by the artificial, controlled environment Schoeller has created; the background blank, the lights adapted from Hollywood cinematography. Perhaps the close proximity to his subjects isn’t as revealing as we might hope.
Schoeller once said that he recorded “the instant the subject is not thinking about being photographed, striving to get beyond the practiced facial performance.” But he also conceded the limitations to his approach. “While trying to be as objective as possible, I acknowledge that every gesture is still an act of artifice.”
Joy Shan