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.”