Q&A: The Technique Behind Martin Schoeller’s Photography

The renowned photographer discusses his influences, subjects and why he likes “big”

Martin Schoeller Brad Pitt
Martin Schoeller / Corbis Outline

Large, close-up portraits are in many ways magazine photographer Martin Schoeller's signature style. Over the years, he has photographed dozens of celebrities and politicians, such as President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain, Angelina Jolie and Jack Nicholson, in this intimate style. Some of his close ups, as well as his portraits from his female body builders series were on display in 2009 at the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, "Portraiture Now: Feature Photography." Smithsonian.com spoke with him about how he got his start and why he prefers to get so close to his subjects.

Who are your influences?

I would say my influences are Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German couple that photographed all the water towers and different industrial structures. They have always treated photography as accumulating as a collection of the same, allowing people to compare structures, buildings with each other. And very different places. And that always fascinated me, the idea of taking portraits, in my case, that allow comparison, treating different people from different walks of life and backgrounds all the same. Photographing everybody technically the same. Therefore, building a democratic platform that allows comparison and invites comparison. Also, I like August Sander’s work in a sense that I like his approach that he didn’t just photograph rich people. He was pretty affluent, from an affluent background, and he set out and photographed homeless people and politicians and doctors and back then there was obviously much more of a class system, so for somebody to step down from the pedestal and even take time to deal with farmers and poor people, I think it’s important. I like Richard Avedon’s work in a sense that he gave me the courage to basically focus on what it really means to take a portrait. And not to worry about what your subject might feel like about the picture. Or, what the people that you take the picture for, how they might see the picture. That you really tried to take the picture that pleases you. Not worrying so much about other people’s reactions. has taken many very harsh portraits in his life where his subjects don’t come off necessarily very flattering. I always had this feeling looking at his work that he really didn’t care much about what people would think, especially the people that he photographed, that he just tried to stay true to himself.

So have you always done portraits?

Yes, I’ve always done portraits. In photo school we had to do fashion and still life and things like that. But I came to New York in and wanted to work with Annie Leibovitz or Irving Penn. Even if I tried to do fashion photography, I came quickly to realize that you have to care about clothes to be a fashion photographer. I came quickly to realize that clothes don’t interest me that much. I don’t know which designer’s latest collection, what Marc Jacob’s last collection looked like or what affects new trends or the latest thing, so I wouldn’t be a good fashion photographer.

Why do you like big?

The close up ones? Well, I developed, kind of out of a necessity, even back in photo school, I did really close portraits. I didn’t have a problem, I think sometimes photographers don’t want this intimacy. You’re much closer to your subjects than other times. It’s a reflection maybe of my personality that I feel comfortable being close to somebody. I always felt that it really was the most essential part about a person, stripping away the clothes, stripping away any backgrounds, really focusing in on that person. I never really set out, it’s just something that happened more intuitively over the years.

I worked for Annie Leibovitz for years. And, after I left her, my first assignment I had so little time with my subject. I didn’t have a choice of location. I didn’t have a choice of what they were wearing. I didn’t have a choice to do anything. So I felt, at least this way. I can walk away with a picture that does a person justice. That it’s all about the person rather than about a setting that has nothing to do with them, maybe some clothes that have nothing to do with that person. Also, I always felt that a lot of portraits, and it’s even gotten worse since I started ten years ago, are so much about making people look good, and the artifice behind them and putting people on the pedestal, and celebrating them. So this is a much more honest approach and much more interesting to me. Basically, I don’t really see myself as a photographer who tries to make people look bad, or, which often says "my subjects don’t look very good." I just think I’m trying to take real portraits, what portraits should be like. Showing a person for who they are and what they look like without retouching, without tricky lighting, without distortion, without crazy wide angle lenses, without any cheap tricks, just straight up honest portraits.

One afterthought, with the honest, I would say that comes with a grain of salt, because there is no such thing as an honest picture. It sounds so pretentious when I say "an honest photograph." I just think that some photographs may be closer to what the person is about. A lot of pictures are further away from what the person is about. When I say honest, I mean just something that feels more towards the realistic side of things than to the staged, artificial side of things.

How close do you have to get to the subject?

I’m about four or five feet away. I’m not that close because I’m using a fairly long lens to make sure that the face is not being distorted.

At the risk of getting too technical, how do you do it?

I use a medium format camera that takes roll film. I light them with these light banks. Fluorescent light. Basically they look like fluorescent light bulbs but their color temperature is daylight color temperature. They’re called Kino Flos. They’re mainly used in the film industry, because it’s not a strobe light, so it’s not actually that bright. I mean they’re bright to look at because they're much brighter than the flashing strobe obviously. But they’re for a very shallow depth of field and a very narrow depth of field which kind of also emphasizes what I’m trying to do with bringing out the eyes and the lips, where most of the expression in a person’s face is all about the eyes and the lips. I try to get my focus right so the eyes and the lips are the focus. Everything falls away so quickly because of the shallow depth of field. Everything else becomes secondary. So not only am I focusing on just the face, I’m even concentrating it more by having everything else look like it’s out of focus.

Who was the first person you photographed in this style?

After I left Annie, I photographed all of my friends. I had a different lighting technique back then. I was playing around, I photographed them using an 8x10 camera. Very soft lighting. No one was allowed to smile or have any expression. The women weren’t allowed to wear makeup. Everybody had to pull their hair back. It was more rigid, and even more German than my pictures are now. I photographed a lot of different people. I would set up a shower curtain. I made friends with these guys who had a deli in the Lower East Side, and they let me tape up my shower curtain to their window of this deli. I picked that corner because of the nice daylight. I just setup the shower curtain there and just photographed people on the street walking by, asking if I can take their picture. Nobody famous in the beginning. Family, friends, homeless people, crack victims. All different people.

Who was your best subject?

I get those questions always. Who was your favorite subject, what was your best photo shoot. It’s hard to say. One thing I can say is that going to the White House to photograph Bill Clinton when he was the president, photographing him for The New Yorker, my favorite magazine. Having half an hour with the president of the United States, that was quite memorable. It was quite stressful and memorable

Lately, you’ve been doing things that are a little different than the close-up portraits.

I’m mainly a magazine photographer, so my work is largely based on who the magazine’s hired me to photograph. A lot of people come up to me and say "Why did you never photograph Al Pacino? You don’t like Al Pacino?" It has nothing to do with who I like or don’t like. It’s assignment photography. On the other hand, I see that assignment photography in a sense that I can, at this point, luckily choose my assignments, or at least some of them as my personal work. I don’t really differentiate which magazine I work for. The magazine doesn’t determine the kind of picture I take. I feel basically I’m doing what I want to do and somebody else is paying for it. Then I also did a project on female body builders that was a completely self-assigned project. I went to a body building competition and was just in awe of these amazing and also scary and diverse, multi-level, all these different elements come together when you look at the female body builder. So I decided on building this catalog of professional body builders that I did over the last five years. The first one was 2003. That’s purely my own doing.

Why female body builders?

Photographing for magazines, I end up photographing famous people, different levels of famous people because I guess that’s what most people like to read about and hear about. These female body builders seemed so the opposite. These women who are training so hard, doing all these really harmful drugs, enduring all this pain and stress for basically almost no attention. There’s no market for female body builders. They’re not making any money with it. The one that wins gets a couple thousand dollars, but considering the effort it takes to compete. It’s really not a lucrative endeavor. The question "why would anyone do that?" Why are people… I think in a sense, they are a good reflection of our society which so many people are willing to do anything for attention. All the time when I photograph on the street, people are willing to be photographed. They would do anything to be in a photo, they don’t even know what magazine it’s for or how I’m going to photograph them. I found these women in their search to be recognized as professional athletes and I thought their bodies were just amazing to look at. It's just shocking that a human being can even look like that. So from just a physical aspect, it seemed interesting to me. They style themselves. They design their own bikinis. They don’t have that much money. Most of them don’t have make-up artists, so they do their own make-up, and they come up with this color coordination. They have contact lenses that match the color of the bikini. There’s all this work that goes into it to look like something that is by most people regarded as scary or horrible or unfeminine. That fascinated me. On the other hand, I also found it kind of interesting that our common sense of what beauty is is so narrow and so determined and so homogenous. It seems like the idea of beauty has gotten so narrow that there’s less and less people who are willing to dress differently or be a little bit different. Individuality seems to be eradicated by advertising and magazines that are dictating our understanding of beauty. I found it kind of refreshing to see people who have an entirely different sense of what is good looking. Most of them really think they look good. They perceive a goal. They look good in the mirror. And they’re proud of their muscles. They’re proud of the way they look. They find little imperfections. They’re working on certain muscles because this muscle is too small and this one is too big for their idea of beauty. Those are the things that interested me to take some pictures that go behind that façade of this overwhelming muscle look and to take portraits that kind of go a little bit deeper. That’s why I decided not to show their body too much. You still get the idea of what these women do, but in the same approach like my "Close Up" series, that I’m trying to capture a moment that reflects their personality rather than this mask of this. . . bodybuilding mask.

In keeping the format the same, do you feel it brings out differences in your subject’s personality?

Yes. I think the personality is easier to read in the body builder portraits. The "Close Up" series, I tried to keep it really subtle and to keep away from laughing and really sad looking. I tried to capture these in between moments that feel intimate when the subject for one second, the subject forgets that they’re being photographed. After they just laughed or just smiled and they’re kind of in this in between stage where they haven’t thought about it, their face hasn’t caught up to the next expression yet, so to say. I think those are often the pictures that feel the best to me, the less staged to me. Which is to say that often times, I photographed actors. They’re the hardest to photograph. You think you caught some great in between moments and you come to realize that they’re posing the whole time. With the female body builders it was much easier to get these in between, off moments. They would go into these poses that they thought photographers like, like halfway flexing poses. It was more about telling them "you don’t have to smile." They would smile over the top big. It was more about slowing them down in their posing routine, trying to bring out the person.

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