Martin Schoeller: 'I am trying show a humanity I think we all share’

The photographer discusses the work that launched his career and upcoming projects

Photograph: courtesy Shanghai Center of Photography
Martin Schoeller is famous for his extremely close-up portraits of Hollywood A-Listers, musicians, politicians and everyday people, all photographed from the same angle and using the same backdrop and lighting, bringing a certain humanity to an otherwise stark composition. Now the Shanghai Center of Photography is showing nearly 60 of these portraits through the end of November as part of its latest show, Martin Schoeller: Close. Ahead of the launch, we caught up with Schoeller to talk photographing Barack Obama, upcoming projects featuring exonerated death row inmates in the US and the 1998 portrait that kick-started his career.

On his Shanghai show

‘This exhibition showcases my best-known series “Close Up”, with these very static close-up portraits of both famous and unknown people, putting [them] up for comparison, and then [pictures from the] series “Identical Twins”, for which I photographed identical twins but also triplets and quadruplets. There are also portraits that are more conceptual and more idea-driven that oftentimes have a sense of humour to them.’

20190913_Martin Schoeller_Installation Shot 05
Photograph: courtesy Shanghai Center of Photography

Photograph: Yu Zhiming

On the portrait that launched his career

‘I did my close-up portrait of the actress Vanessa Redgrave in 1998. It was an assignment for Time Out New York and I had only ten minutes with her in a hotel room. They published a full page and then other photo editors all of a sudden saw a famous person in my portfolio. I had five jobs in 1998, two or three weddings and a little still life job for my friend, and then in 1999 I had 127 jobs.’

On photographing celebrities vs ordinary people

‘Actors are definitely the hardest because they are so aware of [their] facial muscles. They are used to playing with their faces and the good ones are so good that you barely notice it. Athletes are oftentimes really easy because they don’t think about the way they look. Politicians are not that hard either because they have their one pose they strike, but once you break them out of that pose, they normally fall apart and take the direction [you want them to go].’

On photographing Barack Obama

‘I photographed him three times. The first time he was running for a Senate seat in Illinois in 2004 and then I photographed him in 2008 with his family at home, that’s where this close up downstairs was from. The last time I photographed him was at the White House with Michelle and I only had five minutes. It broke my heart that day because the secretary said “no close-up”, so I had to sit in the interview where they asked him about the dogs, the girls, the snow and Christmas decorations… I was like I would’ve needed only two minutes. I had to leave the room or I’d start to cry listening to this bad interview.’

Photographs: @martinschoeller via Instagram

On finding subjects for his personal projects

‘You know, the well-known people are all assignments from magazines. Most well-known people have been photographed so much that they hate being photographed. They do it once in a while if they have to promote a movie or an album or if they have something to sell. It’s literally a business transaction.

‘For my other subjects, it’s just more or less by chance. My most-known Instagram project started when a friend of mine who had been feeding homeless people in Los Angeles for 30 years needed some pictures for his website and Instagram. I said, “Oh, yeah,” so I set up my studio on a street corner in West Hollywood and started photographing. I started a conversation and then they didn’t stop talking about their life stories.’

On his next exhibition

‘I always wanted to do something about injustice in the American justice system. I came across an organisation called Witness to Innocence [whose] goal is to have the death penalty abolished. I filmed exonerated death row inmates in an [extreme close-up] portrait style where they were not talking and I recorded our interviews. They will be used for an installation show in Dusseldorf next February where you’ll be looking at all these super high-resolution monitors and hear the soundbites of exonerees talking about their experience of escaping death row. It’s going to be very intense.’

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