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For a man who has made his name capturing distinctive visages, photographer Martin Schoeller cuts quite the figure himself. Expressive green eyes and a broad, mischievous smile, all topped by a boyish tangle of dreadlocks, greet me at the door when I arrive at his Tribeca studio. Schoeller is a giant in his field, known best for his extreme close-up style of portraiture, which he cheekily refers to as his “big head” technique.

Immediately upon walking into Schoeller’s workspace, it’s evident he is in the midst of something remarkable. Every inch of the walls is pasted with images; even more are arranged on a posterboard in the corner. As I peruse the photographs, he explains that he is editing and sequencing his newest book, Portraits, which is a collection of the last fifteen years of his magazine photography. Eschewing the “big head” images that made him famous, Schoeller’s latest work is focused on his more conceptual portraits. A dizzying array of Hollywood stars, politicians, musicians and athletes, the images are unified by the boldness of Schoeller’s ideas and the strength of his compositions.

“I went through my archives, looking at contact sheets, scanning, printing, and just narrowed it down from there,” Schoeller says casually, belying the months and months of work that it actually entailed. There is a witty playfulness to these images. Among them, the legendary—and oft nude—performance artist Marina Abramovic standing clothed, in a subway car full of naked people; former quarterback Joe Namath in a hotel room full of footballs awaiting his signature; Jay-Z, resplendent in a bespoke suit, contemplating a plate of pasta in the corner of a Little Italy trattoria, a large housecat sitting opposite the rapper; and Brad Pitt and George Clooney arguing over a particularly colorful game of croquet.

Ask Schoeller about the “ones that got away” and you get an idea of the rarefied space in which he works. It’s a short list: Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. As for who is on his must-shoot list now, he says he wouldn’t mind a chance at Vladimir Putin and then, with a wry shrug, admits growing interest in the controversial new pope, Francis. Suffice it to say, starstruck is no longer in Schoeller’s vocabulary.

Born in Munich, but raised in Frankfurt, Schoeller grew up in the West Germany of the 1970s and 1980s. His mother, a librarian, and his father, a literary critic and television host, separated when he was fourteen years old. Living with a working single mother, Schoeller enjoyed his freedom, skipping school, smoking and hanging out in the streets on his BMX bike. It wasn’t all goofing off though. As part of a volunteer civil service program he entered to avoid then-compulsory military service, Schoeller began working with the handicapped. He cites his tenure working as the night-time assistant to a man with multiple sclerosis as being impactful at a time when, like most teenagers, he was grasping for an identity. Nevertheless, at nineteen, Schoeller still had no concrete idea what he wanted to do with his life. Then a friend who was applying to a photography program at Berlin’s Berufsausbildungszentrum Lette-Verein urged him to follow suit. Schoeller didn’t have any better ideas, and because higher education is free in Germany, he launched his remarkable career with a “why not.”

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He enjoyed university life and allows that he did not put in as much effort as he could have. Schoeller liked to enjoy himself, and here he was, young and unencumbered in Berlin as the wall came crashing down. But by the end of his time at Lette-Verein, Schoeller knew that photography was what he wanted to do with his life, and that was enough. After graduation, he found his first gig working for a still life photographer in Frankfurt for a few months, before moving to Hamburg to take an assistant position with Uwe Duettmann, a well-known advertising photographer. At the time, Duettmann’s studio was on the upper floors of an old industrial building, says Schoeller, chuckling at the memory of “hiking” those stairs every day. As it turned out, climbing eight flights was just the beginning.

“I never worked that hard in my life. Fourteen or fifteen hour days, no weekends, sometimes two advertising jobs in one day. Many times, I would sleep on the couch because he expected me to have breakfast ready at seven o’clock in the morning, and I had been there until two or three in the morning, breaking down and setting up for the next day,” Schoeller says.

Duettmann, perhaps realizing the young photographer was overwhelmed, let him go after four or five months. Pondering his next move, Schoeller decided that if assisting successful photographers was going to be that difficult, he wanted to be working for someone whom he “might want to be one day.” It was a short list: Irving Penn, Steven Meisel and Annie Leibovitz. With his course of action set, Schoeller worked odd jobs and saved money until, in 1992, he was able to travel to New York City.

Schoeller’s first trip yielded little in terms of tangible rewards. His English was, by his own admission, horrible, and not knowing anyone in the city, his only recourse was cold-calling photographers in the Yellow Pages and dropping off unsolicited résumés. Unsurprisingly, after six weeks, he hadn’t found any work, and he was broke. He returned to Germany, disappointed, but undeterred. After another six months of waiting tables, Schoeller was ready to try again, but this time he secured a journalist visa through some German magazines he had shot for. Back in New York, a girl-friend helped him land an unpaid internship with a photographer, and, serendipitously, Schoeller discovered that his new employer’s former assistant now worked for Annie Leibovitz.

“I called and sent so many letters that the studio manager finally broke down and had me come in for an interview,” Schoeller explains. “[Annie’s first assistant] Bill Zules saw that my education at this photo school was very technical and that I would make a good backup on photo shoots. Annie said, ‘Bill wants to work with you, so how about 80 dollars a day?’ and I said, ‘OK, sounds good.’ That was my interview.”

I like the idea that the eyes and lips are sharp because those are the parts of your face where all the expression lies.”

Schoeller slowly worked his way up the ladder, eventually becoming Leibovitz’s first assistant, primarily in charge of lighting. He describes the job as very demanding, but credits Leibovitz for helping him grow immensely as a professional photographer. “I learned how to approach an assignment from start to finish,” Schoeller says, “to do research first, to come up with concepts and not worry about what is possible. Don’t try to please the subject, try to please yourself as a photographer and push your vision through whatever obstacles you encounter.”

In 1996, Schoeller left the position, feeling that, having learned from the best, it was time to focus on his own work. Inspired by the work of German conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher and their repetitively austere images of industrial architecture, he poured himself into a new project. Schoeller wanted to take that distinctly German approach and, in his own way, apply it to portraiture. His approach was almost clinical, measuring subjects’ eye height and adjusting the height of his 8 x 10 camera accordingly, to ensure uniformity. All subjects were to remain expressionless, women appeared sans makeup with their hair pulled back. It was all “quite rigid,” as Schoeller puts it. He was pleased with the result, but the new portfolio didn’t draw much attention from magazine editors. After months of living off slices of pizza and cheap beer, with his savings again dwindling, Schoeller swallowed his pride and took a job assisting a friend.

The assignment took Schoeller into Newark, New Jersey, and the young German was shocked and fascinated by his first glimpse of the deprivation and violence of inner-city America in the 1990s. Thinking there could be material for a good journalistic piece after the assignment was over, Schoeller inveigled his way into a ride-along with two veteran Newark detectives. Equal parts amused and entertained by their dreadlocked guest, they invited him to come back anytime, and Schoeller took them up on that, quite literally.

“I went there on the robbery squad night shift, then they introduced me to detectives in homicide and ATF [alcohol, tobacco and firearms],” Schoeller explains. “So it turned into four or five months, three or four nights a week hanging out with detectives and street cops in Newark.” Taking advantage of his unusual access, Schoeller turned the project into a piece he sold to Stern, a highly regarded German magazine.

Despite this seeming breakthrough, Schoeller still struggled for steady work over the next two years. He returned to the portraits he had been doing, but with a looser approach, now trying to bring out more of his subjects’ personalities and utilizing a new approach to light their faces. Schoeller had stumbled on the technique—incorporating Kino Flo light banks positioned on both sides of the subject’s face—while working as Leibovitz’s assistant. When he showed her how it looked, she was uninterested, but the idea stuck in Schoeller’s head, and he began to use it in his portraits.

“I liked the quality, it had something painterly to it. It didn’t look as harsh as strobe lighting, and you have a lot less depth of field because there’s just not that much light,” Schoeller says. “A lot of the face is out of focus, and I like the idea that the eyes and lips are sharp because those are the parts of your face where all the expression lies.”

Don’t try to please the subject, try to please yourself as a photographer and push your vision through whatever obstacles you encounter.”

The new images started to draw attention, and slowly the work started trickling in. Wealth management publication Worth magazine was the first to show interest, intrigued by Schoeller’s unique portrait style and his ability to execute shoots quickly regardless of location. As word got around, work from Fortune followed, and then Schoeller got his big break, an assignment shooting Vanessa Redgrave for Time Out.

“In this close-up portrait of Redgrave, she has a little smile on her face and she looks great. They printed it full page, and all of a sudden it was like an avalanche. Overnight, everyone wanted these portraits. I did, maybe, five jobs in 1998; I did 130 jobs in 1999,” Schoeller says.

In the beginning, Schoeller worked with strict time constraints, but as his profile rose, the reins loosened considerably. Given the efficiency of his portrait technique, suddenly he found himself with time to try other styles with his subjects. Schoeller started shooting more environmental portraits and experimenting conceptually. On his second assignment for The New Yorker, Schoeller managed to coerce a reluctant Tony Hawk into skateboarding off the kitchen counter of his home, with his wife and child completing a portrait that manages to be both daring and domestic. That image, he assures me, is what got him a staff photographer position with the publication, which he would hold for thirteen years.

Despite his meteoric success, Schoeller’s approach to his craft remains firmly grounded in the knowledge that “you are only as good as your last picture.” He has a wife and a young child, so the days of staying out late and partying are long gone, as are the fourteen-hour workdays of his early success when he shot and edited all day, printed all night, and tried to squeeze invoicing in there, somewhere. Now Schoeller has his own assistants, and his shoots are often massive productions—he gives the example of a recent GQ shoot that involved more than 30 people.

Yet, it is when he talks about his work with isolated indigenous populations that Schoeller seems most excited. National Geographic sent him to Tanzania to photograph the Hadza and into the Amazon rainforest to document the Kayapo people. “It’s a very liberating experience for me to be in these places for three weeks, sleep in a tent, wake up at sunrise, and walk around the village with a Nikon over my shoulder and watch people bathing in the river or eating breakfast. It might be the happiest I am as a photographer,” Schoeller admits.

His personal projects, like the one that is currently pasted all over the studio walls, are another powerful motivator. Schoeller self-published a book of female bodybuilder portraits in 2008 and two books with German publisher teNeues—Close Up: Portraits 1998–2005, in 2005, and a photographic study of identical twins, Identical: Portraits of Twins, in 2012. “I think I have the best job in the whole world,” Schoeller says with a laugh. “I’ve always been very curious, and this job takes you to places you would have never gone to and you get to meet people you would have never met.” ca

Dzana Tsomondo (dzanatsomondo@gmail.com) is a freelance writer living and working in New York City. Passionate about music, art and politics, his work has appeared in publications from Photo District News to Cool’eh Magazine.


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