Whose mug should EMP use to publicize its new photo show: George Clooney’s or that of some Amazon tribesman? What do you think? And yet there’s a certain tension between celebrity and unknown subjects in the oversize images of Martin Schoeller: Close Up.
The German photographer is best known for his magazine work, usually placing politicians and movie stars frontally before the lens, bathing them in light and telling them not to smile. There’s an intentional sameness to his shots of Obama, Clooney, Kobe Bryant, Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, and company—an absence of composition. The monotonous poses are like passport photos or mug shots, only rendered with such size and detail that the familiar faces assume a strange, totemic quality, like those Easter Island moai. Other artists—notably Chuck Close—have created portraits of such size, though Schoeller’s idiom is decidedly commercial. These people are assignments to him, and they help sell magazines.
And as is implicit in their agreeing to sit for a portrait, these figures—pols and actors alike—are likewise in the business of selling their images to us. Schoeller breaks the pattern with two series taken in remote Brazil and Tanzania; there he deliberately sought people who’d never been photographed, who had no idea how to pose—innocents before the lens, if you like. Even these images, among 43 in total, have a documentary scrutiny that extends to the more media-savvy. Everyone gets the same privilege, the same deadpan grandeur. My favorite portrait here is of a freckled young girl called Frankie—neither famous nor primitive, and all the more enigmatic between those extremes.