Martin Schoeller has earned a reputation as one of the pre-eminent portrait photographers of our time, having photographed subjects from President Barack Obama to numerous actors, musicians and sports icons, to indigenous Amazonian tribesmen and women. With characteristic intimacy, Schoeller’s hyper-detailed work presents the prominent and unknown side by side, in unequivocal terms.
Consistently shooting each of his subjects in his singular crisp style, Schoeller equalizes these photographic subjects in facial close-ups. As he states: “A photographic close-up is perhaps the purest form of portraiture, creating a confrontation between the viewer and the subject that daily interaction makes impossible, or at least impolite. In a close-up, the impact stems largely from the static subject’s expression or apparent lack thereof, so the viewer is challenged to read a face without the benefit of the environmental cues we naturally use to form our inter-personal reactions.”
In 2011, when National Geographic magazine commissioned him to shoot an assignment on twins, he began what would become a year-long pursuit of the subject on an international scale, which has resulted in an expansive new body of work that is being exhibited for the first time at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills and is the subject of his latest book. Presenting twins, triplets and quadruplets, his images bare nuanced comparisons; the camera capturing the subtlest differences of division from a single fertilized human egg. The odds of identical quadruplets being born are one in 11-13 million, for identical triplets, and one in 150,000. Even when separated at birth, identical twins maintain their genetic similarities. As ‘duplicated people’ they share exact copies of their genes, questioning our notions of individuality and personal uniqueness: “They embody sameness and symmetry in the human form as literally and precisely as nature permits.” The parallelism of natural clones are represented in a new approach to well-known subject matter, i.e. revisiting the subject of Diane Arbus’s classic Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, (1967), where Schoeller consciously humanizes his subjects by revealing the individual characteristics of each and treating each separately although posed in the same position.
Now renowned for his hyper-detailed facial Close-Up’s, Schoeller gained professional experience working as assistant to Annie Leibovitz from 1993-96. Steering away from fashion photography and its dependence on the whims of designers and its seasonal stylistic obsolescence, Schoeller sought an alternative. It was during this pre-digital era, before the days of retouching, that he developed the style which would become his trademark. He would spend days setting up lighting tests and experimenting in extreme close up to find the most flattering lighting scenarios – examining how light effects faces, and refining techniques in the dark room, darkening and lightening certain areas. Even in his photography school days, his pictures with homeless people were also in close-up. As he began to articulate his own close-up portrait aesthetic in the mid-1990s, his peers were producing extreme glamour and beauty shots with over-the-top production values (paramount being Leibovitz’s lavish sets i.e. for Vanity Fair or David LaChappelle). Schoeller’s work was the opposite of what others were doing at the time: modest and simple; “just about the person.” Schoeller cites a variety of mentors and influences from Richard Avedon to Philip-Lorca diCorcia, yet singles out seminal German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher - recognized for creating a formally austere and consistent motif in their typologies of industrial structures. The repetition of similar but related subject matter - such as water towers and gas tanks - in the Becher’s work invites comparison, and was adopted as a model within which Schoeller could develop a similar approach.
Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, the largest annual gathering of twins (and other “multiples”) in the world, provided a grand-scale casting session for Schoeller’s project. Recruiting from over 2000 twins and multiples, they were photographed in the same style as diptychs (and triptychs). In the study of faces, physiognomy - Schoeller came to the conclusion that “faces don’t really reveal that much about a personality. You can’t really tell by a face necessarily what goes on in a person’s mind.” In the Twins series, the aging process comes to the fore. While each two are born with the same genetic information, the aging process due to leading possibly very different lives, creates visible divergences. It is those small differences which beg the question, what can be told from looking at a face?
Portraits happen to lie; they require decision-making on the part of the photographer. They are constructed, manipulated, posed and styled. Even with straightforward shots such as these, there are multiple choices, and Schoeller’s aim in taking intimate portraits requires rapport. There was no additional styling; these twins arrived on set ‘as is’ – wearing the same outfits, jewelry, hairstyles, and makeup.
Is Schoeller conscious of feeding back his imagery into our saturated media culture? There are many fashion photographers doing ‘portraiture’ lacking authenticity (given they inhabit the same commercial magazine space and conceived, constructed, and circulated in the same way as advertising photography). To specifically show non-celebrity images in the context of Los Angeles, Schoeller further provokes the cloning debate, asking the question of whether genetic-engineering has manifested the advent of twin culture. As he observes of the natural occurrence, “We assemble impressions of and form mysterious attachments to universal features – hairline, forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. We take their arrangements to be unique. Identical twins dispute that assumption.”
Martin Schoeller was born in Munich, Germany in 1968, studied photography at Lette Verein in Berlin, and lives in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, TIME, GQ, Esquire and Vogue. He has been staff photographer at The New Yorker since 1999. Schoeller had a major solo exhibition in 2010-11 at the National Portrait Gallery, Australia, and last exhibited at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills with Female Bodybuilders in 2008.