Unless you enjoy the surreptitious “photojournalism” in the pages of Star or The National Enquirer, you may not know that Adrien Brody is scarred with acne. Or that Meryl Streep actually has wrinkles, ones that even HD televisions don’t pick up. Both of these semi-revelations are apparent in giant, close-up portraits of the celebrities on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art courtesy of renowned portrait photographer Martin Schoeller. The show, titled “Close Up,” features 48 images of public and non-public figures, all shot, lit and proportioned identically, on display through March 18.
Schoeller, of course, is no paparazzo. These are not “gotcha” photos. He works with the full consent of his subjects, with most of his results accompanying New Yorker profiles. How he gets them to agree to model for this candid, literally warts-and-all series is another story (and I’ll ask him about it in an interview on this blog next week), because some of his sitters come off far worse than Brody or Streep. Henry Kissinger resembles a droopy basset hound, and Christopher Walken appears to inhabit some ghost-white, genderless nether region between male and female.
It gets worse. I won’t mince words when I say that Alan Greenspan looks like a splotchy corpse. Under Schoeller’s lens, Sarah Palin appears scarier than her ideological positions, a Stepford wife from a botched Maybelline commercial, her eyes buried under hideously large spectacles. Jack Nicholson has the crazed air of a patient who just escaped from manacles at Bellevue, but, then again, he looks like that in most of his movies these days.
Some of the Boca Museum’s curatorial decisions were self-evidently obvious – Barack Obama and John McCain hang next to each other – while others suggest a sense of humor. An image of Donald Rumsfeld rests hilariously next to a shot of Marilyn Manson in full concert make-up. (Then again, maybe it makes twisted sense; both are controversial figures, hated in many circles.) Not all the celebs under Schoeller’s gaze resemble the Hyde-like flipsides of their Jekyllish public personae. Angelina Jolie is still sexily powerful in a Cleopatric way, and her husband Brad Pitt remains a fetching fellow, sans blemishes.
But throughout the exhibit is a pervasive sense that we’re seeing, for perhaps the first time, what these people really look like. Schoeller strips the celebrities of their celebritude, reducing them all to the same uniform level as the unknown African tribespeople that make up at least a quarter of the exhibition, their chapped lips speaking to parched lifestyles. Schoeller is an egalitarian artist, presenting all of his subjects with photographic parity and, indeed, making us see many of them anew. And with images of these people reinforcing the familiar every day on the Internet and our TV screens, this is an astonishing feat.