You can read a lot about someone just from his or her face – and photographer Martin Schoeller has been cataloging the literature for more than a decade. Since the late 1990s, Schoeller has shot close-ups everyone from presidents to movie stars to crack addicts, employing same rigorous photographing dimensions for everybody. His egalitarian approach is on vivid display in a new show at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Schoeller spoke to me about his work from his New York office.

Tell me about the genesis of your portraiture and how you developed the overriding style of all of these works. Did you know when you took the first ones that it would become a series?

I went to photo school in Berlin. I came to photography kind of late, more by an accident, through a friend of mine who had applied to the school, and then talked me into applying as well. In the end, I was taken, and he was not.

But I was like 20 by the time I picked up my first camera. I was always interested in art and had gone to many shows, and at some point while I went to photo school I saw a show by Bernt and Hilla Becher, this German couple that’s been photographing water towers and parts of industrial plants, and always photographing the same subject. They would have an entire book on water towers. Every water tower was presented in exactly the same style – from the same angle, same lighting, no distortion. It took me a long time to understand their work and why it was in museums to begin with and how anyone could buy a book of just water towers, but the more I thought about it, it just struck me, and I found the idea genius to build a kind of catalog, to find all these things that have a purpose and are fulfilling the same purpose. Every one is different; every one is part of the country’s culture or financial possibilities. Some of them are really elaborate; some are really ugly; some are beautiful; others are very simple. In general, this idea of giving the viewer the opportunity to compare things started fascinating me.

I started to treat all my friends like water towers. I put them on stools, had them lean against walls; I measured their eye height and brought the lens to the same level as their eye height. I always used the same lighting; nobody was allowed to have any expression. Everyone had to look serious. I made a whole portfolio of these kinds of “face studies.” I wouldn’t even call them portraits. I took them to magazines and didn’t get one single job. Everybody looked at me as if I was crazy. And then I came to realize I had to make it more loose, and that these were not really actual portraits. They had nothing to do with the person. From that evolved into the close-up style.

It sounds like a clinical approach. Depersonalized, even.

In the beginning, it was definitely a clinical approach. My initial approach was very German, in a sense – the idea of cataloging things, like a collection of pictures. Nowadays, even though they seem very stark and very static, I think they have a lot of personality in them. That’s what makes them so mesmerizing, that you tend to keep on looking at them because they’re not only describing a face – they’re capturing a certain moment. When I’m photographing a person, I play music for them, I talk to them – these are the kind of in-between moments. It’s not just telling a person, “Sit still; don’t move, and look serious.” It’s more that I’m having a dialogue with them, and they’re listening or they just laughed. I want to get these moments in between laughter where the face almost hasn’t caught up to what the mind is thinking, in the sense that they’re almost vulnerable – an intimate feeling, I hope.

So the expression is the opposite, but the approach is the same; I’m photographing everybody with the same lights. I’ve photographed homeless people, drug addicts, presidents, people who belong to tribes in Africa and Brazil, my parents, my sister, my wife. So everybody is getting the same treatment. I treat everybody with the same respect, the same effort, and in the same scenario. 

Does your work consist of a tug-of-war between your artistic vision and the publicity that these celebrities want? 

These close-up portraits are never a big part of the tug-of-war, because the idea of studio portraits is old, and for the longest time I was able to just hide a Polaroid, and people wouldn’t really know what I was doing. So it wasn’t really clear to the publicist. I would say, “This is just a simple, straightforward portrait,” and everybody’s always fine with a simple, straightforward portrait. There’s nothing to argue about. People who would have a set-up with monkeys or Quentin Tarantino in a straight-jacket surrounded by flying doves, acting like a crazy person – they would be the ones that the publicist would have a problem with!

Straight, simple portraits are always harmless, and I also like doing them because I felt that no matter what the odds were and how big the obstacle was, given to me by being in a hotel room, having only 10 minutes, with a person that’s in a bad mood – in the beginning I didn’t have a choice about clothes or location, I was basically thrown into five minutes here or 10 minutes there with a person – that I liked walking away with a picture that was a real portrait, and not just a picture of a circumstance.

Some of your portraits are unflattering, to put it mildly – Alan Greenspan looks like a corpse, frankly. Have you received any negative feedback from some of your subjects after they’ve seen the images?

That leads me straight to my next biggest inspiration, and that would be Richard Avedon. Nobody back in Richard Avedon’s day would have said in the ‘60s or ‘70s, “Oh my God, the people don’t even look good!” I think it’s more a reflection of our time that people get so hung up on how people look. Is it flattering? Do they look good? If you look at the pictures Richard Avedon took of even people like Marilyn Monroe – even she doesn’t look good, and she was the sex symbol of her time. He never set out to make people look good, and nobody had a problem with it.

Take Irving Penn – he made Alfred Hitchcock look like a little fat midget sitting hunched over. He made boxers look like little weak guys hunched in a corner looking afraid. He would have photographed me, and I would probably look like a mental person. It’s our idea that is so determined by magazines that everyone should look hot. Everybody wants to look retouched. Everyone wants to look 20 pounds lighter, 10 years younger, and that’s what modern portrait photography is like. I don’t think I set out to make people look bad at all. I think my pictures are not mean.

It seems like you’re getting to the truth of what these people really look like.

That’s my goal, but that’s also the reason why it’s gotten harder and harder to photograph people in Hollywood, because nobody’s really interested in the truth. Magazines aren’t interested in the truth, because they’re being paid for by advertisers. Advertisers just want everything pretty, clean and nice – they have no interest in the truth. There’s no more journalistic photography in magazines. There’s no more stories on the war or anything sad. Times have changed dramatically, unfortunately.

Have there been celebrities who have refused to sit for you because of your reputation?

It’s basically that I’ve always gotten away with these kind of pictures without people taking too much notice of what was actually going on until my book came out in 2005. Still, most publicists don’t bother googling photographers necessarily. Then I had these pictures hanging in all these galleries and getting more attention that at this point everybody knows me for doing these close-up portraits that are not always the most flattering pictures. So now I’m having a problem getting access to the subjects.

Do you want or expect viewers of your work to feel uncomfortable with the closeness and the detail?

Close-up photography came back after I started to do all these. I’m not the inventor of close-up pictures, but I started doing those in ’95, and there weren’t many other photographers doing them at that time, because it was a different era. Photoshop just got into full swing, and everybody always told me you have to have big-budget pictures in your portfolio to show that you can handle big productions that are really expensive. Everything was about showing off. You had to have a lot of crazy things going on. David LaChappelle had these big setups and crazy scenarios. He was the man everybody tried to copy.

So these simple, honest close-up portraits were the opposite of what everybody else was doing, which was the reason that my career took off so crazy in 1998 or 1999. I had kind of a niche market there for a while, and over the years it became really trendy to do close-up pictures, and some of the other photographers are doing them now as well. All of them are doing them much less flattering than I am. They’re using strobe lights, which are much harsher lights than mine, so you see the pores a lot more. It’s more unforgiving. I have a very shallow depth of field, so certain areas of the face go out of focus, and the neck goes out of focus, which is flattering for older people. It’s just the eyes and lips that are sharper, where all the expression in the face lies.

I had never thought of my pictures as unflattering. Obviously, if you’re Alan Greenspan’s age, you’re not necessarily the most attractive person, but then again, how often do you see a picture of older people anyways?

How important, particularly in this show, is the contrast of unfamiliar faces with these world-famous celebrities?

I can’t say I love every picture August Sander has taken; I’m not as much in love with all of his photographs. I think some of them are quite boring. But what I do like about his pictures is that he set out to photograph an entire era. He set out to photograph every single profession – he would photograph a baker, a lawyer, a musician – and in the clothing that was descriptive for these professions. And he already, back in the ‘20s in Germany, set out to photograph homeless people, which was unheard of. Photography was so expensive, so special and only really for rich people that could afford hiring a photographer. He was independently wealthy, so he could afford it, and he would photograph these people nobody cared about.

From him, I got the idea of, you don’t want to be pigeonholed as a certain kind of people photographer. I don’t want to be defined by magazines that hire me to take photographs. I take photographs for magazines; it’s what I do for a living. But to me ,just because someone’s not famous doesn’t mean they’re not interesting to be photographed.

This democratic approach was fascinating to me. When I put the book together, I loved the juxtaposition. One of my favorite pages is Jon Bon Jovi, this super-vain man, this rock star, next to a woman sitting on an apple crate on a street corner, rocking back and forth because she’s been a crack victim for so long that her muscles don’t function anymore. The other homeless people on the street were laughing and telling me, “She can’t sit still for a minute! You can’t photograph her.” She really wanted to do it, so she sat really still, and I got this portrait of her that I really like. When I put my book together, I loved how the two of them started to look alike. They couldn’t be more opposite – a white rock musician from New Jersey and a black crack victim from the Lower East Side – but for some reason there’s some similarity, and you can’t even say what it is. Once you dissect the face, it’s not the same lips, or nose, or eyes – but there’s something that makes them almost seem related. That’s what I find most fascinating in my close-ups.

Do you believe you can truly see people, and seeintopeople, in a way that most of us who are not in your profession, can’t?

I think there is no such thing as a truthful picture, really – I think all photographs lie. It’s just a sixtieth of a second in a person’s life, and one expression. The lighting and my editing has a big impact; it’s my view of that person and what I think makes for an honest picture of that person. I think you can be more towards the honest side of photography or you can be more towards the painterly side, and I think most people nowadays have gone over to the retouching, painterly side, where their photography is often a composite of multiple images, morphed bodies and morphed faces and so forth.

Or you can be a traditional portrait photographer who sets out to, as they said in the old days, “capture a person’s soul.” Do I think I capture a person’s soul? No. That would be a stupid thing to say. But at least I’m trying to take a picture that feels somewhat honest. I hope some people will have the feeling that “Oh, this is a vulnerable moment in George Clooney’s face. Maybe, that’s a little bit closer to what he’s about when he’s sitting by himself.”

“Martin Schoeller: Close-Up” runs through March 18 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton.