All Photographs by Martin Schoeller
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George Clooney, Brooklyn, New York, 2008
All Photographs by Martin Schoeller

Martin Schoeller’s Offbeat Portraits Give Stars a New Turn

Technical improvements to the daguerreotype in the early 1840s took the world by storm as portrait galleries opened everywhere to meet demand. Martin Schoeller’s new book, Portraits, a 15-year retrospective of his modern portrait photography, is further evidence of the long-lasting power of the photographic portrait that began 175 years ago.

I caught up with the busy Schoeller to ask him about some of his favorite portraits that appear in his beautifully-printed new book. He highlighted some of the images that dip into conceptual territory—a place he very much likes to play.

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George Clooney Brooklyn New York, 2008

“He deserved the cover,” Schoeller says of George Clooney. “It incorporates well with what I’m trying to do with this book—to take pictures that feel like portraits, but maybe not always in the most classical straightforward way. They are conceptual at times, [but] they still have something to do with the people that are being portrayed. When I was researching him [Clooney] again, and thinking about what can I do with him, I was looking through the old photo shoots and I came across these close-up pictures. Then I was playing around, ripping out the eyes and putting them in front of my eyes and then realizing, ‘Oh, that would be a great idea to have him wear his own eyes.’ The eyes are a younger George.”

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Jack Black Hotel Plaza Athenee, New York, New York, 2000

For the shoot with Jack Black, it turned out Schoeller’s photo assistant couldn’t find a pet sitter. So he told her to bring her dog along and they ended up incorporating it into the photo shoot.

“I had all these funny ideas for him and I ran my ideas by him and his publicists said, ‘No, no we can’t do any of those ideas.’ I came up with ideas for him—working out in a Speedo, lifting little pink weights in a yellow Speedo—ridiculous ideas. And she [the publicist] said, ‘We can’t do any of those ideas.’ Black looked at her and said, ‘Why not? I want to do all those ideas. I am a comedian that’s what I do—funny pictures.’ And the publicist grabbed her Blackberry and ran out into the corridor and was never seen again. It was like one of the best moments in my career,” Schoeller said.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman New York, New York, 2003

There is only one straight forward portrait in the entire book where Schoeller’s subject has their eyes closed. In a haunting portrait of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died on February 2, 2014, he captured the actor in 2003 in a calm and powerful way.

“When I photographed him I had very little time and he was running about 45 minutes late,” Schoeller recalls. “I was set up in a hotel room with my 8×10 studio setup, and he had a hard time keeping his eyes open. The lights weren’t really that bright. In fact, even with the studio setup with strobes . . . he had a hard time keeping his eyes open. I finally said, ‘Ah, let’s do a few with your eyes closed.’”

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Steve Carell Van Nuys, California, 2009

“Time magazine asked me to shoot him for an issue on office work. At the last minute they thought it would be a good idea to put him on the cover because of his starring role in The Office. They called me at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I said, ‘Oh great, I love photographing Steve Carell.’ So I had to fly out that night to L.A. He gives me an hour of his time. On my way from the hotel to the studio where he was shooting the show, I stopped by a Staples and ran in and bought a bunch of office supplies. While my assistant was driving, I was looking in the mirror putting Stickies on my face, playing around trying to figure out what funny stuff he could do with these office supplies. And then I came across this Scotch tape and I thought, ‘Oh, this could be great.’ So, I started with subtler, gentle ideas putting some stickers on his face—nothing too offensive to anybody. When the publicist went to the restroom I whipped out the Scotch tape from my pocket and said, ‘Steve, hold still, hold still I have a great idea.’ And I just literally wrapped the Scotch tape around his face and let it dangle up on the side. His publicist comes back 10 frames into it and freaks out, but at that point it was too late and I had my picture.”

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Quentin Tarantino On set in West Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, 2004

“I had this crazy idea with these white doves,” Schoeller says. “[Tarantino’s] movies are so violent, blood everywhere, and they couldn’t be any more brutal really. What makes them so fascinating is all the violence.” As a result, Schoeller thought to do the opposite, to portray Tarantino as the ambassador of peace surrounded by the ultimate symbol of peace—white doves. “So we just had all these doves on standby, so to speak, and when he got there I talked him into it. That was back in the days when magazines had more money. A $3,000 animal trainer bill didn’t scare magazines as much as it does today.”

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Michael Douglas New York, New York, 2013

“He’s one of my favorites I’ve got to say,” Schoeller says of Michael Douglas. He got a call from New York magazine to photograph the actor, and they asked him what he would like to do. “Why don’t you find out if I can photograph him at home?” Schoeller asked. “That is always my first question and the answer is always no. So they called his PR person then they called me back 20 minutes later and said, ‘Yeah, we can photograph him at home do you want to go and scout it this afternoon?’ Schoeller was stunned. That had never happened to him before. “Then I met with his publicist who he {Douglas} has been working with for 35 years or something. So that is the ideal scenario. You have someone that really knows him. Who is not afraid of him. Not afraid of him looking for another publicist. He was a smart guy who knows the power of photography. How important it is to have great pictures of your client out there. And he gave me a tour of Michael Douglas’s apartment on the upper West Side. And he had two hours in the morning so we had to get to the apartment by 6:00 a.m. to be ready for an 8:30 shoot. And Michael Douglas was walking around offering us coffee while we were setting up lights. He is one of the great exceptions in a world that is normally a lot more difficult,” said Schoeller.

Despite his enormous success as a portrait photographer, Schoeller likes it best when he can escape the pressure cooker world of Hollywood actors, demanding publicists and big studio productions by getting out in the field mixing different styles of photography—documentary and portraiture—like he does for National Geographic magazine.

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A young Kayapo girl jumps into the river that borders their protected lands in the Amazon basin.

“Ultimately, what I really enjoy the most is photographing these indigenous groups,” Schoeller said ending our interview. “Old school journalistic photography—just hanging out with a camera—gives me a sense of freedom that I like to have sometimes,” he said. And I asked him which picture would he post to exemplify this? “There is this picture of a Kayapo girl jumping off a bridge. That would be perfect.”

See more of Martin Schoeller’s portraits in his new book, Portraits, which is out now. Schoeller’s work will be on exhibit in New York City from November 13, 2014-January 3, 2015 and in Berlin from November 21, 2014-Febuary 28, 2014. See more of Schoeller’s work on his website.