Few things can be as revealing as pure simplicity. Such is the case with the hyper-detailed close up headshots of New Yorker photographer Martin Schoeller. For years, he’s been photographing his subjects—including some of world’s most famous individuals—using the same in their face (literally) process. Schoeller’s signature shot style is on full display in Close Up, which makes its only West Coast stop at EMP starting November 15. The exhibit presents 43 of these large-scale extreme closeups (the majority of the prints are 5 x 4 ft., with the others being 3.5 x 3 ft.) of celebrities like George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Bill Murray. It’s the consistency of Schoeller’s technique that makes Close Up rewarding. Since the framing and lighting doesn’t change, each subject boasts the same two columns of light parenthetically enclosing their pupils. The uniformity puts everyone on equal ground.
The sheer size and resolution lends each photograph to careful viewing. The prints come alive with minutia that would typically go unnoticed: The uneven upper lip stubble on John McCain, the blood vessels that color the corner of Valentino’s eyes red, the loose untrimmed hair jutting out from the end of Robert De Niro’s eyebrows. The anomalies also become evident. Sarah Palin seems out of place among the lot because she’s one of the only subjects hidden behind a layer of makeup. A young (non-celebrity) boy named Frankie stands out because of the overwhelming, but endearing, blotchiness that the myriad of freckles on his pale skin provides.
While famous faces comprise almost the entirety of the outer ring of Close Up’s exhibit space, the inner section provides stark contrast via photos of people from two remote and rarely photographed ethnic groups: The Hadza of Tanzania and the Pirahã of Brazil. These are people who have never been photographed, and their sun-worn faces and lack of photographic self-awareness make some of the celebrity photographs feel like a contrived act.
The photos are paired or grouped together to highlight combinations both obvious and unexpected. Putting political rivals Barack Obama and McCain or gorgeous power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt side-by-side makes sense, but who would’ve guessed that it also feels fitting to pair Heath Ledger and Kanye West or Chris Rock and Andre Agassi based on their similar photogenic demeanor? One of the best odd pairings is Kobe Bryant and Paris Hilton, who both seem otherworldly when viewed this close. As EMP Director of Curatorial Affairs Jasen Emmons remarked, “They look like aliens who come from another planet. And that planet is called L.A.”
Close Up offers a chance to see the faces most assume they fully know in a new (evenly distributed) light.
Martin Schoeller: Close Up
Nov 16–Feb 16, EMP, $15–$20