Martin Schoeller Up Close: Celebrity & Perspective

“The camera is like a box of tricks. It’s a tool that produces realistic images while confusing our eyes and minds. It can see much better than our eyes: sharper and in much more detail. Its lens can distort yet we believe what we see. It presents the world in black & white while we know it is in colour…”

I have always admired photography for the way in which it can capture specific moments in time without intrusion. Interrupting life or ‘stealing’ time, photography can tell a story across time, betwixt-and-between cultures, religions and traditions.

Take, for example, these pieces by WIlliam Daniels taken as part of his series, ‘Unholy War‘, on exhibition at the Dubrovnik Photography Museum last year.

Capturing the conflict between Muslim-Seleka rebels and the Militias (anti-balaka) in the Central African Republic, this series of photographs tell an endless, poignant story of blood, conspiracy and violence. Aside their – often beautiful –  aesthetic compositions, his photos are a political platform from which his viewers learn about the history of, and the people involved in, this shocking conflict and through these photographs come endless questions of politics, religion, race, class…

Martin Schoeller –  whose ‘Up Close‘ exhibition I recently visited at Stockholm’s Fotografiska Museum – contrasts starkly with William Daniels and my reactions to both photographers works were very different. I found the different perspectives Schoeller’s photographs permitted completely fascinating and like nothing I had ever experienced before with photography.

‘Up Close’ focuses on “hyper-real” depictions of some of the most iconic figures of this generation: Barack Obama, Katy Perry, Hilary Clinton, a blood-splattered Christian Bale, Philip Seymour Hoffmann (poignantly posed with his eyes shut), Julia Roberts, Jay-Z… All photographed looking straight into the camera, blown up to 50 times their life size, with a plain backdrop and very stark and dramatic lighting. The figures are exposed, surgically examined and their personalities vignetted…

Whilst you would expect the – what are essentially celebrity – photos to resemble the spread that you might find in a copy of Heat Magazine, they capture an intensely human, and personal, aspect of these individuals’ selfs. The images are far removed from paparazzi and a voyeuristic perspective of “Celebrity”, but rather works of art that capture what is both unique and universal for every person.


I began the exhibition skimming the different portraits from across the exhibition space, approaching them as you would an old friend. As I moved closer to each portrait, I found myself looking at wrinkles and pores and individual extrusions of hair as I would brushstrokes in a painting. The result was a complete alteration in perspective of this person; having originally encountered the portrait as someone I could recognise and was very familiar with, the closer I got the less I felt I really knew who they were. Eyebrows look slightly misplaced; noses are just a tad too large (or small?); high lines remind you of other figures, not the subject you are looking at; does that person really have wrinkles there? What was interesting was the less familiar they became, the more human you began to see them. And it was this curious and varying perspective which Schoeller fosters to such great effect, that I had hitherto known within this art form.



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