Does anyone really want a close up? Martin Schoeller’s latest exhibition of new work at Hasted Hunt continues his quest to present the human face writ large. The first examples of this work premiered in his 2006 exhibition, “Close Up.” Schoeller’s images are shot with a large format camera placed extremely close to the faces of his subjects, resulting in extraordinarily detailed, large-scale prints with noticeable distortion around the edges.
Noticeable, that is, if you already know the sitters. The photographs in this show are divided into two broad categories: images of major cultural figures/celebrities, and photographs of the Pirahã people of Brazil. Seeing one of Schoeller’s images of Denzel Washington prompts a few responses, the first of which is a comparison of Schoeller’s photograph of Washington to the mental archive labeled “Denzel Washington” that each of us carries inside our heads. Once the viewer has yielded to the pleasure of identifying the subject, a close examination of the print follows. These images are all rendered in astonishing detail (it’s possible to see every pore and every hair within the focal plane of each sitter’s eyes, cheeks and lips), so it’s fun to see the moles and blush on the face of American cultural icons.
What interested me, however, was how much more difficult it was to understand the effects of Schoeller’s distortions on faces I didn’t know. In the Pirahã portraits, commissioned by The New Yorker, it’s nearly impossible to decide, unequivocally, how much of any sitter’s appearance is “genuine,” and how much is the result of the visual distortion present in Schoeller’s style. In a way, the faces of celebrities have become a part of the American landscape; seeing a close-up portrait by Schoeller is enjoyable because we can compare the map Schoeller has made with the landscape we know and love. Schoeller’s portraits fail as reportage or documentary images; they are visually interesting in the way a Mannerist painting is interesting, as an exhibition of how icons might be stylized in a different way.
The show is somewhat problematic in its use of a very standardized, serialized manner of depiction (shot with the same light, straight on, with no expression betrayed by subjects) that enjoys a huge following in contemporary art photography. It’s problematic because it also enjoys a close connection with ethnographic photography that sought to document the (dis)appearance of natives in the age of imperialism. Julian Stallabrass wrote an excellent essay on exactly this subject entitled “What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography,” which appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of October. Stallabrass’s essay examines the numerous historical threads that could be considered divergent genealogies of the blank-faced, straight-on portraits so popular in art galleries nowadays. Stallabrass notes that:
The novelty of this photography is that in the past, such ethnographic means were turned on those viewed as definitively other [ . . . ] Now there appears a combination of deadpan ethnographic method applied to subjects who are not definitively marked off from the viewer [ . . . ] While such photography may offer a critique of the classifying impulse that lay behind imperial ethnographic photography at home and abroad, it is not one that impedes the guilty pleasure of viewing these contemporary subjects as mere image. [ . . . ] Historically, this is a strange result. The legacy of the prosaic photographic series is, after all, bound to conceptualism and a critique of the conventional notions of artistic subjectivity, originality, and creativity. Here it implicitly produces its opposite: a standard and immediately recognizable form of distinction, in which a dose of art-historical conceptualism helps elevate straight photography to the realm of charismatic, individualized art. (pp. 87-88)
Of course, Schoeller’s work isn’t exactly “straight photography,” but it borrows the deadpan look that began (and, shockingly, is still present here) as an ethnographic tool, then was borrowed by conceptualism to critique the idea of artistic style, only to end–as, again, it is here–as synonymous with artistic style.
In short, Schoeller’s work actually has a complicated and somewhat troubling history. Luckily, it doesn’t detract at all from the sheer pleasure of seeing his massive, gorgeous renderings of the faces of our culture’s secular gods.
Image © Martin Schoeller / Te Neues Publishing Company.