MARTIN SCHOELLER: A Signature Style
By Andrea Blanch
ANDREA BLANCH: The last time I met you was before you joined Art & Commerce. What has been your experience working with them?
MARTIN SCHOELLER: It’s been good. You know, what I like about them is that I really respect the group of photographers they’ve assembled. They have impeccable taste and I’m very happy to be one of their group. And our industry is changing so rapidly, magazines are going out of business, everything is being downsized and re-packaged, lots of people are getting laid off. That poses a big problem for me, because I’ve always considered myself an editorial photographer. The core of my work is with magazines on assignment. Then there is the more conceptual work that I do on my own, like my portrait series. But the core of my work is now being challenged and is quickly changing.
ANDREA: Do you ever get tired of shooting in your signature style?
MARTIN: I’ve been doing these close-up portraits for 20 years now, and I have occasionally become tired of them. But I find myself in the predicament that it’s too late to stop them. I find myself thinking “I am a documentarian, I have to keep on going.” I want to document more and more people. I want to capture very subtle moments as objectively as possible. Not just a serious, bored look, but expressions that feel unguarded. So, I’ll probably be shooting like this until the day I die. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything else. I find entertainment in the variety.
ANDREA: I read about your experience working as Annie’s assistant. What did you glean from her?
MARTIN: I learned a lot from working with Annie. First of all, dedicated is an understatement. She is obsessed with photography. She loves it, she lives and breathes it in a way I’ve never seen before and in a way I don’t know can be matched.
ANDREA: How does that manifest?
MARTIN: She’s constantly thinking about the next picture, about ideas, researching her subject, study- ing other people’s work, she seems to be thinking about photography on a minute to minute basis. I learned from her that being very serious about photography, making it the center of your life, that’s how you grow. Often when I meet young photographers they dedicate only a few hours a day to their work. And I always say if you want to become a photographer you really have to dedicate at least ten hours a day to your craft, especially when you’re first starting out.
I also learned a lot about lighting from her. She’s very particular about her lighting. I was in charge of lighting pictures for her, which oftentimes was not an easy task, and resulted in a lot of yelling and screaming at times. But it made me grow, and it forced me to understand and learn.
ANDREA: I read that she actually didn’t know a lot about lighting, and relied on her assistants to light for her. She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t have those technical skills.
MARTIN: Right, she doesn’t want to be so heavily involved in that. In retrospect, I understand. There are so many things that a photographer has to worry about. If it was terrible, she would sometimes throw us suggestions, but for the most part she just wanted it to be done. That was my job, to get it done, and if she didn’t like it, she would let me know. I would scramble to please her, and through that, I learned a tremendous amount. The production values on some of her shoots are huge, like movie stills. Managing large groups like that, I learned how not to be intimidated, even having 5-6 assistants and spending thousands of dollars to achieve one picture.
ANDREA: How often does that happen to you?
MARTIN: It doesn’t anymore. That was the old days of magazine photography. That all came to an end. Budgets are nowhere near what they used to be.
I also learned some of how not to be from Annie. I treat my staff very differently than she did. Some- times you learn things that you don’t want to replicate and that’s also important.
ANDREA: Do you like smaller productions?
MARTIN: I like those situations where you have a limited amount of time and you have to come back with something great - I do enjoy that pressure at times. I think I’ve been the happiest on the assignments with National Geographic where I have to run around the Brazilian rainforest with a hunter- gatherer tribe that live in little huts. I sleep in a tent next to them and wake up and just follow them around all day. I can’t even talk to them, because we don’t share a language. That experience is very fulfilling. Just one camera and no lights, just you as a spectator. It’s incredibly freeing, and there are no phones or computers so you just focus on the people and photographing their way of life.
ANDREA: How did you begin working with National Geographic?
MARTIN: A friend of mine introduced me to them, and I do have a journalistic photography back- ground. My photographs are also not retouched, which is very appealing to National Geographic. I did a couple of portrait stories for them, and also some documentary work.
ANDREA: The way in which you light your portrait photographs is very pragmatic, because you don’t have to retouch the way some photographers do, solves some problems concerning time and money. Did that enter your mind when developing your style? And how often do you get turned down for private commissions because the style you shoot in is not always flattering?
MARTIN: Well, I started this series because I like Bernd and Hilla Becher so much. They were German photographers that photographed a lot of industrial scenes, including a very famous water tower series. They photographed the same subject matter over and over and put them up for comparison. I found that fascinating, which really inspired me to do these close-up portraits, to photograph everyone in the same lighting, with the same camera, and the same film, and from the same angle.
There was also a level of necessity, just starting out. You have a very limited amount of time with someone at a given location, oftentimes working with cranky subjects because they have twenty photoshoots in a day. And with these close-ups I can do the set up anywhere and it doesn’t take a lot of time. Often I would be shooting something for a magazine and then do a close-up portrait in addition. Now I do a close-up portrait of pretty much anyone who crosses my path.
To read the full interview with Marjan Teeuwen click here.