PARIS PHOTO 2014 marked the 18th year of the grandest photography gathering on Earth. 60,000 visitors came to see an astonishing array of images from all places and periods, in every category,  presented by over 140 galleries under the magnificent Belle Epoque iron-and-glass canopy of the Grand Palais. LARB interviewed many top photographers at this bustling mecca and is presenting them in a special series via Photographer Spotlight.

In the world that is ruled by celebrity royalty, Martin Schoeller is often the court jester. His signature warts-and-all closeups of the famous who are willing to be so candidly exposed — George Clooney, Iggy Pop, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Jack Nicholson, Katy Perry, Johnny Cash and even Barack Obama among them — sometimes evolve into something even more vulnerable. When Schoeller’s brand of wit is given free reign, the mighty are made lovably funny in wacky vignettes of his devising; a grave Zach Galifianakis’ beard festooned with toys and breakfast cereal; Jack Black sudsing up in a Plaza Hotel bathtub; Marina Abramovic surrounded by nude passengers on a New York subway car; Geoffrey Rush literally regal in vintage king’s regalia and florid stage makeup. Fun is crucial to Schoeller. His straightforward jobs usually bore him, and he’s most in his zone when playing with visual concepts that shake up collective notions of a universally known personality. He takes the pedestaled and makes them human again.

Schoeller grew up in Frankfurt, Germany where he was an indifferent college student and went through several odd jobs before applying to a photography school with a friend almost as a lark. He was accepted and his friend wasn’t. He felt relief that he had finally found something he could excel at and have fun doing, not imagining that he would one day assist Annie Leibovitz, join the staff of The New Yorker and go on to become a top portrait photographer in demand by many of the world’s most iconic faces.

Schoeller’s big break came in 1998, when Time Out New York asked him to shoot Vanessa Redgrave at a press junket. They ran it full-page and Schoeller was inundated with jobs after a year of doing wedding photos. “It was the opposite of what everybody else was doing at the time,” says Schoeller. “Everybody was into big productions. Annie Leibovitz was everybody’s hero. The bigger the sets the better, the more over-the-top the clothes, the more beautiful the colors. Photoshop was really starting to take root, and everybody was looking glamorous and beautiful. And here come [my] very stark, honest, un-retouched closeups.” Apart from Leibovitz teaching him everything about shooting people in any setting, Schoeller was inspired by the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, whose conceptual portraits in the 1990s embraced drama and black humor.

Schoeller’s unvarnished brand of portraiture grabs too much truth for some, or at least for their handlers. By his reckoning only two out of ten will submit to the full comic treatment, and many are reluctant even to be shot in his face-as-tapestry closeups. “It becomes a game of diplomacy to achieve that crazy setup idea.” He arms himself with tamer ideas with which he can negotiate with wary publicists, and keeps a few others up his sleeve that he whips out when the publicist goes to the restroom.

“The only ideas that work are the ones that tie into the work the person does, what they like, their hobbies, etc. If you just come up with a wild idea out of nowhere, nobody will do it and it would look staged, hokey, contrived. It’s a very fine line between corny and funny. The concepts have to be revealing of the person, not just a gimmick. Coming up with good ideas is the hardest part of my job. That’s what causes me sleepless nights.”

The most compelling photographs sometimes become a cultural memento mori. Many of the subjects of Schoeller’s camera have passed away and his images of them capture something invaluable of their spirit and legacy. One in particular haunts him. “Heath Ledger was really tragic. I had just photographed him a year before, and he was a really super-nice, easygoing guy, hanging out, he was one of us. Not really the glamorous actor, more like a real person. That was sad.”

Martin Schoeller: Portraits was just released by teNeues, and an exhibition of his recent work is on display at Galerie Camera Work in Berlin, through February 28, 2015.


More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: