IIt was 2013 and Jeff Koons had just opened a show in new york which contained all-white, almost classical plaster sculptures. This is how I had the idea of painting it white, to make a sculpture of it. He also used a lot of flowers in his art. I had already photographed Jeff. I had him running down the street in a white tuxedo, holding the inflatable lobster he used in some of his artwork. He has a businessman quality to him and had 100 people working for him at one point creating his art, so I liked the idea of him being very formal and well-dressed.
He loved photography, so he trusted me. But it still took a long time to tell him about this photo. I had to ask her three times to do the white makeup. In the end, I painted my assistant’s face white and he saw how awesome it looked, so I finally agreed. The gold makeup around the eyes was also my idea.
The photo was for New York review, which made a big profile. I spent four hours with him. There’s a fine line between something good and something a little goofy, or that feels overly staged. But I like fancy photos. I had other ideas that didn’t work very well. I brought some sheep that I had painted, so Jeff was walking down the street with five different colored sheep. I also had helium balloons with his face on, so he could stand on a street corner holding the balloons. They ran in the magazine but they weren’t as strong as this simple, graphic image.
Jeff is hard to read. He’s not very warm or outgoing; it is buttoned up and well laced. I respect and love him as an artist, but it was really a professional encounter. I talk while photographing people, to distract them and get a range of expressions. But I’m still stressed – there are so many things that can go wrong. In this case, if he had just worn the flowers without the white paint, you wouldn’t be looking at the photo right now.
Personalities are always concerned about their image. And these days, you can’t retake a photo – any photo lives forever online. Most people like to play it safe, so they don’t do anything conceptual. When I started 25 years ago, people were more willing to take risks. Today, everyone sees themselves as a brand to be protected, and this kind of photography has almost disappeared.
I came to New York from Germany in 1992 and worked for Annie Leibovitz for three years. I learned so much: how to come up with crazy ideas, how to organize a shoot. But at first, I didn’t have a job. It was the era of Photoshop: everything looked perfect, the locations were amazing, the clothes even better, all the flaws eliminated. While my portrait photos are unretouched. In 1999, a photo editor gave me 10 minutes with Vanessa Redgrave at a press junket. It created a big wave. Magazine editors already had glamorous photos, and now they could have honest, close-up portraits. My first portrait of Christopher Walken made people say, “Wow, that’s amazing.” Jack Nicholson was another that stopped people in their tracks. I photographed Angelina Jolie with a drop of blood on his lip. I’ve been to the White House for all the sitting presidents, including barack obama.
I also work on personal projects involving groups of people that I find interesting, which started with female bodybuilders. I photographed 300 people without permanent housing, on a street corner in West Hollywood. I also photographed 75 Holocaust survivors and exonerated death row inmates – I’m trying to help abolish the death penalty.
I am not a soul catcher. I don’t think a photograph does 100% justice to a person. But so many photographs are no longer about the person. In fashion magazines, the person in the photo is exchangeable. They’re so airbrushed, it doesn’t matter if it’s Natalie Portman or Julia Roberts — it would be the same photo. I try to be more sincere.
CV of Martin Schoeller
Born: Munich, Germany, 1968.
Qualified: Lette Verein, Berlin.
Influence : Bernd and Hilla Becher, Annie Leibovitz, Auguste Sander.
High point: “I photographed a young man on a street corner in Los Angeles. I posted his picture and story of meth addiction on National Geographic Instagram. His mother contacted me and asked me to help him get in touch – he had run away three years ago. He went home, went to rehab and got off the streets.
Low point: “I caught two types of malaria when I photographed an indigenous group in Brazil. Having malaria was no fun.
Trick : “Be motivated and always try to reinvent yourself. You have to like photography and take pictures with or without a job.