Friday, December 19, 2008

Up Close and Personal

Visitors view Martin Schoeller's images of Barack Obama and John McCain at the National Portrait GalleryI got to do a report this week on Martin Schoeller's 2004 photographic portrait of President-elect Barack Obama.

The photo - which is huge by the way almost 62" tall x 50" wide - was shot in 2004 just as Mr. Obama was beginning his national political career.

It was taken with a Mamiya RZ 67 Pro II Camera using a 140 millimeter lens and was shot on film. The photo is what is called a digital C-print, which uses a special process that allows more detail and color variance that normal paper.

The photo is hanging in the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington. It is part of an exhibit called “Portraiture Now: Feature Photography." I interviewed the photographer - Martin Schoeller - as he was returning from a photo shoot of Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank on Tuesday.

The Eye is the Lamp

Schoeller told me he wanted to use film because digital has too much depth of field and gets everything in focus. He said he wanted to focus on the eyes and the mouths of his subjects, which he called the most expressive parts of the face. The Obama photo definitely draws you into the eyes.

Schoeller, a former assistant to Annie Liebowitz, told me that he shot this frame as part of an assignment for the QG Men of the Year issue in December 2004. The image is one of the 'in between' shots from that shoot - one of the moments when Mr. Obama is not realizing that he is in front of a camera.

Ironically, the image chosen for the magazine was another of Schoeller's photos - but it has Obama smiling .

"Often times he smiles," Schoeller told me, "because he has a great smile and people often put themselves into poses that they think they look good in." But the photographer said that this shot felt more natural and was a good image.


Anne Goodyear lectures on the Obama PhotoI attended a lecture by Anne Goodyear, one of the curators at the National Portrait Gallery. She said that she thought this image conveyed more of the strength and determination that Mr. Obama brought to the political campaign.

"We want future generations to come into contact with these traits when they come to the portrait gallery," she said. Ms. Goodyear said his determination and confidence are the traits the museum wants people to think about when they see his image.

Vince Aletti is the photography critic for the New Yorker, and he told me that Schoeller's images offer a much closer glimpse than we could get in real life. No one, not even our closest friends, get that close most of the time.

"I think Schoeller's work invites us to really kind of nudge in closer than we might normally do," he said. Aletti said that Schoeller's large format images give their subjects "a sense of nakedness in a away." He said there's nowhere to hide in a photo that large.

Covering this story was a real shot in the arm for me. I got to do some real reporting that didn't involve sweaty athletes or someone dying in a plane crash. Martin Schoeller was a joy to interview. There is something about creative people that fires my jets - it gets me out of the mundane work-a-day crud that I usually have to wade through. I look forward to more of it. I hope to do a TV report on the Tuskeegee airmen and their attempts to make it to the Inauguration.

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