Photographer Martin Schoeller ’s signature style is large, close-up portraits. He has photographed hundreds of celebrities and politicians, including Brad Pitt and Sarah Palin. Schoeller’s work was recently on display at the National Portrait Gallery. He spoke with the magazine’s Abby Callard.

Who are your influences? Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German couple who photographed industrial sites. They displayed photos of objects that performed the same function, such as water towers, and allowed people to compare and contrast the architecture. That always fascinated me, and informed my approach toward taking portraits—working with people from different walks of life, but using the same photographic technique to invite comparison.

What attracts you to extreme close-ups? It’s probably a reflection of my personality. I feel comfortable being close to people. Some photographers don’t want that level of intimacy. But I always felt that close-ups allow you to capture the most essential part about a person, without being distracted by their clothing or the physical background.

Also, many photographers are about making people look good to please their subjects and clients. But there’s an underlying artifice to that approach; it’s putting people on a pedestal and celebrating them. So these minimalist, extreme close-ups are much more honest and much more interesting to me.

Who was the first person you photographed in this style? Nobody famous in the beginning. I made friends with these guys who owned a deli in New York City’s Lower East Side, and they let me tape my shower curtain to their window to serve as a simple backdrop. I picked that street corner because of the nice daylight and just photographed people as they walked by me, [after] asking if I could take their picture.

Who was your favorite subject? It’s hard to say. I once went to the White House to photograph Bill Clinton. Spending half an hour with the president of the United States was quite memorable. And quite stressful.

The Skeletons of Shanidar Cave

1n 1856, laborers working in a limestone quarry in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany, dug up some unusual-looking bones. Subsequent study revealed that they belonged to a previously unknown species of humans, similar to, but distinct from our own species, Homo sapiens . The newly discovered hominid was named Neanderthal— thal is Old German for valley—and has fascinated anthropologists ever since.

It was first thought that Neanderthals may have resembled apes—with stooped posture and bent knees—more closely than modern humans. Then, in the 1950s, Smithsonian anthropologist Ralph Solecki, a team from Columbia University and Kurdish workers unearthed the fossilized bones of eight adult and two infant Neanderthal skeletons—spanning burials from 65,000 to 35,000 years ago—at a site known as the Shanidar cave, in the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq. The discovery changed our understanding of Neanderthals.

The early hominids walked upright and possessed a more sophisticated culture than had previously been assumed. One of the skeletons, excavated in 1957, is known simply as Shanidar 3. The male Neanderthal lived 35,000 to 45,000 years ago, was 40 to 50 years old and stood about 5-foot-6. Shanidar 3 now resides at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, showcased inside a highly secure glass enclosure that Rick Potts, director of the museum’s Human Origins Program, describes as a “fossil treasure case.” Shanidar 3, Potts adds, “is the Hope Diamond of the Human Origins collection, and we treat it accordingly.”

Solecki’s pioneering studies of the Shanidar skeletons and their burials suggested complex socialization skills. From pollen found in one of the Shanidar graves, Solecki hypothesized that flowers had been buried with the Neanderthal dead—until then, such burials had been associated only with Cro-Magnons, the earliest known H. sapiens in Europe. “Someone in the last Ice Age,” Solecki wrote, “must have ranged the mountainside in the mournful task of collecting flowers for the dead.” Furthermore, Solecki continued, “It seems logical to us today that pretty things like flowers should be placed with the cherished dead, but to find flowers in a Neanderthal burial that took place about 60,000 years ago is another matter.” Skeletons showed evidence of injuries tended and healed—indications that the sick and wounded had been cared for. Solecki’s attitude toward them was encapsulated in the title of his 1971 book, Shanidar: The First Flower People .

Drawing on Solecki’s research, writer Jean Auel mixed fiction and archaeology in her novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear , a 1980 bestseller that humanized, if not glamorized, Neanderthals. In the book, the clan members adopt an orphaned Cro-Magnon child, who comprehends things beyond their ken, foreshadowing the Neanderthals’ fate. Out-competed by the Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals would become extinct.

According to Potts, climate change was the instrument of their demise. Around 33,000 years ago, the Neanderthal, who migrated south from their northernmost range in Central Europe as glaciers advanced, settled in the wooded regions of Iberia (present-day Spain and Portugal) and Gibraltar. There, they flourished, possibly until 28,000 years ago, when they were supplanted by a supremely adaptable competitor—the resilient Cro-Magnon.

Cro-Magnon groups, says Potts, who were “aided by their ability to make warmer, more form-fitting clothing, had already moved into the Neanderthals’ former territories.” Thus, Potts adds, “Modern humans gained a foothold they never relinquished.” The Neanderthals lived in ever smaller and more isolated areas—suffering what we now call loss of habitat—eventually vanishing from the earth.

“The Neanderthals were smart,” Potts says. “They had brains the same size as Cro-Magnon and were very clever at using local resources. They lacked the ability to expand their thinking and adapt to changing conditions.”

Shanidar 3’s own story, however, is grounded not in large evolutionary forces but in particular circumstances. “There is quite a severe and deep cut to a rib on [Shanidar 3’s] left side,” says Potts. “This cut would have been deep enough to collapse his lung, so Shanidar 3 is the oldest known individual who could have been murdered.”

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions .

Ansel Adams in Color

Ansel Adams never made up his mind about color photography. Long before his death in 1984 at age 82, he foresaw that this "beguiling medium" might one day replace his cherished black and white. In notes tentatively dated to 1949, he observed that "color photography is rapidly becoming of major importance."

Yet he once likened working in color to playing an out-of-tune piano. America's regnant Western landscape photographer tried to control every step of picture-making, but for much of his lifetime too many stages of the color process were out of his hands. Kodachrome—the first mass-market color film, introduced in 1935—was so complicated that even Adams, a darkroom wizard, had to rely on labs to develop it. Color printing was a crapshoot in the 1940s and '50s. Reproductions in magazines and books could be garish or out of register. Before the 1960s, black-and-white film often actually yielded subtler, less exaggerated pictures of reality.

Still, Adams' misgivings did not prevent him from taking hundreds of color transparencies. As he traveled the country on commercial assignments or on Guggenheim Fellowships—a project to celebrate the national parks—he often took pictures in color as well as black and white. A generous selection of these Kodachromes, most created between 1946 and 1948, appears in a new book, Ansel Adams in Color , revised and expanded from the 1993 edition, with laser scans that might have met even his finicky standards.

American motorists of a certain age may have seen some of the images without knowing they were his. The Standard Oil Company (or Esso, a precursor of Exxon) purchased reproduction rights to a number of them to promote driving in America. If you filled up your tank at a Standard Oil gas station in 1947 or 1948, you might have been given an Adams picture—Crater Lake, say, or White Sands—as part of a series the company called "See Your West."

Anyone who walked through Grand Central Terminal in New York City around that time may recall seeing Adams' color work in a more imposing form. His photographs were among those that sparkled in the station's Kodak Coloramas, gigantic transparencies 18 feet high and 60 feet wide that loomed above the commuting throngs in the main concourse. Adams judged these (correctly) to be "aesthetically inconsequential but technically remarkable."

He shot in color because advertisers and corporations liked to present themselves in color, and he liked the money they offered him; by 1935, he had a wife and two children to support. Work in this mode also may have allowed him to keep a sharp psychological distinction between those lucrative jobs and his more personal black-and-white oeuvre, for which he alone was to blame in case of failure.

But almost any technical photographic challenge interested him. He served as a longtime consultant for both Eastman Kodak and Polaroid, and the quest for true and reliable color obsessed both companies for decades. Adams wrote numerous articles for popular magazines on problems with the medium, often touching on philosophical issues. "There is an inevitable conflict between the photometric accuracy of the real color film and the subjective emotional effects of colors in relation to each other," he wrote in a 1949 draft of one article.

The slow speed of early Kodachrome did not allow much beyond portraits, still lifes and landscapes. Stopping action was generally out of the question. To combat the static quality that hobbled photographers who used color during this period, Adams came up with a solution that would become standard: the multimedia slide show. For the journal Photo Notes , he wrote—in 1950!—"possibly one of the most important aspects of the medium would be revealed in the production of 35 mm or 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 slides which would be used in carefully planned projected sequences, using sound track for comment or music."

The images from the '40s and '50s in the new edition reveal how his approach to a subject changed (or didn't) according to the film he loaded in his camera. He had photographed the Ranchos de Taos church in New Mexico many times in austere black and white. (Taos Pueblo was the subject of his 1930 book collaboration with writer Mary Austin.) But his 1948 color photograph of the building at sunset rendered the adobe walls and the sky behind as if in throbbing slabs of pastel crayon.

This expressionist approach to color differs markedly from the nearly monochrome view of Mono Lake in California, from 1947, which is similar to many of his studies of clouds mirrored in water. In a class of its own is his view of Utah's Monument Valley circa 1950, in which he captured the warmth of the sun on the dusty sandstone amid long shadows. The photograph is more about transience, atmosphere and time immemorial than bands of color, and it's one of the finest color pictures he ever made.

Adams thought enough of some of his color photographs to exhibit a selection of prints from his transparencies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1950. The fifth volume in his magisterial series on photographic techniques was to be devoted to color, but he died before getting to it.

Critical acclaim for the color photographers who came of age in the 1970s baffled Adams (and, to be fair, many others). He thought it was outrageous that the Museum of Modern Art gave William Eggleston a solo exhibition in 1976. Eggleston's generation certainly benefited from advances in film sensitivity, but younger photographers also composed in color with an ease unknown to Adams. The subjects they gravitated toward—suburban anomie, roadside trash—were equally foreign to him.

"I can get—for me—a far greater sense of ‘color' through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with color photography," he wrote in 1967. For Adams, who could translate sunlight's blinding spectrum into binary code perhaps more acutely than anyone before or since, there was an "infinite scale of values" in monochrome. Color was mere reality, the lumpy world given for everyone to look at, before artists began the difficult and honorable job of trying to perfect it in shades of gray.

Richard B. Woodward is a New York City-based arts critic.

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