Monday, December 9, 2013

Howard Schatz: Master Of The Act

By William Sawalich, Photography By Howard Schatz Published in Photographer Profiles
For Caught In The Act: Actors Acting, Howard Schatz gave actors scenarios and he photographed them as they assumed the role and performed. He says, "I have a front-row seat to a phenomenal performance. In fact, it's better than front row. I'm three feet away. I give them the part, and they become the person." You also notice that most of the images are tightly composed on the face and there's limited makeup, which is unusual for many big stars who have handlers that rigorously control their images. Schatz explains, "I said from the beginning, this isn't a vanity picture, and this may not be a picture that you want. But I want to make a really powerful picture—one that's respectful, and it's powerful and compelling to look at. They got it! They let me do it." Above: John Malkovich.
For Caught In The Act: Actors Acting, Howard Schatz gave actors scenarios and he photographed them as they assumed the role and performed. He says, "I have a front-row seat to a phenomenal performance. In fact, it's better than front row. I'm three feet away. I give them the part, and they become the person." You also notice that most of the images are tightly composed on the face and there's limited makeup, which is unusual for many big stars who have handlers that rigorously control their images. Schatz explains, "I said from the beginning, this isn't a vanity picture, and this may not be a picture that you want. But I want to make a really powerful picture—one that's respectful, and it's powerful and compelling to look at. They got it! They let me do it." Above: John Malkovich.
John Malkovich

"In my experience," he continues, "most actors tried to do something in front of the camera when I wanted to make a portrait when, in fact, I didn't want them to. So, I had a number of choices. One, I'd explain that I didn't want them to do anything; I wanted them to just be. That worked only rarely. Then I said, 'What I'd like you to do is imagine you're listening, you're speaking with a friend, and you're having a conversation, and the conversation isn't emotionally wrought, so there's no need to have any emotional response. Number two, the conversation isn't intellectually difficult or challenging, so you don't have to look like you're listening really hard and trying to figure out. You're just listening. Your friend says, 'Joe, listen to what happened to me yesterday, as I was getting into this taxi...' And then you don't know whether this story is going up or down, you don't know where this story is going. You love this friend, you care about them, and you're looking at them and you're just listening.' So that helped me make the portrait. They were still, in a way, acting, but when one listens without emotion on their face, one sort of lets the face go. And that helped make these portraits."

Says Schatz, "A smile is a suit and tie, a smile is a bank vault cover. How do you get through that? What's behind there? A smile is not to let you in. It's a barrier. To try to get somebody to be enigmatic, a puzzle, so I can't read you, I can't tell happy, sad, good, bad, mad or glad, I just can't tell, give me nothing. Sometimes that was enough, that worked. Other times, the actor wanted to do something—look intelligent, look inquisitive, look in wonder. I said let it go, let it go.

"Everybody has a certain barrier to the world to protect themselves," he continues. "It's normal. It's normal not to be totally vulnerable to everything out there. The world is tough, dangerous, critical, so it's normal to have a certain façade, a certain thing on your face, a certain level of protection and defense. That's normal. And to let that go for me, a stranger and my camera, that's not easy. But that's what I like to try to do. So, to the actors, I could say let that go, and I would try to say it in a nice way. I'd say, 'You have this natural twinkle in your eye, a sweet twinkle.' Or, 'You have a natural sort of intellectual intensity.' I'd make something positive. And they understood. There were a few times I would go to the mirror and show them, 'Look, do you see that?' and I'd point something out. You know, we have a part in our brain that recognizes faces, and it's a very large area in the brain that does that. And, we, as human beings, see these tiny little subtle microscopic variations in a face that help us read a person. So, to try to get that all to go away, it's hard. You have to see it, admit it, know it and then work to get rid of it. But I'm able to most of the time. I tell stories, and then as I'm telling stories, I say, 'You're listening to me without anything on your face.' Then they understand. Sometimes it takes longer than others, but most of the time I can get there.

"When they try," Schatz says, "when they do something, they're trying to affect the picture, they're trying to tell the observer what they're supposed to feel. I say, 'I'd like the observer to make up their own mind.' I want them to look and wonder: Where is he going? Where has he been? What are his dreams? That's my way of making a portrait."

In 2014, Howard Schatz will publish a retrospective of his 25-year career. He'll also hold a workshop where he'll instruct students on his approach to studio photography and postproduction. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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