When the Berlin-based portrait photographer Oliver Mark answers his door wielding a feather duster, I instantly know that I’m dealing with an interesting guy. He’s shot pretty much everybody under the sun, including Beck, Marilyn Manson, Rufus Wainwright, and Miley Cyrus. As we talk, Mark walks through his apartment showing off book pages, running over to his desktop to pout out images, opening steel cabinets to reveal stacks of Polaroids, hollering out a different name as he drops each picture on his desk.
An artist in his own right, Mark work was recently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His latest book is called Outsider and Insider, and features black-and-white portraits of Dustin Hoffmann, Yoko Ono, and Pope Benidict XVI shot with the Polaroid camera he takes to every party he goes to—he says his Polaroid gets people more relaxed than other cameras. While Mark shoots celebrities for top German publications, he sneaks in a second shot for his personal Polaroid series. The collection is quickly growing.
As he collects for his second Polaroid book, Mark spoke about the human soul, PR agents, shooting Will Smith, and how the perfect shot requires giving your best self.
Noisey: When did you start shooting culture portraits?
Oliver Mark: The first portrait I did was in 1994 a painter named A.R. Penck. Before, I did commercial fashion and I started shooting mostly artist, those portraits, I showed them to an editor from Die Zeit who gave me my first jobs, that’s how it started.
Did it start with the art scene or did it bleed all over?
Now, it’s all over. Here in Berlin, I’m very involved with the art scene. Going to many openings and such. For example, the pianist Sir Alfred Brendel was giving a lecture. He was pointing to his forehead as he spoke, so later on when the lecture was finished, I asked him to do it one more time for my portrait.
You also shot Miley Cyrus. What is on her face?
She was looking too pretty and too boring so I took the emulsion off.
What do you like about being a photographer?
To hold the time for a little moment and this is perhaps interesting for other viewer as I have seen the moment in which the other person.
Is it different shooting artists than musicians, or are they all the same?
The only group of people who are different are top politicians and top managers. They’re clarified in a way that they’ve probably have seen so many things in their lives. They’re always in front of cameras. It’s very difficult to get any kind of emotion from this kind of people.
Max Raabe and Marilyn Manson
Is it your goal as a portrait photographer to evoke emotion or bring out something that hasn’t been shown before?
To me, a good portrait is if you show any kind of emotion. It can be sexy, melancholic, strong, whatever it is. The portraits are always different because in that time, in that minute, it’s my look of the people.
Will Smith, was it your idea to shoot him with the pillow?
Yes, of course. There is one column called ‘Ich habe einen Traum’ (‘I have a dream’) where they feature a subject and they always have their eyes closed. It’s not really an interview, it’s a talk. These pictures are usually taken in five star hotels. You have to think beforehand what you’re doing with these people. With Will, I had the idea of the pillow and eyes closed. In America, they always come with four or five PR agents… different to Germany. Everything is super important or everybody is super important. The talents are usually very cool!
How seriously do you take your subjects?
I seriously penetrate in the sense that I try to get to the interior of the human soul. I try to see what I am afraid of and to see how someone is or would like to be represented. Absolute openness helps.
Is there any secret to getting the best shot?
I just try to be myself. With all my mistakes, I try to omit every vanity, but of course do not always succeed.
Is there anyone left you still want to shoot?
I still want to shoot the new Pope and Glenn Brown (a British artist).
Nadja Sayej lives in Berlin and is on Twitter — @nadjasayej