Jeff Koons painted white with flowers in his hair: Martin Schoeller’s best photograph

It was 2013 and Jeff Koons had just opened a show in New York that had all-white, almost classical, plaster sculptures in it. That’s how I got the idea of painting him white, to turn him into a sculpture. He has also used a lot of flowers in his art. I had photographed Jeff before. I had him running down the street in a white tuxedo, holding the blow-up lobster he’s used in some of his works. 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 the picture, so trusted me. But it still took a long time to talk him into this photo. I had to ask him three times to do the white face paint. In the end, I painted my assistant’s face white and he saw how great it looked, so finally agreed. The gold makeup around the eyes was also my idea.

The photo was for New York magazine, which was doing a big profile. I had four hours with him. There’s a fine line between something good and something a bit goofy, or that feels too staged. But I like photos that are whimsical. I had other ideas that didn’t work so well. I brought some sheep in that I’d painted, so Jeff was walking down the street with five sheep in different colours. I also had helium balloons with his face on them, so he could stand on a street corner holding the balloons. They ran in the magazine but they weren’t as strong as this graphic, simple image.

Jeff is hard to read. He’s not very warm or outgoing; he’s buttoned-up and strait-laced. I respect him and I love him as an artist, but this was very much a professional encounter. I talk while I photograph people, to distract them and get a range of expressions. But I’m always stressed out – 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.

My early portrait of Christopher Walken made people go: ‘Wow, this is amazing’

Well-known people are always concerned about their image. And nowadays you can’t take a photograph back – any photo lives for ever 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. Now everybody sees themselves as a brand that needs to be protected, and this kind of photography is almost extinct.

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 organise a shoot. But in the beginning, I got no jobs. It was the era of Photoshop: everything looked perfect, locations were amazing, clothes even better, any flaws taken out. Whereas my portrait photos are not retouched. In 1999, a photo editor gave me 10 minutes with Vanessa Redgrave during a press junket. That created a big wave. Magazine editors already had glamorous pictures, and now they could have honest, closeup portraits. My early portrait of Christopher Walken made people go: “Wow, this is amazing.” Jack Nicholson was another that stopped people in their tracks. I photographed Angelina Jolie with a drop of blood on her lip. I went to the White House for all the sitting presidents, including Barack Obama.

I also work on personal projects about groups of people I find interesting, which started with female bodybuilders. I’ve photographed 300 people without permanent housing, on one street corner in West Hollywood. I’ve also photographed 75 Holocaust survivors, and death row exonerees – I’m trying to help abolish the death penalty.

I’m not a soul-catcher. I don’t think any photograph does a person 100% justice. But so much photography is not about the person any more. In fashion magazines, the person in the photo is exchangeable. They’re so retouched, it doesn’t matter if it’s Natalie Portman or Julia Roberts – it would be the same photograph. I try to be more truthful.

Martin Schoeller is represented exclusively by Camera Work Gallery.

Martin Schoeller CV

Born: Munich, Germany, 1968.
Trained: Lette-Verein, Berlin.
Influences: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Annie Leibovitz, August Sander.
High point: “I photographed a young man on a street corner in Los Angeles. I posted his photo and his story of meth addiction on National Geographic’s Instagram. His mother contacted me and asked me to help her get in contact – he’d run away three years ago. He moved back home, went to rehab and got off the streets.”
Low point: “I got two types of malaria when I photographed an Indigenous group in Brazil. Having malaria was not fun.”
Top tip: “Be self-motivated and always try to reinvent yourself. You have to love photography and take pictures with jobs or without jobs.”