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An early, unabashed look at a superstar
Czech photographer's nude studies of Madonna continue to fascinate

 

By Curtis M. Wong
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
September 24th, 2008 issue
Photo by Martin H. M. Schreiber
 
 

The look is different but the burning ambition is clear in Schreiber's 1979 photos of an aspiring dancer from the Midwest. 

She is known globally as pop music’s grande dame, a provocative superstar whose record-breaking career spans nearly three decades.But to Czech-born photographer Martin H. M. Schreiber, Madonna will always be the demure ballerina he met back in 1979, when he was a photography teacher at the New School/Parsons in New York City and she was a struggling dancer fresh from Michigan.These days, Schreiber, 62, speaks with the confident swagger of a survivor — not unlike Madonna herself. An exhibition of his work opened Sept. 5 at Galerie 4 in Cheb, west Bohemia. On display are 80 photographs, including colorful scenes of cowboys and gauchos against rugged North and South American landscapes, which he has documented for 14 years.But it’s the Madonna shots — a series of six black-and-white, full-body nudes — that have attracted attention. To make ends meet, Madonna modeled for Schreiber’s nude photography course in 1979, well before she rocketed to fame as a pop star. The lean brunette in Schreiber’s photos bears scant resemblance to the sinewy blonde whose suggestive lyrics and racy videos would later be banned on MTV and condemned by the Vatican.“They are just sweet, innocent photos of a beautiful young woman posing in a studio,” Schreiber says. As to whether he knew Madonna, who was then almost 21, had the potential to become a star, he says, “There was never any discussion of singing or music, and, unfortunately, I was not clairvoyant. I wish I had been — I’d have taken a lot more photos.”Not ashamedSchreiber claims their collaboration went beyond the professional, that he and Madonna had a brief romantic dalliance when she moved into his Manhattan apartment for two weeks.They lost touch over the years, and Schreiber says he had all but forgotten about the photos until 1985 when, perusing an airport newsstand, he noticed her face on the cover of Time magazine. Hot off the success of her Like A Virgin album and a lead role in Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna was a star on the rise.And Schreiber realized he had a meal ticket. After making a few phone calls, he received an offer from editors at Playboy magazine who were eager to publish the photos. Schreiber says he tried to contact Madonna through her management team several times before the deal was signed, but was unsuccessful.“I think her management wasn’t too happy with me, because they couldn’t control it,” he says, adding that Madonna had signed a consent form giving away all rights to the photos prior to the sessions six years earlier. When the New York Post asked her about the shots, the Material Girl declared, “I’m not ashamed!”Although grateful for the local media attention the Madonna photos have generated, Galerie 4 Director Zbyněk Illek says Schreiber’s later work — in particular the extensive cowboy series — far surpasses them in artistic merit.“People are taking trips across the country just to see the Madonna nudes,” Illek says. “Of course these photos have freshened up our gallery’s program. But those who understand photography will prefer his other work [and] value his personal style.”In the moment  Born in Prague in 1946, Schreiber and his family fled the country to avoid communist repression, first heading to Brussels in 1948 before arriving in New York in 1952. His interest in photography began at a young age, but it wasn’t until Schreiber enlisted in the U.S. military in the mid-1960s and was stationed in Germany as a member of the intelligence corps that he learned the photo trade.After returning to the United States, Schreiber worked odd jobs while trying to establish himself as a freelance photographer before being asked to teach the Parsons course on nude photography in 1977.Although he enjoyed the benefits of the lucrative Playboy deal, Schreiber struggled to find work in New York and in 1989 moved to France. It was there, he says, that his photography career began to take off. He has since shot fashion, travel and lifestyle photos, as well as portraits for international publications and gallery exhibitions. He has also been sculpting regularly since 1980 and currently focuses on mixed-media presentations.Schreiber describes his work as “ironic, humorous and thought-provoking. It’s very Czech, actually.” He claims not to be inspired by any known photographers, instead naming artists such as Magritte and Dali as influences.“I’ve never copied anyone intentionally,” he says. “Creating a photograph is like cooking ... figuring out what ingredients work well together. You’re there, you’re in the moment. It’s spontaneous.”“You can see he’s really established a relationship with these people,” Illek says, referencing the cowboy series, in which Schreiber lived, ate and slept alongside his subjects.And what would Schreiber say to Madonna, who is currently touring Europe, if he saw her today?“I’d say, ‘Long time no see,’ ” he says with a laugh. “Actually, it’d be lovely to see her and speak to her, to catch up. I’ve always admired her drive.”


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