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These days, when bolder, brasher headlines spill across magazine covers in a split-second strugglbe to capture our Schadenfreude-tinted fancy, it's rare that a picture catches the public's eye the way the low-angled "crotch shot" of Bill Clinton did back in December 2000, when it appeared on the cover of Esquire. The photographer behind that notorious shot—the British-born and mono-monikered Platon—was granted only a few minutes with the then-president, in which he covered his assignment bases and then boldly asked: "Mr. President, can you show me the love?" The photograph was immediately dissected and discussed by Larry King, Bob Woodward, and a host of other media pundits and scribes. The reaction the photo received, Platon says, "said more about the media than it did about me and Clinton. It was a contemporary portrait of a contemporary president. I wasn't going to photograph him as a stuffy old guy who doesn't relate to the young people."
That playful attitude towards politics was primarily shaped by John F. Kennedy Jr.—who originally lured Platon to the United States to work on the now-defunct George—and it is stamped all over his forthcoming photography collection, Platon's Republic, due out in April from Phaidon Press. [CORRECTION: The book is now expected in June.] Part personal scrapbook, part cultural documentary, the book features the best of Platon's work, including, of course, the infamous Clinton portrait. Platon recently met with mb at his studio in lower Manhattan to discuss the culture of celebrity, the architecture of people, and the loneliness of the portrait photographer.
Hometown: London, England
Here in the studio, your book is spread out, taped up, on the wall. You have Al Pacino here and Manchester United there and George W. over there. Tell me about the arrangement you've created.
I call it channel surfing through contemporary culture. In America, there are so many channels and they're so terrible. One minute you have Pamela Anderson gossip, the next something on September 11th, the next you have the president, but it's all leveled out and one thing doesn't get more attention than the other. So this book is, as an Englishman in America, my experience of that, my regurgitation of that. I wanted to recreate that same feeling, that one isn't more important than the other. It's all mixed up because that's what it's like.
In a sense, are you asking readers to read the book as a story rather than looking at it as individual photos?
It's the way I saw the world, but I didn't want it to be shoved in your face as a statement. I wanted it to have a random quality, but once in a while I have built a little sequence of stories that, if someone's interested, they can read through. At the end of the book, there's this huge section of my memories of each shoot, what the people are like, and sometimes the sequence is explained. For instance, you have two mayors, Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg, contrasting against each other and then the next page is Billy's Topless, a bar that Giuliani's administration shut down. So it's both extremes of Manhattan.
I wanted to show what it's like to meet these people, what happens behind the scene. Like when you meet the President, what does it feel like? What's it like to come into contact with the sense of power, what do they talk about with their aides? What are the fashion people like, the neo-Nazi skinheads I spent a week with in North Carolina? I've photographed Giuliani about four times, so I've gotten to know him now. But when I was just beginning, I had no experience with someone very powerful. I remember he came out the first time with this huge grin on his face—his media grin—and I made the mistake of saying, "Mr. Mayor, are you sure you want to keep this grin? I think you'd look a lot more dignified if you looked a bit more serious." And he snapped back at me really quickly and said, "Listen, sonny, this is the way I am, this is me." So I shot him and then I realized that this is him, and it's wrong of me to push him into something he doesn't want to be. And the photo turned out to be very Giuliani.
The shot of Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, is of him yawning. He was uninterested in the shot and he was yawning all the way through it. I caught him yawning by accident, but that's what he was like on that day. He's not really interested in the media; he's interested in getting his job done. He's a businessman, he's not a showbiz personality. By putting him opposite Giuliani, it says a lot about the times we're in and it shows the differences in their personalities.
In an interview with Texas Monthly, you said, "As soon as you put people in a clinical environment, in a studio with one light and a white background, they tend to become very conservative."
They do. It's like going to the dentist. You sit there and there's this camera pointed in your face. People are at their best when they can be natural. And that's the hardest thing as a photographer. It's nothing really special, it's not important in terms of world events, but it is a big challenge to get the magic of someone. Normally there's this wall, so it's my job to break it down. I try to push that, but only where the person's prepared to play back. Some people are very playful, like Paul Smith. That shot was inspired by Yves Klein, who used to get his subjects to press their bodies up against the canvas, to get the subjects to make direct contact with the art. I wanted to break down the barrier between me and the sitter, so I got Paul Smith to hold onto the edge of the camera lens, so we're connecting physically.
In more difficult photos, like the ones of neo-Nazis, why would you put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation like that?
I owe a huge debt to John F. Kennedy Jr. for that. When I graduated from college, I was working for gritty magazines with no budget and we were reacting against the gloss of the American photographers, where everything was very glamorous and everything was perfectly retouched. Growing up in London, it was always raining, we were very poor, we never saw any celebrities. So I started shooting that way, and I became punchier with portraits. And Kennedy had this vision to show politics and media in a different way. He wanted to make it accessible, entertaining, less stuffy, less elitist—much more gritty and in your face.
Do you think George was a successful magazine in its day?
I don't think it was always successful. The magazine was criticized a lot and it wasn't always a creatively successful magazine, but it was an unusual one. It had a message that it's not just politics as usual. There are not many magazines that are playful with politics, there's a void there.
As a photographer, it was an amazing magazine. It gave me commissions that you very rarely get now. The first job I did was one where they sent me on a whirlwind tour around America documenting the 20 most fascinating men in America. I photographed Larry King, Mayor Giuliani, Marilyn Manson, and, because I was working for John, I got instant access. It was like a passport to the heart of American culture. As a young English guy, I was ignorant to a lot of it, so it was a great education.
Do you see any change in recent years in how the public views photography as the world becomes, arguably, more visual?
Well, they're confronted with more. There are so many magazines now it's overkill. It almost doesn't matter what magazine you read. They all put out the same information. The same celebrity is blitzed on five different covers every month. So you essentially buy one magazine and there's no reason to read the other four. I think we're all getting a bit punch drunk. The more you're bombarded with something, the less it means. There's so much pressure on art directors to put so much information down that a sense of good design has changed. It's more about practical design—how much information can you fit on the cover. It's not so much about whether the cover is a work of art. It's about have you gotten as many cover lines as possible. Now, in magazines, I have to compete with so many headlines. And that's fine, I'm very aware that it's not going on a gallery wall, it's serving a practical purpose. In the book, I had a chance to go back to that and to let the photography breathe.
Some of your photographs seem more like iconic symbols of the subject than like portraits, particularly the ones of George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
It's very intimidating to be photographed, but if I kneel down and chat with you, so you're looking down at me, it makes you feel less threatened. My father is an architect, so I often think like a designer or an architect. I remember when I was admiring buildings, I would look up at them and see this perspective and this awesome power of the monument in front of me. I guess it's natural to see these icons in the same way, the architecture of people.
Do art directors try to influence you, to make the portrait fit with their aesthetic or to make this or that person look like a celebrity?
I've reached a point where they know my work, so they know they're going to get a Platon photo. I understand the magazine wants some guarantee that it 's going to look a little bit like this or that. But to be honest, it's very difficult to go in with a preconceived idea. My best pictures are the ones where I had no idea it would look like this—just some magical moment where we were reacting against each other or with each other and we reached some middle ground. It's very difficult to control it without it looking very staged.
Isn't the fashion photography designed to look staged?
No. I've become very political with my fashion stuff, in the sense that I'm very aware of the damage the fashion industry has done to society, this idea of creating a dream that doesn't really exist. So I've started creating this new set of cultural heroes. My fashion pictures are a cross-section of everyday people—deliverymen, girl skateboarders. My idea is that when you look at a fashion story, you're presented with society's ideal. But wouldn't it be nice if you could look at a fashion story and say, "I know someone who looks just like that" or "I look just like that"? I can't do very much with photography, but where I can make a difference, I really try. It's wonderful to see some of my friends or people I've gotten to know in a giant 16-page story in Esquire. I'm trying to put a mirror up to society instead of holding up a picture that depresses us all.
You're a bit of a celebrity yourself, aren't you? Is it hard for you to reconcile that with this idea of the everyman?
I always wanted to be the underdog. For me, as a portrait photographer, it's the kiss of death to become well known. I did my best work when no one knew who I was. People weren't threatened by me because they didn't think I was a big deal. This book has started to change things. But you always want to leave your ego at the door.
Is that possible?
Sure. From the first shoot I did to the shoot I did a week ago with Jude Law, there's always this moment where it's all down to me. The bullshit goes out the window, the glamour goes out the window, and I've got to deliver. I've got to push myself to confront this person and confront them in a very truthful way. I go to this lonely place where I pace up and down, getting my head straight, checking that I'm focused on all my technical stuff, and opening my mind to be ready for anything this person's going to throw at me. After it's over, then the bullshit comes back and you can brag about it. But at the time, there's no room for that and [my subjects] would pick up on that. Why would they give me something, if I'm not giving anything to them? It's quite a painful thing to face each time.
You've photographed so many famous, accomplished people. What kind of advice have you gotten from them?
When I was shooting Karl Rove, I said to him, "Mr. Rove, I'm just a guy from England trying to make it in America. Can you give me any advice?" and he said to me, "Sonny, if you're shooting me, you've already made it."
Chris Gage, a production editor at John Wiley & Sons, is a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com.