Power Play: Platon
Most people know Platon by his headshots. He is known for what seems to be very basic lighting setups. If you just glance through his shots, they can look very similar – most of his portraits are taken head on, most with a wide angle lens and most have a crisp, almost hyperreal quality to them. What he is good at, however, is capturing the essence of a person… their character… who they are. He needs just a few moments with someone and somehow is able to get on film (and it is film) what most people never see.
Platon was born Platon Antoniou in 1968 to a British mother and a Greek father. He lived in the Greek Isles until the age of seven when his family moved to London where he grew up. He went to St. Martin’s School of Art and graduated in 1992 with honors in Graphic Design. He says, “Through graphics, I discovered my love for photography. I still think of photography as a form of design, dealing with positive and negative space on a page, but most importantly, adding in the human element. A good photograph has all these elements successfully working together.” While still a student, Platon’s eye for what works earned him British Vogue’s “Best up-and-coming Photographer” award, which offered him the chance to contribute several images to the magazine.
In 1995, just three years after graduation, he was recruited by John F. Kennedy, Jr. to shoot for the now defunct George magazine. He worked for them for a few years before coming to New York, where he would spend the next 10 years shooting for a range of publications, including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. Platon became most well-known, however, after doing a portrait of President Clinton. He was commissioned by Esquire magazine commissioned him to for this portrait. He was told to take something serious, none of his “usual” stuff, no wide angle lens, no dramatic lighting. They wanted something very dignified. He says he was given eight minutes. They closed down an entire hotel and there were about 30 people in the room. President Clinton walked in and Platon shot for seven and a half minutes. During the last 30 seconds, he says he thought, “Screw it. This is the moment where you step up. Where you were told not to do something, but your heart is saying, Alright, I need to express myself here as an artist. And against all opposition, I thought: Screw it, man, how many times am I going to be in front of the President again? I owe it to myself to do a Platon picture. So I put on my usual lens and I said to him, Mr. President, will you show me the love?” Everyone in the room gasped. “Clinton told everybody to shut up and he knew what I wanted and he put his hands on his knees and he gave me the Clinton magic.” Platon said it took him 10 seconds to take that shot. Afterward, he was absolutely shocked at all of the controversy surrounding the picture. He watched Bob Woodward on Larry King dissect the shot in ways that had never even crossed his mind. King devoted an entire hour to it. He said he never thought it was sexual at all…that is just the way he shoots everyone, that’s his point of view.
From a technical standpoint, Platon has his “look” down; he knows exactly what he wants. His objective is to get the character of the person to show in the photograph and this is what he excels at. When photographing Ozzy and Sharon Osborne he got some wonderful shots of the two of them together. During the shoot Sharon left the room for a moment, so he took the opportunity to ask Ozzy to just think about how he felt about his wife and he caught a moment that was real and honest that most people never get to see.
This past September, Platon set up a tiny studio off the floor of the General Assembly of the United Nations when nearly all the world’s leaders were there for a meeting. He tried to get as many of them as possible in front of his camera. He was there for five days and was able to capture 50 portraits including Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and Muammar Qaddafi. Photographing these important and powerful people can be very intimidating. Platon talks about harnessing his nerves into creativity and getting the shot he wants. It can be very frightening to shoot heads of state, rock stars, presidents, and nerves can paralyze you. He says he finds “a way of taking all this tension and pressure and putting it in a useful way into the picture.”
With all of the well-known people he shoots it wouldn’t be surprising to find Platon to be very egotistical. He doesn’t seem to be though. His first goal is to see a person as a person. In whatever time he is given he tries to find a moment of connection. He says he never goes in to a shoot “assuming someone is going to have to come into my world.” He says, “It’s always me that’s the humble one. I’m trying to reach them. So you start from scratch every single time.” His interest is in the human condition… it doesn’t matter who the person is. Every person is fascinating.
Although Platon is known for his portraits of well-known people, I believe his most powerful shots are the ones taken in 2008 for The New Yorker. He followed hundreds of men and women serving in the military. He followed them from their training to their deployment to Iraq or Afganhistan and back home again… wherever they ended up. These portraits are some of the most emotionally powerful shot he’s taken. Each one tells an intimate, personal story that allows us as viewers to connect with the subjects.
This is what I love about Platon’s photos. He may use a similar setup with a similar lens and similar lighting for each portrait, but like he has said, “It’s the human condition that captures my energy” and, to me, that makes every photograph he takes unique. He is able to do what few photographers can – get inside each person to show us who they really are.