Platon, who photographed the former president for the cover, discusses portraiture and creating the perfect image.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you get to spend with President Bush?
Platon: We were promised three minutes, and we ended up getting about fifteen. He was fantastic. I always try to generate a really fun and interesting sitting for people, so that they’re occupied, so that they’re distracted from the awkwardness of doing a shoot. It is always a little bit awkward; they don’t know me and they have this camera pointed in their face. Before any sitting, the person I’m shooting always says to an assistant, “Let’s just make sure this is cut as short as possible.” But once they get in, we start having a laugh and generate a good positive atmosphere, they’re great and it just rolls and rolls. I was lucky with Mr. Bush, and he was a very charming guy actually.
texasmonthly.com: Were you surprised by his personality?
Platon: I was. I was expecting the whole thing to be much more conservative. I think I’m lucky in that I’m English. I can get away with murder sometimes, but I do it with a sense of warmth, rather than sarcasm. I thought he was quite stylish. He was wearing a beautiful suit, which he told me was made in Savile Row, in London, the traditional area in London for everyone to get their suits handmade. And I kind of recognized the cut, it’s famous in English culture, and I was surprised to see a former American president wearing a Savile Row suit. I spent part of the sitting teaching him this Cockney rhyming slang, which is sort of a street talk in working-class London going back hundreds of years that the British still use. I said, “If you ever use any of these phrases when you meet dignitaries from England, they will love you straight away.” The first thing I taught him was the slang for “suit,” which is “whistle and flute.” He loved that, and when I asked him to sign my book at the end of the sitting, he wrote this lovely little message to me: “I’m very touched that you liked the whistle and flute. Yours truly, George Bush.” It was great!
I had the picture on the cover in my head for about three months, but I didn’t know where to place it. I was photographing Giuliani [for Esquire], and after the shoot, I kicked myself when this idea popped in my head—how wonderful it would be to have someone doing the peace sign. See, in England, that sign is V for victory, and originally comes from Churchill, because when Britain won—when Britain and America won the war—he was famous for having a cigar in one hand and doing the V for victory in the other hand. It was perfect when Texas Monthly asked me to take George Bush’s picture, better than anything else I could have planned. I didn’t think he’d do it, so I saved it for the last frame. I covered myself, got everything I felt I needed to get, and when the atmosphere was at its most fun, I asked him about Winston Churchill, kind of guiding him into this trap. I didn’t tell anybody about it because I didn’t want to jinx it, but I said, “Do you like Winston Churchill, Mr. President?” And he said, “I love Winston Churchill.” So I said, “Give me the victory V that he was famous for.” And without really thinking, he just did it. And I got two frames, one with him blinking, and the other one, the last frame, is the one that Texas Monthly is using. The very last frame of the whole shoot. When you’re doing a portrait of someone, you can’t really preconceive these things too much because everyone has a different personality. I had this idea in my head, but I couldn’t guarantee it would work until I met him and felt his personality. But I found he was a little bit cheeky, and he does have a sense of humor.
This turned out to be quite a serious idea as well, because to me it’s a clash of two cultures’ perspectives. He could be saying “victory,” because his son took over, and his family is still in power, and there was this feeling that finally they got their way with Saddam Hussein. The other way to look at it is as a peace sign, which is more the American approach—interesting because parts of Europe might look at what [George W.] Bush was doing as far from being a peace-driven policy. Then again, Bush himself might say this is all about world peace, about making this a safer world. So it can be read a lot of ways, depending on what your politics are, and that’s why I like it.
texasmonthly.com: That pose has a funny place with presidents, because it’s something Americans have become so used to seeing from our presidents in news footage.
Platon: That’s right. It’s a weird thing, because if you have politicians outside of a studio scenario, they’re often at a podium, or you’ll get them reaching in the air or very animated. But 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. It doesn’t matter who they are. I try to regenerate the atmosphere and vitality of the real world. And you can’t always do it. Sometimes you’re given so many restrictions with time, or the person you’re photographing isn’t interested at all, or he’s had a really bad day—there are so many variables. You can never assume it’s going to be easy. I always have to go in expecting that this is a question of survival for me, that everything is riding on this picture.
texasmonthly.com: Even with the experience you’ve gained and the reputation you’ve built for yourself, you still go into shoots with that fear?
Platon: Yeah, because you know what? It gets harder. I prefer being the underdog, going in where no one knows who I am. I set up my single light and I tape the background against their wall, and it’s all a bit hokey, and they walk in and say, “Who is this funny little English guy?” That’s what I want, because then they’re not intimidated by the set-up and the entourage. I can instantly get to their personalities. It’s becoming more and more difficult to be the underdog now, to be the one that no one’s ever heard of. People are starting to say, “Did you do that Clinton picture? Did you do that other picture?” Sometimes I deny it. I say, “No, no, that wasn’t me.” As a portrait photographer I believe it’s much better to be humble and leave my ego at the door. There’s no room in the studio for my ego and the ego of the person I’m photographing. If I’m humble and lay myself down to them, they won’t feel intimidated or threatened in any way. I just encourage them to be themselves.
texasmonthly.com: How much do you rely on your standard portrait-taking procedures, and how much of the process is tapping into each individual personality?
Platon: My lighting, my film, and the technical side of my photography never change, because I don’t want to put any energy into that while I’m on a shoot. I want to know it so well, like breathing and walking, it becomes automatic. That allows me to put 100 percent of my energy into the person’s character, mannerisms, gestures—all the things you would recognize in them when you see the picture. The last thing I want to be thinking is, “Should I change the lighting on this?” while the person is sitting there and I’ve got three to five minutes with them. I’m very observant with my subjects, picking up the things they do and say. When I started, I used to load the film myself on purpose, instead of having an assistant do it, because it causes the shoot to stop for a second, and then they relax and their hands start to move. Suddenly I start to see their mannerisms coming out, and it’s easier for me to go back and get it on film once I’ve allowed that to happen. It’s not like a manic “Shoot, shoot, shoot.” Otherwise you find you’re shooting ten rolls of the same picture. It’s important to create a window where you put the camera down and start talking about something that’s totally unrelated to them, something other than what they’re always quizzed on. I use my alien culture or the usual things I can throw at them to create an interesting twenty minutes. During that time is when they might smile or look to the side, and I’m looking at the way they behave. I feel my job is to make you feel like, when you see my pictures, this is what it’s like to meet this person.
texasmonthly.com: That strategy has produced some unique shots of people who we’re so accustomed to seeing only in a certain way.
Platon: That’s what I’m aiming for. I can’t always get it, I must admit. But I always do strive to give you an essence of what this person really is. It’s a really successful image when you get their personality, but you wouldn’t expect to see that. And I loved this picture on the cover so much because anyone who knows him will know that he does have a sense of humor and that he’s a tough guy as well. But it’s something you wouldn’t expect, that big hand giving the peace sign.
texasmonthly.com: The wide angle on that shot is one trademark of your work, along with the blue background and the halos around your subjects’ heads. How did you develop that shooting style?
Platon: The wide angle, the extreme sense of perspective I use, originally came from working with John F. Kennedy, Jr., and George magazine, because they were encouraging me to take politics and culture in America and show it in a new way that’s more accessible to everybody. Less stuffy, less elitist, more punchy. And I remember on my first sittings for George, I would be in awe of these people. One of the first I shot was Martin Scorsese, who’s a huge hero; as a young guy fresh out of college, I really looked up to him. In my work I try to reflect that these people are larger than life, and they are icons of their time. I saw them in this warped sense of perspective, and that’s how I related to them.
The blue background originally came out of sheer practicality—if you have a blue color scheme, it tends to make people look more flattering because it takes the blotchiness out of their skin. Often with politicians, they don’t have hair and makeup, and it’s not like a modeling situation where you’ve got two hours for that preparation. A lot of my techniques have come out of being practical with the limitations I had when I was starting out, and I got used to shooting with this blue color scheme whenever I shot in color. For me, it’s really not about showing a textbook of a hundred different techniques. I have a single voice, and I’m trying very hard to, if anything, strip it down. It’s a simple idea, it’s really about the people. It is my response to all these people, not me showing that I can shoot like this, and like this, and like this. It’s saying the opposite: This is the result of my meeting this person, how I felt about them, and what they gave back to me. I’m lucky, honored that 99 percent of the time people give so much. I regard my job as the best job in the world, to meet all these fascinating people and to try to learn a little bit of wisdom from them and capture the meeting on film.
texasmonthly.com: Do you learn much from the people you shoot?
Platon: I do. I’ve got this running joke—I ask everyone I photograph if they have any advice. They always sort of smile because it’s really a crap thing to ask someone. They ask, “Regarding what?” And I often say, “Anything, just something that I can walk away with that’s personal from you.” One of the best ones was Karl Rove, who I did for Texas Monthly. I said, “Mr. Rove, have you got any advice for me, I’m a young guy trying to make it in America, and obviously you’ve made it in America. What knowledge should I have?” And he leaned over, whispered in my ear, and said, “Listen, if you’re photographing me for Texas Monthly, you’ve already made it. You don’t need any advice.” He didn’t even hesitate. He has a wit, he’s so smart.
This is a fascinating job. It’s all based on psychology and trying to work out what people are insecure about and avoiding that area so that they feel more comfortable. It’s like a very, very fast chess game, because if I give in to them too much, it’s not a proper portrait, it’s just a pretty picture. I mean, I’m the photographer, and I’m the one who knows what looks right and what will be an interesting picture. So it’s a balance of trying to get my way, but doing it in a way that still shows respect for the sitters, not pushing them so far that they lose their dignity. It’s a fine balance, and a good picture is when you hit it fifty-fifty. If they walk in the room and I don’t help them come out of their shell, what they’re going to do is just put their hand on their chins and look sort of conservatively presidential. And any politician is going to do that first, so somehow I have to take it from that point to the other extreme in the last frame, where he’s doing the big peace sign and I get my way.