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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Platon goes behind the scenes with Serena Williams, Prince and more

    Last month, the mononymous photographer Platon released his new book, “The Defenders: Heroes of the Fight for Global Human Rights,” accompanied by an exhibition at UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles on view through May 25. As its title suggests, “The Defenders” features portraits of human rights activists from across the world.

    Platon made a name for himself as a portrait artist capable of finding stark moments of intimacy with some of the most recognizable figures in the world. The worn, white apple box that he brings to each of his shoots has been sat on by Putin and Pussy Riot, by Obama and Edward Snowden, by celebrities and refugees.

    We spoke with Platon from his home in New Canaan, Conn., where he lives with his wife, two children and dog Sgt. Pepper, about some of the most arresting images he’s captured during his decades-long career. Platon shared some of his memories from those shoots. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

    - - -

    50 Cent

    We always go to the eyes first. So if you take the eyes away, then you’re drawn somewhere else. Suddenly, his hands become evidence of his character. There was something in his nail, and it’s a very intimate moment. One hand is sort of being protective. That’s not the kind of intimacy that you normally get with someone like 50 Cent.

    - - -

    Sinead O’Connor

    Sometimes the most courageous people are the most vulnerable behind the scenes. In fact, it’s their vulnerability that drives them to be strong and fight for a cause. It took a little bit of time for her to settle, but soon enough the cigarettes start smoking, her body language starts to relax. It’s a fine, perfect line between someone who’s vulnerable and someone who’s strong. She was drinking a can of Coke and she put the cigarette on top of the can. I kept it. I have a lot of things that people have left behind like David Beckham’s socks, Pamela Anderson’s flag and Pussy Riot’s masks. One day when I’m gone, there’ll be a little museum of celebrity leave-behinds.

    - - -

    Cate Blanchett

    She arrived from Australia, straight off the plane. That is a long journey, man. There was no hesitation. She walked into the room, sat down on the apple box, performed this extraordinary diva-esque elegance and the shoot was over in about 15 minutes. She just said, “Did you get it?” I said, “Oh, yeah, I got it.” She said, “Then we’re good” and then she walked off. That’s celebrity at its best for me.

    - - -

    Robert De Niro

    He invited me to photograph him in his father’s painting studio. His dad had passed away and he had kept his dad’s studio in New York exactly as it was the day he died. De Niro told me it’s a place he goes to for quiet solace. I said to him, “Tell me about what life means to you.” And he says, “What goes up must come down, what goes down must come up. That’s it.”

    - - -


    I photographed him backstage in Nashville. He’s about to go on in front of 20,000 people. I’m literally underneath the stage and they’re all screaming, “Prince! Prince!” I was supposed to photograph him in the morning for sound check, but he was eight-and-a-half hours late. I took a few pictures and then I said to him, “Prince, you’re a mystical guy. Tell me the meaning of life.” He put his arm around me, put his hand in his lapel pocket, took something out, put it in my hand and that was the end of the shot. He walked on the stage and the crowd erupted. I look down and I’m holding a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. The next morning, I was flying back home on a plane. I got to the center page and there was his guitar pick wedged inside. And on the pick it said, “Prince, with love always.” I thought about that pick when he died. It’s such a sad ending to such a great artist and it happens all the time. Maybe they give so much love that there’s a hole left and it’s not replenished.

    - - -


    Adele had recently had a baby, so she brought her baby on set. She gently placed the baby between her feet so I could get a few seconds of portrait. For a moment she was trying to be the pop star in front of my camera, and then her baby started to squeeze her ankle and her face completely transforms. What I caught was the soul of a young mother. You could say it’s vulnerable. I don’t think it’s vulnerable. I think it’s very powerful.

    - - -

    Muhammad Ali

    It was one of the last photo shoots he ever did before he passed away. He had lost control of his fists that were once most powerful because of Parkinson’s. But when he felt me drape the flag over his shoulders, he was compelled one last time to start to lift his hands up. His wife was standing just off the set, going crazy with emotion because it was so beautiful to see his defiance come back for a few moments. Afterward, I sat at his feet while he watched an Elvis movie, playing dominoes with him. I scored a point and I remember he gave me a really mean look in his eyes and made this growl that I’d beat him for just a second. And then he took me again and he won.

    - - -

    Stephen Hawking

    Like Ali, he was very ill. There was only one muscle, I was told, that still worked and that was underneath his eye. So his team of scientists built this little sensor attached to his glasses and with that sensor, he moves a cursor on his laptop to choose a letter, choose a word, choose a sentence. His nurse stepped in and said, “Look, the muscles in his eyes are hurting from typing. I’m going to replace everything with dark sunglasses to rest his eyes.” She made the picture, because suddenly there’s this guy kicking back in his chair and he’s wearing sunglasses and he looks like some kind of badass hero of hope. If the people I photographed turn out to be heroes or villains, that has nothing to do with whether the picture is valid anymore. Even if the story changes, you see the new story in that same picture. [Note: Hawking was revealed to have visited Jeffrey Epstein’s Little St. James Island but was never charged with any crime.]

    - - -

    Serena Williams

    The day before the shoot she shocked the world by losing the biggest tennis tournament of her life [at the 2015 U.S. Open]. She was gutted, she was drained, emotionally weak from her loss. You can see it in her body language. I caught a sweetness in her that you don’t normally catch. I think we look beautiful when we lose, because we’re reminded of the cycle of life. When we’re victorious, we’re not always at our best to me. I asked her, “Where do you go from here?” and she whispered, “Don’t you worry. Tomorrow I’ll be back on court training. I’ll come back as a champ, I promise.” That’s exactly what she did.

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