Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Emdashes is thrilled to extend its impressive list of august Festival reporters. Trained as a doctor, Jenny Blair has twice been recognized by the National Headliner Awards for Special Column on One Subject for "First Opinion," a column in the Hartford Courant describing her experiences in medicine. This is her first piece of writing for Emdashes—and, we hope, not her last.—Martin Schneider

Jenny Blair writes:

Any artist who lies awake wondering if his labors make any difference in the world ought to talk to Platon, the London-born portrait photographer. In his photography master class on the Festival's last day, there was little technical talk.* Instead, in a series of fascinating anecdotes, the master revealed how he builds rapport with his subjects, then elicits portraits so powerful that one of them may have changed the course of a presidential election.

Platon's technique is to disarm. A short man with a cheerful accent and goofy smile, he wore a bowler hat and stripy shirt and said right away that he finds New Yorker staffers intimidatingly brilliant. He lost few opportunities to denigrate his own intelligence and education. Yet by the end of the lecture it was clear that his lack of pretense is key to his mastery.

Take, for example, his reaction to the convolutions required to meet Vladimir Putin in person. (Platon caught the icy-eyed Putin for the cover of Time's 2007 Person of the Year issue.) The photographer waited for days to be summoned, then, upon getting out of the car at the dacha, saw his own chest bespeckled with laser sights from gunmen. He narrowly avoided unplugging the nuke phone in Putin's office while setting up his equipment. Yet he gave the startled dictator a near-suicidal hug in a room full of bodyguards upon learning that Putin, too, adored the Beatles.

Christopher Walken required some indulgence. He arrived at the studio and proceeded to rummage aimlessly through cupboards, then posed with his back turned and insisted on being called to before each shot. "Chris!" Platon would say obligingly, whereupon Walken would whirl to face the camera. This game went on for take after take.

Such disingenuous interactions are Platon's stock in trade. "Mr. So-and-So," he likes to say, "you're so successful and have been working/singing/writing for so long. Do you have any advice?" (Neil Young: "If you follow your heart as an artist, you're never wrong." Karl Rove: "If you're photographing me, you've already made it.") He described crouching to move beneath his subjects' level when necessary. It all works: They unfold their arms and legs; they lean forward. Intuition like that is its own form of intelligence.

But he failed, Platon said, with Heath Ledger. No amount of cajoling could put Ledger at ease, and the photographer went home frustrated. Looking now at a portrait from that session, taken a year before Ledger's death, Platon said, "You can see the confusion in his eyes."

A photo in his New Yorker series of service personnel gave rise to his best story. A tender portrait of a mother at the grave of her son, an American serviceman and Purple Heart honoree killed in action, stood out because the soldier had been Muslim. A Koran leaned against the headstone, which carried a crescent and an Arabic name. Platon told the audience that Colin Powell, enraged by false accusations about Obama's religion and the implied insult to Islam--a religion espoused by some soldiers who die for our country--cited that photo as a reason for his endorsement of Obama, just days before the election. There may not be a better reason to take a picture.

* Though he did reveal his preference for film cameras (medium-format Hasselblad and 35 mm Leica). "Digital," he opined, "is shit."


A typically elegant effort from one of my favorite writers. Great to see you on Emdashes, Jenny.

Great piece, Jenny! I hope you write more pieces for Emdashes soon!

Jenny-Nice job. If only more people really understood what this country is all about. Keep up the good work.

Michael ReiterOctober 25, 2009

Nice piece, Jenny. Great to see you here. I believe he uses a Hasselblad SWC, a special fixed-lens camera with a fairly wide-angle lens and close focusing distance. (I’ve wanted one for years.) At least some of what constitutes the signature look of his portraits is a product of that particular camera and his unusual lighting.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree