Platon, the British photographer famous for his close-up portraits of world leaders, is using NFT photos of the human iris to show how humans can be reduced to a unique but unrecognizable image. He even did one self-portrait of his own iris — but, if placed in an iris lineup, he could not tell his own from anyone else’s.
Platon only uses one name – like Prince, he says.
His first human portrait reduction took place in June 2021, when he auctioned 12 anonymous irises as NFTs, each one priced at $111 on the LGND.art marketplace. People bidding for the NFTs, each a single mint, did not know whose iris NFT they were buying.
They were in for a pleasant surprise: It turns out they were bidding to purchase NFTs depicting the irises of Kobe Bryant, Harry Styles, Harvey Weinstein, James Comey, George Clooney, Donald Trump, Cara Delevingne, Bill Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Alicia Keys, Spike Lee, and Maria “Masha” Alyokhina. They all sold out but have remained static on the secondary market, as the holders appear to want hodl the strange art pieces.
Photographer to the stars
In a career littered with outstanding celebrity portraits, Platon is now consumed with human rights causes and is more concerned with and fulfilled by capturing the faces of activists. In 2008, he spent a year documenting civil rights leaders across America as part of a project commissioned by The New Yorker.
But, while his mission is now virtuous, his world leader and celebrity shoots are legendary; he used the camera to tell stories, posing often provocative or eclectic questions — that is his superpower.
For Platon, moving into NFTs was logical. “Photographers, artists, often innovate and seek out new technologies. We like to move into new space and experiment,” he says.
He now revels in his work documenting human rights, working on projects with the U.N. He has set up his own foundation, The People’s Portfolio, which amplifies the voices of the ignored. Important people don’t scare him — he doesn’t scare easily. He quotes Martin Luther King, who said “beware the illusion of supremacy.” The funds raised from these recent NFT drops go straight to this foundation.
Platon treats everyone the same. He doesn’t care if they are a human rights defender, an activist, a former political prisoner, or a head of state.
“They’re all people. Be nice. Be curious,” he says.
“My job is to be a cultural provocateur. When I saw NFTs, I understood this was a way for me, as an artist, to gain control over my work. To feel a sense of empowerment – there is a long history of artists losing control over their creative output through history. With NFTs, I could see we were cutting out the middlemen — we artists were going straight to the collectors. I got that.
“I also understood that, with NFTs, I wanted to put storytelling back into this new, exciting technology. It’s more than tech; it’s an opportunity to talk about the big issues we face in society — issues such as human rights, climate change, poverty, women’s rights, social inclusion, racial equality.
“When I saw the buzz about NFTs, I wondered if I could hijack some of that excitement and draw it towards important social issues.”
Platon’s first NFT was a portrait of Edward Snowden. He admits the vagaries of the world move in mysterious ways. In April, an auction of the Snowden NFT raised $5.5 million for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and then $5,000 for his own foundation.
Back to the beginning
Born in 1968, Platon studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He began working in London, earning his stripes as a photographer. Soon, he was accumulating portraits in his arresting style, which could be both authentic and dramatic, earning himself a name at British Vogue.
He did not realize it, but John F. Kennedy Jr. was scouting for a photographer to launch his new George magazine in New York. Kennedy picked out multiple of Platon’s portrait photographs in magazines and told his aides he wanted that photographer, without even knowing his name at that stage. Kennedy just knew he wanted a photographer to shoot people in a way that felt real. He had grown up inside the inner circle, but wanted to present people – politicians and celebrities – as real people. So, Platon was found and invited to New York based on his work.
It was 1995. The magazine’s tagline was “Not Just Politics As Usual” and neither were the images. Platon says:
“John told me we were working on a secret new project. He wanted to humanize the world’s most powerful people. He gave me access, he said I must always be respectful but he wanted me to produce real photography.”
When Kennedy was tragically killed in 1999, Platon was doing a cover story for him the same day. Platon had just landed in Hollywood when the FBI met him at the airport to tell him the news.
“I was by then rooted in the States but I had to continue without my mentor,” he says.
It’s 2000. President Bill Clinton is in the White House. Platon is commissioned by Esquire Magazine to do a formal shoot. Platon figures this might be the one and only time he shoots a living president (actually, he goes on to shoot six in his illustrious 30-year career).
Camera dangling from his hands like a James Dean cigarette, he asks, “Will you show me the love?”
Instant concern within the White House team — the impeachment trial over the Monica Lewinsky affair had concluded the year earlier. A hush descends, everyone looks aghast at Platon while an aide leans over and says, none too quietly, in Clinton’s ear, “That is not advisable, Mr. President. We’ve had enough love in this administration.” Instead, Clinton brushes him aside and says in his distinctive drawl, “Shut up, shut up, I know what he wants.”
The result is the famous crotch shot with Clinton sitting, hands on knees, legs akimbo, and oozing charisma and power. People said afterwards the tie was an arrow pointing to the seat of power.
Putin on the Beatles
Cut to President Vladimir Putin in Russia in 2007. He’s Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Platon is taking pictures. He thinks: What to ask this powerful man? So, he asked him about The Beatles. Turns out Putin really likes the Beatles, and Paul McCartney is his favorite member of the seminal band. Look at the resulting portrait of Putin and see him humming “Yesterday.” Not “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” laughs Platon.
It’s not just questions – it’s storytelling and a way of relating to his subjects. Platon has a son called Jude and a dog called Sgt. Pepper. Platon clearly likes The Beatles too.
A lifetime of photography has allowed Platon to tap into the authentic and look inside the heads of his subjects. Sometimes these subjects are the most powerful people in the world, sometimes people whose power has been taken from them, and sometimes people who are just ignored.
It’s the ignored who he obsesses over now. “It’s not that they don’t have a voice, it’s just that people are not listening,” he says.
In all Platon’s portraits, he is in them too. With Putin, he got so close he could feel Putin’s breath on his hands as he held the camera inches from his face.
“All my photography is 50% subject and 50% me,” he says.
He is dismissive of the constant taking of photographs and sharing on social media.
“That’s not photography, there is no connection. It’s just mechanical. We’ve been robbed of our connection and COVID has clearly highlighted that.”
Pussy Riot NFT
Putin famously hated the feminist punk band Pussy Riot and defended their imprisonment on the grounds that they threatened the moral foundations of Russia.
Platon first met Nadya Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot after her release from prison. Ten years ago, he photographed her in his studio. They messed about, fashioned homemade masks from rubbish in his studio. He photographed her in the masks and not. As we speak, he quotes from her speech on the dock prior to being sentenced to two years’ incarceration in a penal colony.
She said: “It’s not us three women from a punk rock group that’s on trial here. It’s you, the Russian Federation. it’s not for you to judge us. It’s for history to judge us all. And history will be the ultimate judge as to whether our values are right or wrong.”
He knew he wanted to combine this powerful speech with her iris in an NFT to celebrate her bravery.
Platon took her iris and coupled it with her reading her statement of reconciliation to create a unique NFT. The auction ran for seven days in September but, owing to the aforementioned vagaries of this world, this NFT did not sell. It’s not stopping Platon, though. He has many more irises and causes to celebrate and he’s planning multiple iris NFT drops in the future.
The trouble with Harvey
At the core of these drops is a story. Each iris tells a story. Each story asks a question.
Included in the first drop was filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, prior to the #MeToo movement.
“At the time the portrait was themed ‘bad boy Hollywood’. Now we know him to be a modern-day monster.
“What if I took away 90%, 95% of the picture. Just reduced it to the eye, the window to the soul, and even further reduced it to the iris. What can we see then? Can we even judge?”
Which brings us to the title of the drop – “Eye Love You, Eye Hate You II.”
“The eye is the most intimate part of the body; when we are in love, we look deeply into our partner’s eyes,” says Platon.
“If I strip away everything except the iris – can we love, can we hate? And if all our irises are indistinguishable, then who can judge?”