Thursday, December 3, 2009

Art of Portraiture

One the last things I did in Amsterdam was to visit the World Press Photo exhibition with Sulakshana in June last year. The World Press Photo is a worldwide photojournalism contest that was started by a Dutch group of photographers in 1956, which over the years has rewarded some of the most iconic images of our recent history. Think the baby with glassy eyes that embodies the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 or the lone man standing in front of tanks at the Tiananmen Square in 1989, they’ve all made it to the top of this contest.

The exhibition that I attended was of winners of 2007. One particular photo – the winner of the portraiture category – had us intrigued. It was a portrait of Vladimir Putin, which at first glance looked no more than his “mug shot” as Sulakshana elegantly put it. It was an intense close-up of Putin’s face against a light blue background that had appeared on the Times magazine cover. Of course, both of Sulakshana and I were photography novices so it was difficult to gauge on what grounds this portrait, and not the thousand others, won.

The reason became clear from the audio commentary by Platon, our alleged mug-shot taker, which accompanied the photograph. Platon first explained that it was probably the only portrait shot of Putin in existence. He is notoriously difficult to gain an interview with, and nobody before him had managed a personal one-on-one photo shoot. The Times magazine had initially been told that they would only be allowed to take Putin’s pictures as he was being interviewed for the article. The magazine’s request for a separate photo shoot had been denied. So essentially, Platon had few minutes after the interview to convince one of the most powerful and intimidating men in the world to sit for a photo shoot that he was reluctant over. And if he managed that – another few minutes to set up his camera, build a rapport with the famously cold president, and get a portrait that would do justice to both Putin’s stature and the Times cover.

And Platon achieved just that, and in style. The candour, ease and intimacy of that portrait is striking simply because the circumstances in which it was taken fought against those exact qualities. In that sense, the portrait deserved to win as much for what it told about Putin, as for what it didn’t tell about the difficult circumstances in which it was taken.

I was reminded of Putin’s portrait today because the latest issue of the New Yorker carries a slide show of portraits of world leaders taken by Platon recently during the UN summit. It is an amazing slice of history, of course. But the engaging audio commentary by Platon that accompanies each portrait also makes us understand and appreciate this difficult art much more.


The archive on the world press photo website is an amazing repository of world through the camera in the last 60 years. A definite must for journalism, photography and history lovers!

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