In 2000, Esquire commissioned portraiture expert Platon Antoniou—professionally known by his first name, Platon—to photograph outgoing POTUS, Bill Clinton. The result was the above shot—which subsequently revealed more about the psyche of much the viewing public than it did about this country’s 42nd President. We recently spoke with Platon, and he shared the story behind the photo, which we found interesting enough to share with you.
It was his last official portrait as President. And it was a big deal that the magazine got him to pose for me. It was my first President so I was clearly in the deep end. And they said to me, “Right, Platon, we want a nice dignified headshot of our President looking very slick, very warm and friendly. And don’t do any of that weird wide angle stuff—whatever you do, don’t use that lens,” they said. They gave me eight minutes. They closed down a 200 room hotel just to do the picture because he was on tour somewhere. It was insane. Eventually, he walks in the room after this big buildup. I spent seven-and-a-half minutes doing the pictures for the magazine and then I thought, Screw it. This is the moment where you step up. Where you were told not to do something, but your heart is saying, Alright, I need to express myself here as an artist. And against all opposition, I thought: Screw it, man, how many times am I going to be in front of the President again? I owe it myself to do a Platon picture. So I put on my usual lens and I said to him, “Mr. President, will you show me the love?” and everyone in the room gasped in horror, because it was about thirty people in the room—all his White House aides, the drivers, security—and they all were like, Oh no. Whatever you do, whatever this guy’s after, don’t give it to him! And Clinton told everybody to shut up and he knew what I wanted and he put his hands on his knees and he gave me the Clinton magic. It was like ten seconds to do that picture. He was a new generation of Presidents at the time—he was a rock n’ roll President—and I was a new generation of photographers because I hated that stuffy portraiture with a hand on the chin and everything that the establishment wanted. I hated that. I want something much more punk rock. So you put us together and that’s what you’re going to get.
But, of course I had no idea it would offend so many people and create this crazy controversy. Bob Woodward from The Washington Post made these terrible accusations on Larry King [Live]. Larry King dedicated a whole hour to it—they were analyzing it on TV as my wife and I watched it in horror one night, and Larry King said, “Tonight we’re talking about this,” and he held up my picture. He said, “This is disgusting. This is an outrage to be showing our President in this sordid way.” And Bob Woodward starts analyzing the picture, saying the tie is an arrow pointing to his penis, his legs are splayed to present his crotch to us, his hands are big to grope you, and he’s smiling in a way to say I got away with it. And I was just dumbfounded that people read into something in this way and, to me, it said something really sick about all the people that criticized the picture for being sexual. Because I never thought it was sexual at all. I shoot everyone like this. This is what I do, this is my point of view. But it was the time when everyone wanted to believe one thing and no matter what you present them with, they’ll sort of transpose it into their realm, and that’s they way the media operates. But in the end, it’s all good. If I can stimulate debate, if I can get people to think about the times they’re living in through a picture, then that’s something that I’ve achieved.
I had just a few seconds and you’re operating like a deer in headlights. When you come into contact with the Presidency, it is a big deal—especially if it’s the first time. I remember looking out the window and seeing the twenty-car motorcade arrive and [hearing] people’s screams outside, all the crowds and my heart was just pounding against my ribs. I was thinking, Oh my God. There’s just me here to do a portrait of this guy and there’s all this: a closed down hotel, twenty vehicles—they probably flew in on Air Force One, for all I knew. It’s very intimidating, and any artist in that position has to find a way of controlling your nerves and channeling that nervous energy into something that is useful. Otherwise, your nerves destroy your state of mind and you can’t operate. It chokes you. So you have to learn to find a way of taking all this tension and pressure and putting it in a useful way into the picture. And that’s what I’ve done. And I’ve done it the same with [everyone]. Musicians are the same. That’s just a challenging situation every time. You can’t take people for granted. You can’t assume anything. I never go in thinking, Alright, I’ve photographed over a hundred world leaders, I’ve achieved a few things in my time—but I never go in to a shoot assuming that someone is going to have to come into my world. It’s always me that’s the humble one. I’m trying to reach them. So you start from scratch every single time.