Netflix’s stunning eight-part docuseries, “Abstract: The Art of Design,” has started conversations about design around the world. We wanted to continue those conversations. In this editorial series, we sit down with some of the artists and designers featured in “Abstract” to go behind the scenes and gain a deeper view of their passions, their creative processes, and the role technology plays in their design.
Renowned photographer Platon has photographed some of the most influential people in the world. Today he focuses on storytelling to buoy humanitarian aid through his Peoples Portfolio 501(c)(3).
Platon says that during his early years he “was surrounded by a generation of young people who went on to change the world of graphic design,” but, he maintains, he wasn’t very good at it himself. Design, for Platon, fell into place when he was given a camera. Suddenly, “it all made sense.”
Self-portrait of Platon with George Lois. BY: PLATON
What was it like being asked to be part of a project like “Abstract?”
Because I opted out of design and instead did photography, I always had this feeling that I was a failed designer. So, here I am, standing on my own two feet again as a designer. It took 25 years to prove it to myself, but it was quite satisfying. It was a great thrill to be included amongst the best designers in the world.
How do you use technology in your work? How do you restrain, balance, or even liberate technology to enable your creativity?
When people look at my pictures, they see something that they recognize. It is something human and slightly irregular, and there is a bit of a surprise in there. That is because I used amazing technology, but I didn’t let it dominate me. I am very fortunate that I was one of the photographers who breached the chasm from the old ways of doing photography to the new. It has given me a visceral flavor in my work, and I know about tone and density and contrast in a way that I wouldn’t know if I was just dealing with the sliding scale in Photoshop.
Platon’s iconic portrait of President Barack Obama. BY: PLATON
For those “post-chasm” designers among us, tell us more about what you mean with regards to traditional photographic processes, aligned with the benefits of Photoshop.
I think it is really important to see it in your head first. If you just sit at that sliding scale, and everything is in front of you, but you don’t see it in your head first — then the equipment is dominating you. In the old days, in the photo-development darkroom, I used to cut masks out of bits of paper and lay them on glass over my print in the darkroom. That irregularity adds something human to it. If you just rely on all these clever techniques to do things quickly, there is a mechanical quality. We use Photoshop, but we are hand-drawing every mask. There is thought and care into it. Obviously it takes much longer, but it looks good because of it. Technology is at its finest when it is working hand-in-hand with human qualities.
This focus on using technology to celebrate the human condition is one of the reasons you became involved in “Abstract,” correct?
Well, I don’t belong in front of the camera. Let’s get that straight! But I was interested in how I could leverage this opportunity to get important messages out. People who normally go to this series to think about design and art and cool stuff, are now being exposed to issues like rape as a weapon of war. It’s one thing producing a beautiful show, but we were able to go further and actually turn this into a form of activism.
This image of dancing and singing women was captured on Platon’s trip to the Congo, featured in “Abstract.” BY: PLATON
What would be your advice then for designers and artists for finding the balance between technology, art, and humanity?
Technology exists to empower us to be human. I think that to enjoy the fruits of technology, we also have to be responsible. Human nature has two sides to it. The good and the bad. We all have elements of both. What makes us honorable and courageous human beings is not that we are born on one side of the moral compass or the other, it is that we have to battle with our own moral compass every day to keep ourselves on the right side of history. I think technology brings us incredible opportunity, but if you enjoy the empowerment of technology in any way, then you also have to acknowledge that with that empowerment comes responsibility.
I think Adobe is such an incredible platform. What you have done with Photoshop is extraordinary. I would encourage photographers to use that amazing technology, but they have to do it in a way that celebrates the human condition. The moment we sit back and allow technology to do most of our thinking — that is the moment we start to lose the whole point of technology. The most incredible uses of tools like Photoshop are not what everyone else is doing with Photoshop, but occur when you are looking at something completely different. Allow technology to push you to be unique and authentic.