In 1860, Abraham Lincoln went to Cooper Union in New York to deliver the speech that would launch his national political career and help him secure the Republican presidential nomination.
But before the speech, Lincoln marked the occasion by stopping at the studio of portrait photographer Mathew Brady, and this photograph helped launch Lincoln toward the presidency.
Lincoln understood the power of the relatively new technology of photography. He sat for Brady many times during his presidency, and Brady's portraits are etched in our minds - and in our pockets: The portraits were used for engravings on the penny and the $5 bill.
Today's world leaders also understand the value of a good photographic portrait. So, in 2009, when photographer Platon (who goes by his first name alone) tried to cajole heads of state who were attending a United Nations meeting to sit for him, nearly 100 agreed.
The result was a stunning, multipage portfolio in The New Yorker, for whom Platon is a staff photographer. But now all the portraits have been collected in a book, "Power," and only here do you see the full impact of such an ambitious and unlikely project.
Platon's visual style is instantly recognizable: His portraits have an in-your-face quality. There is not a wasted millimeter in the composition, with high contrast and brilliant clarity.
The portraits in "Power" are mainly his signature tight head shots, and these are the most striking pictures in the book. The face, lifelike and almost life-size, fills the page, and for a moment it's just you and the subject, without filter. Although all portraits in the book are good (Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner radiates in a pomegranate suit), when Platon backs up to include more of the subject, the momentum slows slightly.
There are heroes, tyrants, revolutionaries and dictators. Thirty-seven-year-old Andry Rajoelina, who took control of Madagascar in a 2009 military coup, sports a boyish grin. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi offers a lascivious smirk. South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak is admirably coiffed. Every face piques your curiosity about how they achieved their rank.
It's the less virtuous who are the book's big draw. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, David Remnick observes in his terrific introduction, "is surreal, grotesque, as if he's been transported from a barstool in Star Wars." Vladimir Putin is locked in a leonine, baleful stare that more than hints at his effectiveness as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency. Worth special consideration is the chilling gaze of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. His vigorous appearance, despite his 87 years, will dishearten those who say the only way to deal with him is to wait him out.
Some of these portraits have earned Platon, a transplanted Brit of Greek and English heritage, coveted photography awards. But he attributes his success at accessing power to his people skills, and doing his homework. He told a BBC interviewer, "I'm really good with people. … Photography is, like, 3 percent of what I do."
The book itself, which was released this week online and is scheduled to be in stores in early June, is handsome and well-designed, and shows Platon's attention to detail. The gray linen hardcover binds pages edged in robin's egg blue, and the text is rendered in a typewriter font that has the look of an urgent communique. A gold ribbon bookmark saves your place, perhaps for the next time a coup is reported. Brief biographies at the end explain how the subjects came to power.
By capitalizing on this nexus of power over a few days in September 2009, Platon struck gold. It will be interesting to see if any of the results end up on actual currency.
Chronicle Books, 224 pages, $35
The naked faces of 'Power'
Photographer's portraits form a stunning gallery of world leaders
A Photo of Vladimir Putin From "Power" by Platon (May 10, 2011)