By Peter Turnley
I've always tried to look most every person I meet, every situation, and the world straight in the eye. In 2000, NEWSWEEK sent me to Russia to attempt to make a portrait of Vladimir Putin. It was a very difficult task which required lots of persistence, luck, and serendipity, but I did succeed in making what was at that time the first exclusive portrait of Putin since he had taken power. This photograph was never published, and to my knowledge has never been published—this is a type of absurd reality that I'm sure many photographers have experienced in their careers, and in many ways, it is one of the beautiful realities of photography—once a strong photograph is made, one way or the other it exists, and will, one day or another, see the light of day, and its visual and human power will be known. And, this is in many ways why I do what I do—it's what moves me, what motivates me, and what makes me dream.
With this image as an example, at a moment when Putin and Russia are now, 16 years later, so much at the center of a world storm in American politics and world affairs, by looking a man and a situation in the eyes, a photograph can offer everyone an opportunity to know maybe just a bit more, and help everyone, if not understand, at least feel something more than they knew or felt before. I must confess that I often find my own relationship with the world surreal—I have photographed Mandela, Castro, Gaddafi, Gorbachev, Arafat, Mubarak, Ceausescu, Yeltsin, Lady Diana, Clinton, Obama, Pope John Paul II, Assad, Mitterand, Thatcher, Blair, Muhammad Ali, Honnecker, Schroder, Kohl, Rabin, Reagan, Bush, and many others. Almost every day, something in the news of importance will take place, and I will find myself remembering a personal experience that was somehow very close to the center of the dynamic in question. With all of this, I feel a sense of pride and gratitude to feel very much alive. I hope to continue to always look the world straight in the eye, with my own eyes and, more importantly, my heart.
Friend-o'-TOP Peter Turnley is a lifelong photojournalist and former NEWSWEEK photographer who has been profiled by "60 Minutes" and has more than forty covers of the magazine to his credit. He was recently given a major retrospective at the leading art museum in Cuba. He has published many books, alone and with his twin brother David, including two bestselling photobooks of lyrical images of Paris. He lives in New York City and Paris.
Words and photograph ©2017 by Peter Turnley, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Ray Hunter: "What a rich character study (or study of a person hiding his character) in a single image. Looks like a still from a film based on one of John LeCarre's novels, which I mean as a compliment."
jlesalvignol: "This portrait is exceptional. Putin is already in the construction of his historical character. An expressionless face, a look that seems empty, vacant, focused somewhere behind the camera that he nevertheless looks at frontally. A mouth that is contemptuous—barely—to say: good, I am here without being here. The duty! But I am so far ahead already. And I think of this great exhibition in Paris 2006 in the Senate of the Republic: Titian, the Power on the Face. Three examples that lead us to that Putin by Peter: Doge of Venice Marcantonio Trevisan; Portrait of Pope Paul III; Portrait of Antonio Anselmi. And I'm forgetting Charles V...."
Mike replies: Excellent. I didn't think of Titian. The one who came to mind for me is Parmigianino. cf. this for example:
"Portrait of a Man" from about 1530. And perhaps this by Bronzino at the Met. But I think Peter's Putin is better than either of these...it seems oddly seraphic and faintly sinister at the same time, and I wonder if it was not too much of a "psychological portrait" to serve as a news photograph for the editors who commissioned it! It's closer to art than reportage, I think.
Ann Spear Borne: "'No one matters in this world but me.'"
Lynn: "I looked hard to find another world leader's portrait, both past and present, with a similar expression—without success. It seems to me that behind Putin's expression is all the sad history of the Russian Motherland. I also tried to think of other photographers who could have been capable of taking such a powerful and interesting portrait. Only one came immediately to mind: Jane Bown."
Frank Petronio: "Striking portrait of my second favorite world leader, kudos."
Omer: "I see a mask put on by a thug who is wholly inconsiderate of the consequences of his actions. And yes, contemptuous, suggesting a psychosis that makes him dangerous."
Chris Dematté: "No wonder that it was never published. Too close to a running gag of the Russian opposition:
Mike replies: ...And our visual antecedents cast a wider net!
Nigel: "I think the picture is made by the vestigial fallen halo formed by the rim of the military cap,behind him. While completely out of keeping with what we know about Putin, it adds a suggestion of soul (and vulnerability?) to what is normally an expression as soulless as that of a shark."
Mike replies: I agree, and if it does have that subliminal connotation then it matters that it is askew as well...perfect....