Platon, 44, has photographed leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates
Lois, 81, created a series of groundbreaking covers for Esquire in the 1960s.
Platon: With all the technology, with the way we absorb information today, is a single image as important as it used to be?
George Lois: It must be. Otherwise, I should commit suicide.
P: But I don’t think people are absorbing. We’re communicating better in many ways. Technology is allowing people to communicate when they’re not allowed to by the government. What we’ve seen in the Arab Spring is incredible. What we’re seeing in Russia is incredible. But we’re communicating worse in other ways.
GL: Tina Brown once said to me, "The problem is, there are so many magazines out there. You go to the newsstand and there are 200 things and the competition is overwhelming." But truly great images make all the other millions of images you look at unimportant. You gotta look at an image and understand it in a nanosecond.
P: A simple idea can get people talking and tap into what it means to be alive in a certain time. When I did the Putin picture for Time, a lot of people in Russia criticized it, saying that I’d glamorized him—the media, for instance, who have really suffered under Putin’s reign. A lot of his supporters criticized me, saying that I made him look like a Cold War relic—mean and cold. It’s the same picture, but it stimulates debate.
GL: When I had Andy Warhol drowning in soup, it was funny. A lot of people looked at it and said I had him drowning in his own fame. Some people said it was the end of pop art. Other people say it’s an iconic celebration of pop art. Well, okay.
P: But magazines today keep producing covers that aren’t connecting with anybody.
GL: You know, you can be cautious, or you can be creative, but you can’t be a cautious creative. It’s impossible. When I did the Esquire covers, I had never done a cover in my life. Did I think I could do great covers? It’s just another mass communication problem. Do you have confidence when you shoot somebody that you’re gonna reach their motherfucking soul?
GL: Sure you do!
P: Sometimes. When I’m photographing Putin or Ahmadinejad, it’s very lonely. I might have incredible help technically, but at that point, it’s just me and that person. I tap into my Greek side, which is pure heart. I cannot think like an intellectual at all, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to take the shot. All his advisers are saying to me, "Whatever you do, don’t make him look mean. Don’t make him look sexy. Don’t make him look human. Don’t make him look anything that’s real, apart from our brand." My heart says: "This is a human being, and I’m going to get his spirit." It’s my confidence against their confidence.
GL: You’ve got to have superhuman confidence. That doesn’t mean you’re cocky.
P: I have insecurities—we all do. Remember when I spoke to you recently, I was going through a brief moment of self-doubt. I said, "George, what do I need?" And you just looked at me and said, "Courage."
GL: In professional work—certainly in the arts and graphics—99% of people have zero courage. They blow with the wind.
P: That’s the best thing anyone has ever said, because I can take that and apply it to my life and so can anybody else.
GL: The people who need the courage are the real innovative thinkers. The more innovative you are, the more you shake people up.
P: So, how do you feel about the future? Where are we? Where do we go?
GL: The whole area of creativity is constipated and frightened.
P: I once photographed the civil-rights heroes of our time, including one of the Greensboro Four, who did the original sit-in. I asked him, "How did you do that?" It broke all the rules to walk into the Woolworth’s and sit at the counter. He said, "Don’t wait for the masses to start a revolution."
GL: They had to do what they had to do.
P: It’s no choice.
GL: They had to walk into the Woolworth’s. It’s courage. I run into young people who have good jobs, big jobs, and they’re all pompous. But when you talk to them separately, they say, "God, why can’t we do work like you did back then?" And they explain the way they eat shit all day. They tell you: "I have to give into this, I have to give into that." And I say, "You just told me you’ll never be great. You will never join the pantheon of the great. Ever."
A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.