THE PLATT BROTHERS reflect on the everyday and the exceptional through photography, music and writing
A photojournalist, Spencer has earned several awards, including a World Press Photo of the Year. His work takes him around the world as he isolates moments of humanity in the chaos of international conflict and the emotional stillness that masks inner turmoil. Here, Patricia Smith, daughter of police officer Moira Smith, killed on 9-11, stands during a Ground Zero memorial in 2006.
On one of the hottest days last summer, Spencer Platt was in his airy Brooklyn apartment, considering how to impose order on two decades of images. Platt is a longtime staff photographer for the Getty agency, which supplies countless newspapers, magazines and websites with pictures from around the world. And though his job has taken him to dozens of countries, the politics of the moment directed his thoughts homeward. He had recently focused more on the U.S., compelled to document the vagaries of the Trump era and spend more time with his wife, the documentary filmmaker Erica Sashin, and their young daughter, Vivienne. Still, he said, “I shoot six days a week. It’s almost like an addiction.” He was writing a memoir and making arrangements for his first gallery show, “Fractured,” set to open, fittingly, in his hometown of Westport.
Beginning January 11, the Westport Arts Center (WAC) will exhibit three dozen pictures selected by Platt and Kenneth Baker, the curator and former art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. There is the award-winning shot of a Mini Cooper full of well-to-do Lebanese women being driven through Beirut, after Israel bombed the city. There is the World Trade Center, on 9/11, obscured by a fiery, horizontal cloud, just a mile from Spencer’s apartment at the time. There are everyday images, too—including one of sunbathers in Astoria, Queens, the woman in a leopard-print one-piece, the man in sea-green trunks. “I would classify myself as a street photographer,” Spencer said. His photographs are eclectic in time and space, but reflect a consistent ethos, even amid disaster: the timbre of ordinary lives, the mood on the sidewalk.
Platt’s exhibition is remarkable for another reason as well. When the photographs are hung, they will, in a sense, share the space with the work of his two older brothers, Alexander and Russell. Alexander, an accomplished orchestra conductor, is in his second season as WAC’s music director, curating the chamber-concert series that runs from September through May. He inherited the role from his twin brother, Russell, a composer who ran the series for a decade, from 2007 to 2017. Spencer’s photography show thus rounds out a sequential homecoming for the three Platts, whose diverse artistic careers were incubated in Greens Farms.
I became acquainted with the Platts in 2016, when I worked as a fact-checker at The New Yorker magazine. Russell was then in charge of the classical-music listings in “Goings On About Town,” where he wrote and edited essays and reviews—and, in his off hours, composed orchestral and chamber pieces. I soon learned about his twin, Alexander, who split the year between the Midwest (as maestro of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Philharmonic) and New York (as director of the Maverick Concerts series in Woodstock), and their photographer brother, Spencer, who was as likely to be on a flight to Gaza as riding his motorcycle to New Orleans. Russell also relayed stories about their father, Bernerd, a retired Time, Inc. executive who maintained the family home in Westport, and their mother, Leatrice, a sunny antiques dealer who had recently passed away.
SEE MORE: Westport Arts Center will host Spencer Platt’s first solo exhibition, “Fractured” (Jan. 11–Mar. 2). It will allow him “to recontextualize his incredible body of work, away from the news, to be viewed within an art space,” explains Executive Director Amanda Innes. “His work spans so many subjects and so many locations that curating a first exhibition is a daunting task.” It’s in good hands, as the show is co-curated by Platt and art critic Kenneth Baker. Find more information at westportartscenter.org.
Alexander, who attended Yale and King’s College Cambridge, has developed a career as a conductor and music director for multiple orchestras across the country. He also conducts and guest-conducts around the world, championing challenging masterpieces, modern works and unjustifiably neglected pieces with equal passion.
In late August, I visited Alexander and Bernerd on the porch of the gray-beige colonial the family has occupied since 1971. The Westport of that era, Bernerd said, “was known to be extremely liberal and artistic.” It was, to Alexander, a “zenith” of the culture established in 1920 by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. As a teenager, Alexander worked at Hay Day Country Market (now Balducci’s), where he once sold produce to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. On another occasion, he thrilled at the sight of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre outside Klein’s department store.
“Lenny” and his televised Young People’s Concerts had cast a spell on Alexander and Russell. One winter evening, Alexander recalled, the family was in the living room, watching Bernstein introduce Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. “My father said, ‘It’s so amazing the way he talks to you in this incredibly sophisticated way, but it never seems highfalutin,” Alexander said. “A little light went on inside—that’s what I want to do.” (The first concert of this year’s WAC series was a tribute to Bernstein, on the centenary of his birth, by the Bill Charlap Trio.) In the Westport schools, John Hanulik, the legendary band and orchestra teacher, introduced Alexander to the viola and Russell to the violin, and made classical music, as a profession, seem possible.
Alexander fell in love with conducting and has done it ever since. Why the switch from violist to maestro, I asked. “I dunno—egomania,” he joked. For the last decade, between orchestral jobs in the Midwest and curatorial duties in the tristate area, Alexander said, “I’ve been living out of a suitcase as an itinerant journeyman music director.” He is based in Chicago and Wisconsin but travels frequently to Westport and Woodstock.
ALEXANDER PLATT’S TOP-TEN LEONARD BERNSTEIN RECORDINGS TO FIND ON YOUTUBE
1. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
London Symphony Orchestra, London 1966
2. Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique,
French National Orchestra, Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Paris 1975
3. Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3,
Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Concert for Amnesty International, Munich 1975
4. Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Espansiva”
Royal Danish Orchestra, Odd Fellows Hall, Copenhagen 1965
5. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring,
London Symphony Orchestra, London 1966
6. Brahms: Symphony No. 1,
Israel Philharmonic, Tel Aviv 1972
7. Sibelius: Symphony No. 1,
Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna 1988
8. Brahms: Symphony No. 2,
Vienna Philharmonic, 1983
9. Cesar Franck: Symphony in D Minor,
French National Orchestra, Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Paris 1977
10. Mahler: The Song of the Earth,
Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Israel Philharmonic, Tel Aviv 1970
From 2000 to 2018, Russell was classical music critic and “Goings On About Town” editor at The New Yorker. He has since joined the faculty of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. He is also an award-winning composer whose recent commissions include a symphony and a piano trio.
His twin, Russell, was a fixture of New York City’s classical-music scene until last year. After nearly two decades at The New Yorker, he married his longtime partner, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, and joined him in the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee. Though Russell is now focused on teaching and writing music, as opposed to writing about music, his compositions continue to reflect a bookish sensibility. “Growing up in Westport, I had a sense that I was inheriting a New England literary tradition,” he said. Several of his compositions, including “Three Poems of Elizabeth Bishop” and “Whitman Cantata,” are expressly poetic.
The classical domain inhabited by Russell and Alexander did not appeal to Spencer, five years their junior. From an early age, Spencer was obsessed with adventure: he skateboarded, biked and skied. His friend at Staples High School, Tyler Hicks, pushed him to write and take pictures, and once convinced him, on a lark, to drive to Kentucky. “We both had a curiosity about the world,” Spencer said. “We were drinking and getting in trouble, but always documenting it.” (Hicks is now a photographer with The New York Times; Lynsey Addario, with whom they overlapped at Staples, had her own photography show at WAC in 2014.) By the end of high school, Spencer decided to become a photojournalist and all but moved into a basement darkroom installed by his grandfather. After college, he shot for daily newspapers in Ohio, Massachusetts and upstate New York before moving on to freelance magazine work and his current position with Getty.
In preparation for his show at WAC, and between trips to West Virginia and Rome, Spencer revisited the photographs of Ernst Haas, James Nachtwey, Robert Frank and Danny Lyon. His goal was to land the right mix of “beauty and major stories,” just as his heroes had. “Even though we live in this hyperpolitical world, I don’t want to bum people out. On the other hand, I feel responsibility as a photojournalist,” he said.
A book of black-and-white images by Haas sat on Spencer’s living room table, amid tawny leather chairs and weathered cabinets. Each piece of furniture was an antique collected by the late Leatrice Platt, whose sons so clearly inherited a love of beautiful things.
Travel Notes from the Border
“I have been doing this work for many years, and the experiences over the past week have been some of the hardest. TO SEE WHOLE FAMILIES LIVING IN SUCH A DESPERATE WAY IN THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET TO AMERICA IS REALLY HEARTBREAKING AND SOMETHING I THINK EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD WITNESS. It would certainly change the tone of the debate. In the end it’s my job—my only job since leaving college—so I have witnessed a number of hard situations. YOU HAVE TO YOU TELL YOURSELF THAT STRONG JOURNALISM WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE, OR SO ONE HOPES! Otherwise there is always a beer or a bottle of wine at day’s end.”
—Spencer Platt on assignment in Mexico, covering the caravan of migrants in 2018
E. Tammy Kim is a freelance magazine writer and former attorney. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation and The New York Review of Books. More at etkwrites.tumblr.com.