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When Stephen Colbert walked into Platon’s studio, he came face to face with one of the photographer’s most iconic images: Bill Clinton on the December 2000 cover of Esquire.

“[Colbert] looked at it and he came up with one of best lines I’ve ever heard about my work: ‘It looks like the Lincoln Memorial ready to party,’” the photographer says. “That’s Stephen Colbert at his finest.”

Platon has photographed hundreds of world leaders and celebrated actors but, he says, things were different with Colbert, who’s featured on the cover of this week’s issue of TIME. “Most people I photograph start off as playing themselves, playing an authentic person that gradually, as they become more successful, [becomes] a brand,” he says. “In many cases they are imprisoned by their brands. The brand overtakes the human being.”

With Colbert, this process has been turned on its head, as the comedian is still best known for the character he played on Comedy Central for many years. Now, as he gets ready to take the reins at the Late Show on CBS, he is dismantling that brand and becoming more of an authentic person on television. “It’s going in the opposite direction than most people, and I find that very interesting,” says Platon. “My role here was to celebrate that moment where I’m not photographing the Colbert character, I’m photographing Stephen Colbert the human being.”

Platon photographing Stephen Colbert at his studio. (Cory Vanderploeg)
Platon photographing Stephen Colbert at his studio.
Cory Vanderploeg

That moment was an exciting one for the photographer, who was also given unprecedented access backstage as Colbert’s staff prepared for the show’s Sept. 8 start. “I saw the sets being built in the theater as they are transforming it and building it around his persona. It’s his universe,” says Platon. “I had access to the writers’ room as well. I sat through the whole process of how you create one of the most successful TV shows. It’s all about construction. You’ve got a physical construction with all the carpenters literally building the stage. And behind the scenes, in the writers’ room, there’s also construction. There’s sawdust everywhere — in real and in conceptual form.”

Platon is a portrait photographer based in New York City.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.

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