From the Glass Archive: Greats of photography – Albert, the Pragmatic
Albert Watson, named as one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time alongside icons such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, talks to Glass about the power of charisma and finding his true passion
ALBERT Watson has just come back from Benin, Africa. When I speak to him, it’s not hard to imagine the 70-year-old photographer examining the country’s vast landscapes, traditions and people, all whilst dressed in the protection of his signature all-black clothes, beret and a pair of rounded glasses carefully arranged over his sharp eyes. In the land of voodoo and dusty roads that prove a challenge even for the most experienced, Watson is looking for that perfect shot, something simple but extraordinary. This time he’s on a project for the Bill Gates Foundation, which aims to encourage Africans to start their own businesses – an assignment that will be revealed as part of a huge Watson retrospective in Hamburg.
When he speaks, Watson has the kind of manner to be expected from a noted perfectionist – clear, poised and concise, it’s the kind of voice that can demand and redirect emotions from the people that he photographs.
Watson’s life and work is punctuated with such stories. Born and raised in Edinburgh, the son of a physical education teacher and a boxer, Watson was born blind in one eye, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing a will to give the world a deeper gaze. It all began with a classic European education at the Rudolf Steiner School. Then after working as an assistant scientist for the Air Ministry, and at Duncan’s chocolate factory in Edinburgh, he went on to study graphics at the Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. After this he enrolled in cinema and television studies at the Royal College of Arts in London in the mid-60s, a time of vibrant artistic and musical development. But it was a move to the United States in 1969, following his wife Elizabeth as she took up a teaching post in California, that would finally provide the catalyst for Watson’s photographic career.
Over 40 years later, with more than 100 Vogue covers, numerous commissions from the likes of Rolling Stone, Time and Vibe, successful advertising campaigns and TV commercials for clients such as Prada, Levi’s and Chanel, countless museum shows, awards, and five astonishing books, it’s safe to say that most of us have already experienced firsthand the intense energy that permeates Watson’s work. From the disparate landscapes of Scotland and Morocco to a pensive Keith Richards clouded by cigarette smoke, a Las Vegas dominatrix or a transfixed Andy Warhol holding a beach ball, the back of Mike Tyson gleaming with sweat after a workout, the harmonious features of Christy Turlington, the slick moves of Michael Jackson, or pharaoh Tutankhamun’s socks, even the movie posters for Kill Bill and Memoirs of a Geisha – you name it, he’s done it.
Here Watson tells us how it all started, “Well, there was a very old camera in our family, a box camera, which was a kind of very primitive one,” he remembers, “basically it really looked just like a box. I didn’t know where it was, ever, and recently, just after my mother’s death, I actually found the original little canvas case with the camera in it, and so it was very nice to kind of get it back, in a way. Officially it wasn’t mine. It is mine now but it belonged to my father. I think the camera is from the 1920s, but I enjoyed finding it again because I remember the first time I used it and I still have some pictures I took with it.
“I was very lucky because I was trained as a graphic designer and as part of the graphic design course, I took photography as a craft subject, and the minute I got a hold of it, for my 21st birthday, my wife got me a camera. After I qualified as a graphic designer, I went to film school so a lot of times when you look at my work now, it should be a combination of graphics and cinema put together. And the other thing I’ve always done, right from the beginning, I’ve always been a printmaker, so I’ve always been in control of my own prints.
“Of course, I’m looking at movies all the time. I’ve seen, you know, movies … sometimes as many as ten or twelve a week! And I directed a lot of TV commercials, hundreds of them. So the film aspect, or the storytelling, has an effect on still photography, on the way of seeing things and thinking about that other layer, and how a picture can become stronger because it has more depth of interest. A lot of that comes from film, and the shots become more cinematic.
“The very first real famous person I photographed was Alfred Hitchcock and it was really my favourite in a way because after I finished that shooting it actually gave me great confidence for the future. So in a way … that is not my best portrait, there are better portraits, but for me it was very good for my confidence and the picture was very successful for me.
“The original commission for that photograph came from Harper’s Bazaar magazine in New York, and the idea for the story, because it was the Christmas issue and Alfred Hitchcock was a gourmet cook, was to have him give his recipe for goose to the magazine. And there is this expression in English that you might know, the expression says, “you cook your own goose”, which in other words means you get yourself into trouble, and the magazine article I was illustrating was called ‘Alfred Hitchcock cooks his own goose’. And that is why, if you look closely in that shot, you see there are Christmas decorations around the goose’s neck, because I wanted to make sure that you knew that it was Christmas.”
I ask Watson whether he thinks he has earned the titles of “perfectionist” and “workaholic”. “I think sometimes you’re always looking for perfection”, he explains, “and of course a lot of times you do your best not to compromise, but you always have to remember … I mean, when I’m pointing out something in a picture to younger photographers, I am sometimes pointing out, you know, a mistake, and of course the young photographer will always say, ‘why didn’t you fix it at the time, why didn’t you correct it, if you knew it was a mistake?’ The one thing you always have to remember is that when you’re photographing people, there’s a certain point when you lose the intensity and the concentration of the person that you are photographing.
“So if you spend too much time doing the lightning, doing the shot, and it goes on and on and on, it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes … if there’s somebody sitting there, and they’re there for 45 minutes or nearly an hour, you always have to remember that it’s a real person sitting there. Sometimes you have to just say, ok, I’m going to take the picture now. If not, you can destroy the energy of the person by just having them sit there for too long while you look for that perfection, so sometimes there is a slight compromise. In still life in a way it doesn’t matter, if you’re photographing an apple it doesn’t matter how long the apple is sitting there obviously, so therefore in still life you can really truly spend more time, you know, and very often a still life shot, a very simple one, can take all day.
“I think you’re always saying … I mean, I think I have an expression, which is very ordinary, which is when I just go “that looks pretty good”, but you’re always hoping that the next picture is going to be even better, so you’re always looking for something that is more powerful, that is more charismatic and more special, and that’s part of the driving force of what you do, if you’re passionate about photography. You’ll find the trouble with some photographers is they get sucked into photography because they love the camera equipment, and especially men are guilty of this, but of course it should never really be about the equipment. If you’re a good photographer you can take, or you should be able to take, a good photo with your iPhone …
“Sometimes the fashion people had a lot of difficulty with me because sometimes the photography was so strong that it would overpower the fashion imagery and the fashion sensibility, so that was definitely an advantage and a disadvantage for me. The disadvantage first, was that sometimes the image didn’t look so fashionable at the time, but ten years later the picture suddenly looked very powerful because of the amount of weight that was in the original picture, the graphic, the lightning, etc. So the advantage is that, with time, my fashion photography actually, in my opinion, looks better now than it did when I took it.”
Which brings us to Kate Moss. Watson did a series of nudes of her in a naturally lit rooftop in Marrakesh when she was very young. One of these pictures was sold in November 2011 at a Bonham’s auction for £16,250 ($25,580). Did Albert ever imagine that Moss, then at the beginning of her career, would become such a big phenomenon, and that shot of her would become so iconic? “No, not really,” he confesses, “but back then she was of course very young … but she was hardworking. On the particular day that I did that picture, I worked with her all day, the whole day, and she never mentioned, until the very end, that it was her (18th) birthday. So she was quite happy to work for ten hours, and then mentioned it was her birthday, you know.
“Once again, it’s a very good example of what we’ve talked about before, I think it was such a strong photograph that it was above being a fashion picture: it became a photograph, and of course that’s ultimately what I was looking for. It’s the same thing, I would say, with the Steve Jobs portrait. With that portrait, you didn’t particularly think at the time that it was going to become so iconic, but of course the media made that shot and Apple made that shot very iconic by making it the photograph that announced his death, and then of course they used the photograph on the cover of the book. So you don’t always know it at the time, but you’re always looking for iconic photography, I mean I am anyway.
“I think photographers now are more influenced by the past, you know”, he explains. “They look at photographers from the ’60s and ’70s and they become influenced by those times and interested in them style wise. I think digital, especially with retouching, had a big effect, and also the input from others. If you’re there photographing and you’re working digitally, of course hairdresser, make-up artist, stylist and editors, they’re all looking at the final image almost immediately on the screen, so therefore because of the way things are done today, the digital finish, the cleanliness and the retouching, the polish, the finish, the colour … with everything that is possible now, sometimes that can cover up, in the end, rather ordinary photographs. I think they (the new generation of photographers) need to be very careful about how they use computers, so they don’t overly use them, because there is a tendency right now for pictures to become too artificial.
“I think (photographers) should always be looking for intensity and power. I mean, I don’t know any great photography that is not powerful in some way or another – even sometimes a snapshot can have a sense of power, or mystery, or spontaneity, but it should always have a characteristic, some characteristic. You know, charisma is a very difficult thing – you don’t quite know why something is charismatic and that’s what makes it very interesting. Sometimes it’s very difficult to see why that picture is so powerful and sometimes it’s just there because it has some mystery and a quality, a soul to it.
“The greatest power of photography is how it can communicate. Sometimes something can appear very straightforward in front of you but suddenly, if it’s a good photograph, and once again going back to the charisma, it can force people to look at that something very ordinary in a different way, and very often photography has this power of changing your perception of things. That’s why photography is so popular today, because it’s a great communicator and because there is no nonsense about it. It is what it is, it’s a photograph that has been taken and therefore a lot of times the average person can relate to it.”
I ask Watson if photographers ever retire, or if they are always looking for something. “I don’t know why photographers don’t retire. I think they just keep on going…” he says, “I remember I bumped into someone who was then working for Irving Penn, so I asked how he was, and they said ‘Oh, he only likes to work now three days a week’. And then at that point, I said, ‘But he is 91!’ So I think for some reason photographers don’t really ever retire, for some reason I don’t know. I can’t imagine retiring at all though, not taking some pictures, even if just for fun … there will be always something to photograph.”
by Nicola Kavanagh
All images courtesy: Albert Watson
From the Glass Archive – Issue 9 – Hope
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