No Slowing Down: The peripatetic master of celebrity, portrait, still life, fashion and landscape photography is still in constant motion after 40 years, always in search of the next arresting image
Most photographers quickly settle into a specialty, one genre or subject of photography that they are especially good at and for which they become well known. We don't expect people to be good at a lot of things. We expect professionals to specialize and focus their efforts in one direction.
Albert Watson, however, makes no effort to meet those expectations. Watson is a man of enormous accomplishments. Though he is perhaps mostly known for his iconic celebrity portraits and fashion photography, he also excels in still life, landscape, reportage, erotica and beauty. What sets him apart is that he does all of it exceptionally well.
Watson photographed couture collections in Paris and Milan for over 25 years and more than 100 covers for Vogue internationally, along with shoots for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Time, Details, and countless others. He has also provided well-known imagery for Hollywood movie posters and countless major ad campaigns for companies such as Prada, Armani, Chanel and Levi's. He has published at least 10 photo books or catalogs over the last two decades, and holds major museum and gallery shows worldwide. His fine-art work now makes up the bulk of his business; in 2011 alone, more than $1.3 million worth of his editioned fine-art prints were sold.
In a career spanning more than 40 years, he continues to cast his eye and his interest in many directions, all with a matter-of-fact manner that downplays his extraordinary talent. And that's what's so refreshing about Watson: Photography is just what he does, and he can't do it any other way.
"I learned to become a professional photographer out in L.A., and in L.A. you do a little bit of everything," Watson says. "You do a little bit of landscape, a little bit of architecture, you do some car photography, some fashion, some beauty, a nude … and, strangely enough, I've held onto that."
Since photographing Alfred Hitchcock in 1973 for Harper's Bazaar, Watson has been one of the best celebrity portraitists in the business. One of his jumbo-sized editioned prints of model Kate Moss sold for more than $100,000 at a Christie's auction in 2007. His portraits of people such as Keith Richards, Clint Eastwood, Uma Thurman and Steve Jobs have reached iconic status.
Once a subject is in front of his camera, Watson feels that his job is not only to capture an accurate likeness, but to discover an aspect of the subject's real personality.
"I think it's very nice that you try to capture something of the soul of the person," Watson says.
"American Indians never liked the idea of somebody taking their picture because that took some of their soul, but I think there's something quite nice in that because I think it does in a way. What's important is memorability.… That's why I think that a lot of my photography has worked very well with celebrities — because it made them look important."
All in the timing
One of the main reasons Watson is so successful at portraiture and fashion shoots is his own sense of time management. He feels this is essential for a photographer.
Last year, Watson was preparing an exhibit of his work at Fotografiska in Stockholm, Sweden, when he was contacted by a local photographer who needed to photograph him for an upcoming magazine article. Watson agreed, but warned the photographer that he might have to wait a few hours until he was free. The photographer waited around, watching Watson work on the exhibit, until Watson was ready.
"I asked him, 'What would you like?' And then he said, 'I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do yet,'" Watson recalls. "So I said, 'Let me give you a word of advice: You've been here two and a half hours, and that should be enough time for you to look around this place, and you should have some kind of idea.'"
This level of organization extends to all areas of preparation, even things that don't seem obvious. "I was photographing Al Pacino once, and we brought in a special espresso machine with a particular kind of coffee that we knew he liked," Watson says. "So when Al Pacino came in, he was astounded that there was a coffee machine there that was the same one that he had with his favorite coffee, which was a Sicilian blend."
Catering to the precise dietary needs of his famous subjects can come with some pitfalls, however. "There's no point in doing burgers for lunch if you're dealing with a vegetarian," he says. "You can check all that out."
Watson and his assistants also consider other aspects of a subject's environment for a shoot, such as bringing flowers to the dressing room for female clients or researching the person's musical tastes. But the most valuable commodity to consider is always the amount of time it takes to complete the shoot.
"It's important that you're technically prepared and ready to go," he says, "because the thing that will win a celebrity over is to say, 'Well, you've given me an hour, but I think I can have you out in 45 minutes.' Then celebrities will just fall in love with you."
Becoming a photographer
Albert Watson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1942. Edinburgh was and still is a major center for the arts in the United Kingdom, and Watson grew up appreciating the many opportunities the city offered him.
"Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world," he says. "A lot of people are quite shocked as to how beautiful it is. And there's always an arts festival going on there, so when I was a young guy, 10 or 11 years old … it always felt kind of buzzy and international with a lot of visitors. It felt very good."
Encouraging his early interests, his parents enrolled him, at the age of 4, in the arts-based Rudolph Steiner School in Edinburgh, where he studied until he was 12. "That had a fairly big impact on me," he says. "Everything they taught was art-related. So when you were being taught mathematics, they were doing it with drawings and color. English was done the same way. This was a very formative experience."
Though he considered majoring in mathematics for a while, Watson decided on a degree in graphic design when he went to university at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee (now known as Dundee University), where he took his first photography class.
Watson has been blind in one eye since birth, but it's never held him back in any way. "The minute I got hold of photography, I was very interested in it, and immediately I began using photography in my graphics," he says. "So basically I ended up with a degree in graphic design, and my crash subject was photography."
He followed up these studies with a master's degree in film and television production from the Royal College of Art in London. There, he was a classmate of notable artists, such as film director Tony Scott, brother of director Ridley Scott.
In 1970, Watson's wife, Elizabeth, got a job teaching in Los Angeles, so they both moved to the United States. To pass the time and maybe pick up some extra money, Watson took up photography again, and spent his days practicing the skills he needed to become a working photographer. In a display of tenacity and drive, Watson went from nothing to having his own studio with major clients such as Max Factor, GQ and Harper's Bazaar in just three years. By 1976, he moved to New York to set up a studio there and also landed his first job with Vogue.
Watson has never slowed down since. At one time, in his first decade as a photographer, it wasn't unusual for him to schedule three shoots in three cities in a single day, involving two or more international flights. Even today, Watson routinely puts in 12- to 15-hour days and sometimes more, even though he'll turn 70 later this year. "I would hope that all photographers who are deeply passionate about photography would want to be working all the time," he says. "Life's too short. If you discover that you love photography, why not shoot?"
Lighting the scene
The graphic design and motion picture education Watson received in Dundee and London has had an enormous impact on the look of his photography. In many ways, those years are the foundation for his current success.
"If you look at all of the stuff that I do, basically you can divide it into three categories," he explains. "It's either graphic and pure concept, or it's a shot that's more cinematic and more akin to a movie still, as some of the fashion shootings. Or it's a combination of the two, a cinematic shot that's also graphic."
Like most successful photographers, Watson has found that the key to a good image is the lighting. But the idea of relying on one style of lighting has never held much appeal for him, especially when it comes to the diffused lighting from soft boxes and shoot-through umbrellas.
"I get bored with the soft box. There's nothing wrong with them, but after a while the photographs all look the same," he says. "It was much more interesting to one day use a soft box, one day use a raw strobe head, one day use a bounce system. I think it makes you a better photographer if you learn to light."
His film and TV studies also aided his other career track: TV commercials, where lighting is calibrated not just for larger scale but for continuous movement.
"Still photographers can, for the most part, light like cinematographers," Watson says. "But when you work with cinematographers — and I've done more than 100 TV commercials — you learn something from them [about] lighting a set."
Printing as a life skill
Often one of the first tasks to be outsourced when a photographer goes professional is printing. But for many photographers, including Watson, who is a master of the photographic print, the magic of seeing an image come up in the developer for the first time is one of the key reasons they became interested in photography in the first place.
"One thing that was very, very beneficial, something to this day that I never gave up, was the printmaking aspect of photography," he says. "I would be quite happy to be in a darkroom for 18 hours. I love the process."
Separating printing from the rest of photography just doesn't make sense to Watson. Printing, he says, is part of a continuous stream that starts when the photographer plans the image, snaps the shutter and creates the final image. And no one is better qualified to determine that final print than the photographer who made the image.
"To me, there's no such thing as a really good printer unless it's the photographer himself," Watson explains. "When you print, very often you make a print by instinct. When you take the picture, you might see something kind of bright and overexposed, but in the end maybe you make an accidental print that's dark and moody, and you go, 'Wow, that looks fabulous.' But who's going to say that in the lab? Nobody.
"My feeling is, if you look at photographers like [Richard] Avedon and Helmut Newton, they didn't print their own things," he continues. "And if you ever see a big exhibition from these two, you can tell this because every print has almost the same identical look to it. But if you go to an exhibition of Irving Penn's prints, there's a certain variation in the pulse of the prints, and that's because Penn did his own printing."
While all his prints are made in-house, Watson streamlines the digital process for himself by using a staff of people to prep images before he sees them. "If it's a beauty shot for a magazine and the girl happens to have a cold sore, well, that would automatically be taken out by the people here before I get near the print," he says. "So therefore, a lot of the groundwork for that basic flat print — kind of a boring print, a straightforward print — all of that preparation is done for me before I sit down. And actually at that point I can work very quickly."
He is quick to emphasize, however, that no print or final image goes out of his studio without his personal hand on it. "I always allocate a certain amount of time to do the printing," he says. "A lot of the time the initial preparation of the file is made by my staff, so then I can go through and edit and finish them."
Working the system
Ever since he launched his career, Watson has made good use of the resources that are available to commercial photographers in terms of equipment and, more importantly, support people. Getting through any shoot is a matter of having the right preparation and the right personnel. This is the way he learned how things are done in New York City, and he has taken these lessons to heart and applied them wherever he works.
"New York is so highly competitive that it makes you very efficient and well organized, and you always operate professionally. So if I go into a country like Benin, I'm going in there and I have three assistants and a digi-tech, and I have an archivist with me," he says. "It's not just me wandering around with a Leica. There is a certain escalation in a sense that the commercial side of New York gives your work a certain type of approach and finish, and it's not casual."
His very recent project in West Africa is a good example of how Watson works. His assignment was to travel around Benin and take photographs that document the country and its people, much as photographer Paul Strand did in nearby Ghana in the early 1960s. Photos from the project, funded by the Aid by Trade Foundation, with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be shown as part of Watson's major retrospective at the Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg, Germany, in September.
"I shot for 21 days at 12 hours a day, and on the 22nd day I came back, which is a pretty tough schedule in a country like Benin," he recalls. "It was pretty exhausting, and some of the crew got sick. It was difficult for them, because we had no choice but to shoot. You couldn't just say, 'Take two days off.' We had too much to do."
When Watson is working, most of his attention is focused on getting the shot at hand and then figuring out the next one. Yet he also tries to remain open to all the photographic possibilities. "My feeling, when I'm in a place like [Benin], is that when I get up in the morning and walk outside the door, there's something to photograph," he says. "Our hotel was very basic, but I even did a series of pictures in my hotel room at night, because I found the hotel so nice. To me, there was always something to shoot, and I would drive around and look at something and say, 'That's interesting.' I don't overanalyze things. If it's interesting, I shoot it."
In talking to Albert Watson, it becomes obvious that, even after decades of hard work crafting beautiful images that nearly vibrate with energy and emotion, he can't seem to wrap his head around the fact that photographers around the world admire him and his photographs.
Not long ago, while giving a talk to several hundred photographers, Watson posed a question to them: "Why is it that you're so enthusiastic? What is it about my work?" A man in his mid-20s raised his hand and said, "Because photographers know how difficult it is to do what you've done."
Watson says, "It was the best compliment that I ever got in my life, you know?"
After returning from Benin, Watson plunged into work — poring through image files and finalizing prints to prepare for this September's Deichtorhallen Museum retrospective. He followed up the 12-hour days in Benin with even longer days in his studio, his time broken up by shoots and other projects. Work goes on, and Watson is happy for the chance to follow his passion.
When asked if he plans to maintain his busy schedule, his response is quick and clear: "Oh yeah, of course. I don't know what else I would do."
IN THE LOUPE: Albert Watson
Home/studio: New York City
Published books: "Strip Search: Las Vegas" (2010); "UFO: Unified Fashion Objectives" (2010); "Albert Watson" (2007); "Maroc" (1998); "Cyclops" (1994)
Recent awards/honors: Platinum Award for 2011, Graphis; The Centenary Medal, The Royal Photographic Society, 2010; named one of the 20 Most Influential Photographers of All Time, Photo District News, 2010; inducted into the Scottish Fashion Awards Hall of Fame, 2006; Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Advertising Photography, 2006; Grammy Award for Mason Profitt album, "Come and Gone," 1975 ; three Andy Awards, the Advertising Club of New York
Personal projects: Las Vegas, Morocco, the Orkney Islands
Preferred equipment: Horseman 4x5 camera with a midrange series of lenses ("it's held together with gaffer's tape," he says); Hasselblad digital cameras with P-65 or P-80 backs and normal to telephoto lenses (60m, 120mm, 180mm and 250mm lenses)
Pet peeves: "Sometimes the thing with photography, especially for male photographers, is that there's a great danger in it. People get sucked into photography because the thing that they're fascinated with is the equipment, cameras and what they do, and not making photographs. And of course when digital came along with computers, it was a match made in heaven for some of those guys."
Hobbies: Real estate. "I like to fantasize that I'm a good woodworker, like if I make something, but I'm not, unfortunately, and it's one of the saddest things," Watson adds. "Usually when you enjoy something, you're good at it. In my case, I was not."
Advice to aspiring photographers: "For young photographers, I would recommend a soft box strongly, because when he [or she] is getting started … a soft box is always going to produce a nice image, meaning a nice quality of light — especially if you get the soft box at the right distance, then it can produce a nice quality. As time goes on, they should be a little bit more adventurous."