Image in Progress
How I Became…ALBERT WATSON
By Emanuelle Cucuzza
An interview with the great Albert Watson, who tells us about the most important phases of his career, the difficulties, the goals and the desires of someone who reached the top.
Albert Watson has made his mark as one of the world’s most successful fashion and commercial photographers during the last four decades, while creating his own art along the way. Over the years, his striking images have appeared on more than 100 covers of Vogue around the world and been featured in countless other publications, from Rolling Stone to Time to Vibe _ many of the photographs iconic portraits of rock stars, rappers, actors and other celebrities. (Albert was the official Royal Photographer for Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson.) Albert also has created the photography for hundreds of successful advertising campaigns for major corporations, such as Prada, the Gap, Levi’s, Revlon and Chanel, and he has directed many TV commercials and shot dozens of posters for major Hollywood movies. All the while, Albert has spent much of his time working on personal projects, creating stunning images from his travels and interests, from Marrakech to Las Vegas to the Orkneys. Much of this work, along with his well-known portraits and fashion photographs, has been featured in museum and gallery shows worldwide. The photo industry bible, Photo District News, named Albert one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time. He has won numerous honors, including a Lucie Award, a Grammy Award, three Andys, and the Centenary Medal, a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Photographic Society. Born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, Albert studied graphic design at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, and $lm and television at the Royal College of Art in London. Though blind in one eye since birth, Albert studied photography as part of his curriculum. In 1970, he moved to the United States with his wife, Elizabeth, who got a job as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, where Albert began shooting photos, mostly as a hobby. Later that year, Albert was introduced to an art director at Max Factor, who ordered him his first test session, from which the company bought two shots. Albert’s distinctive style eventually caught the attention of American and European fashion magazines such as Mademoiselle, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar, and he began commuting between Los Angeles and New York. In 1975, Albert won a Grammy Award for the photography on the cover of the Mason Prostt album “Come and Gone,” and in 1976, he landed his first job for Vogue. With his move to New York that same year, his career took off. Despite the demands of his commissioned assignments, Albert devotes much of his time to extensive personal projects, and he has published I’ve books: “Cyclops” (1994, Bull$nch); “Maroc” (Rizzoli, 1998); “Albert Watson” (Phaidon, 2007); “Strip Search” (PQ Blackwell/Chronicle 2010); and “UFO: Unified Fashion Objectives” (PQ Blackwell/Abrams.) In addition, many catalogs of Albert’s photographs have been published in conjunction with museum and gallery shows. Since 2004, Albert has had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, Italy; the KunstHausWien in Vienna, Austria; the City Art Centre in Edinburgh; the FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium; the NRW Forum in Dusseldorf, Germany; the Forma Galleria in Milan; and Fotogra$ska in Stockholm, Sweden. Albert’s photographs have also been featured in many group shows at museums, including the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, the International Center of Photography in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany. His photographs are included in the permanent collections at the National Portrait Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Albert has always been a workaholic. !e archives at his studio in Manhattan are "lled with millions of images and negatives, on which world-famous magazines and companies can be read. His studio, also used as a personal gallery, is filled with extraordinarily large format photographs taken in Las Vegas. At first glance these landscapes, interiors and portraits take the viewer by surprise with their soft, "ltered range of colors. But even in his new creations, Albert stays true to himself. !e photographs create an aura that takes the viewer into the image but simultaneously demands a reverent distance. Albert’s visual language follows his own distinctive rules and concepts of quality. With their brilliance, urgency, even grandeur,
his photographs stand out so clearly against theworld of today’s images. His way of lighting subjects, especially the fetish objects and portraits, creates a nearly meditative atmosphere in the photographs. Without a doubt, Albert Watson is an artist who greatly enriches our perception with his unique photographic view. !ough the wide variety of his images reflects an effortless versatility, they are nevertheless identi"able as Albert Watson photographs by their sheer power and technical virtuosity _ whether it’s a portrait of a Las Vegas dominatrix or a close-up of King Tutankhamen’s sock. !is single-minded commitment to perfection has made Albert one of the world’s most sought-after photographers.
If you could divide your professional life in phases, what would be the most important milestone?
“One of the most important milestones for me was photographing Alfred Hitchcock. It was truly inspirational. I was a young photographer based in Los Angeles in the mid-‘70s, about to make the move to New York. My career was really starting to pick up, and this was an opportunity to do a major portrait of a celebrity for a major magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. !e resulting shot, of Hitchcock holding a dead goose, was a big success for me and led to many other great assignments. He was really the first celebrity I ever photographed.”
Based on your experience, what working relationships turned out to be more useful, those with photography agencies, magazines, or with managers of show business celebrities…?
“My relationships with magazines were the most useful because I learned so much about the business side of photography. Magazines were always challenging,
and you were always in competition with other photographers to do better. !at helped make me a better photographer.”
Have you ever had to fight something that might have been an obstacle to your career?
“Being successful in any job is challenging, of course, and presents its own obstacles. However, one of my main obstacles has been physical. I was born blind in my right eye and I’ve had to make adjustments throughout my life to compensate for that. I don’t think it’s really hurt me, and in some strange ways, it might have even helped because it made me more determined to succeed in a business that relies so heavily on the eyes. I called my "rst book “Cyclops” (Bull"nch/Callaway 1994) because I have sight in just one eye.”
How did your professional skills evolve from a technical point of view over the years?
“I realized early on the importance of technical profciency. It wasn’t particularly easy for me, but being more fluent technically opened doors creatively, and enabled me to concentrate on the more important aspects of photography.”
…and from a stylistic point of view?
“Having been trained as a graphic designer and then earning a master’s degree in "lm and television, along with a better technical pro"ciency, made me who I am today. You can see the in#uence in just about all of my photographs: !ey are either graphic, cinematic or a combination of the two. Over the years, my style has stayed fairly consistent in this regard.”
Beauty, portrait, fashion… is there any type of photo where you feel your creativity has a greater degree of freedom?
“I feel I have the a lot of freedom in fashion, and some of the best beauty shots came out of fashion shootings, such as some of the Kate Moss photographs. But, of course, I have the most freedom when working on my own projects, no matter the type of photography, such as my Las Vegas photographs, “Maroc,” or the recent series I shot in Benin, West Africa, for my museum show.”
In a perfect day for shooting one’s personal project, what would be your favorite location, light, equipment, subject?
“I don’t have one favorite. My ‘favorite’ is to mix it up, to have variety. If I’m shooting in the studio for three weeks, for example, I’m very happy after that to work outside
in natural light for a week. I like di$erent situations, so I never get stuck in a rut. Over the years, I’ve worked with all light sources, arti"cial and natural, and enjoyed the diversity. Same with my cameras. I still shoot about 90 percent on "lm, and I use everything from a Nikon to a Hasselblad to a Horseman View Camera.”
What is in your opinion the real luxury that comes with success for a photographer?
“The real luxury of success is the freedom it gives me with my work. I can be more selective in the projects I do, and I’m freed up to do more personal projects. I’m also lucky enough to live in a beautiful penthouse in New York.”
Your work allowed you to meet some of the most interesting people of these years: from top model Kate Moss and Hollywood stars such as Denzel Washington or film director Hitchcock… to such charismatic figures as Steve
Jobs and Rita Levi di Montalcini… Has any of them made an impression on you and what is the most important lesson that you learned?
“Many of the people I photographed have made an impression on me, from Hitchcock, to President Clinton, Michael Jackson, Queen Elizabeth II, 50 Cent, Steve Jobs, etc… there’s a common thread among many of them, and that’s charisma and power, even if it’s a quiet, more subtle form of it. !e one thing I realized early on when photographing celebrities was that you need to be well organized and prepared for the shoot. These are famous people who are very busy. They might not always arrive on time, but they certainly expect to finish on time.”