Albert Watson is one of the most respected photographers in fashion and fine art. His career has been marked by creating a seemingly endless supply of iconic images and a dedication to perfection in each of them.
By Mark Edward Harris, Photography By Albert Watson
The new book UFO is a retrospective of Albert Watson’s 40-plus-year career as a leading fashion photographer. Never one to be pigeonholed into one particular look or style, the book shows Watson’s incredible range, from edgy to sublime. His legendary attention to detail is evident in the collection of images. Above: Blumarine, Phoenix, Arizona, 1991.
SisQo photographed for Rolling Stone, 2000.
Anybody who has had the good fortune to be on an Albert Watson set has observed not only a master artist at work, but a master craftsman, as well. The New York-based photographer operates his 4x5 Horseman with the ease and speed of a 35mm and sculpts his Profoto lights and molds his subjects’ poses like Rodin. For one of his classic go-to setups, he’ll often inch in foam core to the edge of his frame to block any trace of light bouncing off a hot white background onto his subject and then use black foam core to create a dramatic contrast on the subject. He is of the conviction that if you don’t control the light, the light will control you.
The results of Watson’s photographic perfectionism are elegantly displayed in UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives), published by PQ Blackwell. The 40-year retrospective is a celebration of what can be achieved by a photographer who walks and speaks quietly and carries a big camera.
DPP: Where do your ideas come from?
Philip Johnson photographed for L’Uomo Vogue in New York City, 1994.
Albert Watson: I’ve read a lot of books and have a lot of reference material on the Dadaists from the ’30s. I love all of that kind of work. It has had a very big influence on me. In some ways, Dadaism was about not making sense. I’m Scottish and have a European background and art training—four years of graphic design and four years of film school. The Americans are very good at very focused things. Over the years, I’ve been drawn into landscapes, still lifes, personalities, fashion.
DPP: In some of your early commercial work, especially for Italian companies, you were able to express your photographic vision incorporating a variety of subject matter.
Watson: I also did quite a lot of fashion catalogs for the Italians that were avant-garde for the time. You had a lot of freedom when you did jobs for them. You could actually put a still life, a landscape, even a simple image of a man walking by a wall. You could actually include tons of pure photography in the catalog. When I started back in the early ’70s, one used to do catalog and editorial magazine work to get the big advertising jobs. That was the dream.
DPP: How do you balance creativity, time constraints and the commercial realities of a shoot?
Watson: That’s a conflict that we all have between art, your own work, your own style, commercial work and how to have integrity. I try to always hold on to my integrity, tooth and nail. The reality is, sometimes there are things that are unsalvageable. Clients come in the door, and you’d be better off just to light it up and go ahead and shoot. You just can’t turn every single thing into a fine-art, personal, intimate thing about yourself. With personalities, you’re always under the gun. You just have to do your best. Being Scottish, I want everybody to be happy with the results of a shoot, from the clients to the account supervisor. Therefore, I had an accommodating problem, and even though I’ve been here in the States since 1970, I still, to this day, have a bit of this problem where you want people to be happy with what you shoot.