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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Albert Watson : Calm On The Set

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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

John Travolta photographed for Entertainment Weekly in New York City, 1994.
DPP: Isn’t that the reality in any of the arts when you’re doing it for a living?

Watson: There’s a certain point that one is a commercial photographer. I certainly have the ability to go at two things at the same time. If someone calls me up with a hard-core commercial job and says, “You start at 9 and finish at 5, and the job is $50,000,” of course, I’m going to do it. I can do a day like that right now, and it’s no skin off my nose. I don’t have a nervous breakdown because of it, because I know what it is. I’m providing a function. I’m changing a washer on a faucet. But you better believe when I fix it, it’s not going to be leaking the next day.

I enjoy commercial work. I love when a photographer is given a problem and he solves it. I find it a very interesting thing. I understand that a lot of photographers don’t want to deal with that, and it’s their right, it’s their choice. But I think it’s very nice that someone takes on a challenge—“Can you solve this problem?”—and then solves it.

DPP: You’ve talked in the past about, not a wardrobe malfunction, but a wardrobe issue you had with Diana Ross that needed problem-solving.

Watson: Diana Ross came in with a plain, very high-top tank top on. It was kind of baggy, and she wore it out. I was a little puzzled by what she had chosen to wear for the session. She asked me what was wrong, and I said, “Oh, nothing’s wrong, but do you think that we could make this a little sexier?” She turned around, tied it, and then turned back and said, “You mean like this?” Suddenly there were breasts. When you shoot people with a 4x5, you can see flaws, but she’s remarkable. She was in her 50s, but I didn’t have to do any retouching on her face at all.

Lisa Kaufmann photographed for Italian Vogue, Carlo Tivoli, Paris, 1986.

Monica Bellucci photographed for Io Donna, Morocco, 1998.

DPP: You’ve produced more than a hundred Vogue covers and have had your images grace the covers of countless other magazines. What’s the secret to making a striking cover image?

Gabrielle Reece photographed for Italian Vogue, Paris, 1989.
Watson: Strong graphics and eye contact. If you don’t have eye contact, the graphics have to be even more high-powered. But you just don’t concentrate on the eyes. You watch people. You watch people’s hands. They’re as expressive as the face. I’m watching people all the time. I’m looking at my subject 360 degrees and how the light looks on them from all angles. My favorite way to light—and I light a hundred different ways using projected strobes, tungsten and so on—is to have a single key light on a large scissor system where my light is flexible so I’m not dealing with a stand. I can pull it up, down, sideways, so the light becomes flexible.

You have to divorce yourself from the person for a few seconds and really concentrate on the light. A lot of times, people start to chat with their subjects, “How are you? This is going to be easy. Don’t worry about it....” At some point, you have to put nothing else in your brain except what the light is doing to that person. Wipe your mind clean. I’m not a techie. I’m someone who is familiar with equipment. If I want to, for example, shoot out on the street at night, I need to have the knowledge to be able to do it.

When I’m working, I’m like a surgeon. My studio in New York is kept in pristine condition. We have a metro trolley loaded with drawers containing everything I need, from Windex®, water spritzers and screwdrivers to lighter fluid and lens tissues. The sides are loaded with every kind of tape.

DPP: You often create a series of images rather than going after one frame. What does this approach do for you and your work?


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