Albert Watson : Calm On The Set

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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.

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 4×5 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.

SisQo photographed for Rolling Stone, 2000.

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.

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.

Philip Johnson photographed for L’Uomo Vogue in New York City, 1994.

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.

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.

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.

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

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 4×5, 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.

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?

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.

Gabrielle Reece photographed for Italian Vogue, Paris, 1989.

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?

Malcolm X Fashion Story photographed for The Face, New York City, 1992. Watson was hired to do a Malcolm X-inspired fashion shoot featuring several big-name designers. True to his methodical style, Watson researched Malcolm X’s life and assassination. To keep the confrontational look, he had the actor playing the role of Malcolm X looking into the camera to have that hard eye contact with the viewer. Placing the policeman in the foreground gave the image another edgy element.

Watson: Making a mini-film with still photos, making a story about something, expands your vision. You need to think once in a while about a story. Take me to a place, take me to the people, show me a person’s stresses and worries in their face. Be a little more intimate so you really feel the subject. If you have a baker, and the baker has a little bit of flour on his face, shoot that. Then let me see the shoes, the hands, the face, the eyes. Get close to the person and then pull back and boom—wide angle of the entire building, the street, the town, the vista, 95 percent sky and a little tiny baking house. Take the viewer in and out so they never have a chance to get bored. Especially nowadays, people get bored so fast.

DPP: Why these days, in particular?

Watson: We have hundreds of TV channels with commercials going all the time. Things are changing so fast. Go back and look at some of the work of W. Eugene Smith. See how he photographed a Spanish village in one of his famous LIFE magazine photo essays. He gave you the pulse of the place and its people in a few frames.

DPP: Even in your single frames, you often get up close and personal with your subjects so you can really feel them.

Watson: When you get something that’s intimate in portraiture, it’s a great achievement. With strong, simple photography, there’s no need to party it up. When you hit something that’s intimate and powerful, you don’t need anything. There’s a certain beauty to that. I want to keep things very, very human and intimate and not let things get overly manipulated. I have a problem with a lot of computer imaging where the computer dominates and, therefore, you have to say, “Well, okay, the impact is coming from the computer imaging.” I find it a little bit removed. It becomes so technical. I don’t respond to it. Sometimes I’m a bit bored by the technique dominating the picture. I’m always looking for something intimate, to feel the human being in it, to feel the photographer’s personality through the shot.

See more of Albert Watson’s photographs at www.albertwatson.net.

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