Over the past four and a half decades, New York-based Scotland native Albert Watson has created close to 100 Vogue covers, dozens of commercials and music videos, and advertising campaigns for companies including Prada, Revlon and Chanel. At the same time, he’s pursued personal projects from Las Vegas to Cairo. Among Watson’s long list of accolades is the Order of the British Empire, awarded to him in 2015 by Queen Elizabeth II for his lifetime contribution to the art of photography. Watson is also a photographer’s photographer, a visual superhero who can cross photographic genres in a single bound. His latest book, KAOS (Taschen), doesn’t shy away from being genre-neutral. Celebrity portraits mingle with breathtaking landscapes, sensual nudes, fashion images and still-lifes. The common threads are strong design elements meticulously crafted with a singular vision.
DPP: Why the title KAOS for your new book?
Albert Watson: The first book I did was Cyclops. I’ve always liked these Greek words, and I try to squeeze them in whenever I can. Being blind in one eye, Cyclops fitted me perfectly. Also, you have one lens, and you don’t use two eyes to look through a viewfinder. As for KAOS, many years ago there was a creative director who said, “I love your work; it’s so chaotic.” He meant it as a compliment. That stuck in my mind.
DPP: One of the impressive things about Cyclops and now KAOS is how you juxtapose dramatically different images, yet the layouts make complete sense out of the potential for chaos caused by mixing so many photographic genres.
Watson: The publishers of Cyclops were very concerned that people would not understand a book that had an image from Louisiana State Penitentiary, then a few pages later Jack Nicholson sitting in the snow, then a nude of Kate Moss in Marrakesh, then Tutankhamun’s glove. At the time, I argued, “Nowadays people will understand it. Do you have any trouble when you go home and put on the television, and it’s the six o’clock news and you hit the remote and it’s John Wayne in an old movie, then you click it again and it’s a baseball game? People don’t have trouble with that anymore.” They said, “But people have to find out who you are,” and I responded, “But that’s who I am.” I’m in the Cairo Museum basically photographing gloves, socks and other Tutankhamun artifacts, then I’m flying to Paris for a French Vogue cover plus couture pictures. That’s what I am and what I do.” People did have a hard time in the beginning, because they could never pinpoint me. I said, “In the end, it all looks like me because it is me.” I was a graphic designer for four years and three years at film school. My work is basically graphic or filmic or a combination of the two.
DPP: In both Cyclops and KAOS, you’ve made effective use of the written word.
Watson: Some images needed words. If you have a photo on a page with no type, the image has to stand on its own. If you turn the page and there’s an old glove, then the reaction might just be, “Oh, here’s a picture of an old glove.” Irving Penn did photographs of an old glove. It was textural. But the point of my old glove shot was not that it was textural, but that it was Tutankhamun’s glove. Therefore, when you look at that picture, you need that information. So on the page it was important that you saw it was “his” glove. These things are conceptual pieces; they’re not about how good the photograph is. You don’t look at it and say, “That’s a great photo of a glove!” It’s not about that.
DPP: How were you able to get access to such a priceless artifact?
Watson: It took two and a half years. I eventually got a U.S. senator to write a letter that eventually got me into the Cairo Museum. The people at the museum gave us a date, I showed up, and everybody said, “Who are you?” Eventually I got through to Dr. Zahi Hawass, a famous archaeologist who at the time was Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs. He said, “Oh, yes. Someone mentioned that. I come back to Cairo next Monday.” So we hung out in Egypt for a week. We went down to Luxor, then came back up to Cairo and did that project.
DPP: So much more goes into the making of a photograph than many people realize. How did you light the glove?
Watson: I wasn’t allowed to use flash, so I used the modeling lights on my Profoto strobes to light it. The glove was put on a sheet of clear acrylic I brought, then a foot under that I had white Plexiglas. By separating it, I was able to have the white background without the shadows. I had two heads under the white Plexi. This shot was meant to be conceptual. This was Tutankhamun’s glove. It’s part of a project on objects that I’ve been doing for 30-odd years. Elvis’ gold lamé suit and Neil Armstrong’s lunar suit are other examples.
DPP: Where do your concepts come from?
Watson: I was trained as a graphic designer. We were always taught to think about stuff. I find that’s one of the things lacking in photography schools. They are not doing enough training or preparation for the shooting. These days preparation for a photographer is: “I have my cameras. My lenses are clean. I have my batteries. I checked the strobes. I’m going to get to the place early to check the electricity.” There’s no point arriving at a place five minutes before the shoot. You plug in your lights and do two flashes with someone in front of you, and you blow a fuse. That preparation is important, but for me at best it’s 50 percent, and it should be a given. What’s not a given is preparation for who and what you’re shooting and what your plan is.
When you were trained in graphic design, they didn’t want to know what color you were going to use for the type or what was the background of your book cover you were designing and how pretty it was going to look. The question was really, “What’s the concept?” So we were forced into thinking about what was the idea behind something. That later helped me with preparation. You’re photographing Dennis Hopper; you have to know who he is. Now it’s so easy for photographers to do it. You look at Wikipedia and you have at least a rough idea. Back in those days, you had to go to a library and find the information. Now you hit a button and find out everything. But people don’t. Of course, you’re thinking spontaneously, but there should always be a plan.
DPP: What shoot might serve as an example?
Watson: I went in to photograph Steve Jobs. I knew when and how he got his start. I had him from 9 o’clock until 10 o’clock. I had a spiel how I was going to speak to him, but the PR person came at five to nine and said, “Hi, Mr. Watson, are you ready?” I said, “Yes, I’m ready.” He said, “Mr. Jobs is on his way down. I don’t want to upset you, but Steve hates photographers.” I said, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m here. I’m ready.” I’m prepared, prepared, prepared. But interestingly enough, that one line from that guy prompted something in my brain, so when Steve walked in the door, I had a little something extra prepared. He said, “Hello. How are you?” Quite cold. I said, “Actually, Mr. Jobs, I have some good news for you. I only need you for half an hour.” He tapped me with both hands on my shoulders and said, “Ah, that’s so great. I’m so busy.” Then he looked over at my camera and said, “Oh, my god, you’re still shooting film?” I had a 4×5 with gaffers tape holding it together. He went over and looked at it like it was a dinosaur. He asked, “Why are you still shooting film?” I said, “Because I don’t think digital is quite there yet.” He pointed at me and said, “I agree with you. But we will get there.” Then he went in front of the camera, “What do you want me to do?” So I went into my spiel that I had prepared, “Imagine that you’re across the table from a lot of people who disagree with you, but you know you’re right.” He smiled and laughed. “I do that every day.” I got him out in 30 minutes. He picked up a Polaroid and asked if he could have it. I said, “Sure.” He said, “This is probably the best picture ever taken of me.” He had that slight, confident “you won’t forget me” smile. I found out after he had passed away that he kept that image on his desk.
DPP: When do you decide to photograph something in black-and-white versus color?
Watson: Edward Weston said that he liked black-and-white because it was surreal. In other words, we see in color, not in black-and-white. It removes you from reality. Of course, as time went on, color photography came into its own, and you had great photographers like William Eggleston, who forced you to look at color photography as an art form. As far as deciding, it’s quite hard. But back in the day on a lot of shootings, if I felt there was a possibility for black-and-white, then I might shoot four rolls of color and one roll of black-and-white because that’s what you did. It was not easy to convert back then. Nowadays with a computer, it’s very easy.
DPP: How are you printing your exhibition work?
Watson: I’ve always loved printing. I thought it was magic to make your own prints. I still do. I was in the darkroom right from the beginning. I was working in the bathroom, and I used to wash the prints in the bath. The enlarger was on the toilet seat, and I had a wooden board that went across the bathtub. I cut a hole in the board so I would develop, stop bath and fix the prints, then feed them through the slat in the piece of wood into the bath, where I had the running water. Then I had a flatbed print dryer. We have always printed in house, these days mostly with an HP Z3200 printer, which they don’t make anymore. We print on Hahnemühle heavyweight matte and a lithographic paper.
I did a series not that long ago where we made 20- x 24-inch negatives on a HP printer. They were fantastic quality. Look at the print of the back of Mike Tyson’s head. It was from a Hasselblad negative that we made a contact negative from. You go close to it and can see it’s razorblade-sharp. All you’re doing is digitizing the film, making it a negative in the computer, then printing it on a translucent paper. We then contact print using a nice big piece of glass onto an Ilford silver-gelatin paper. The beauty of making a new negative is, you can make everything perfect in the computer. You don’t want to do a lot of dodging and burning in the darkroom, especially since you have to be on top of a ladder, the negative is so big. Sometimes the enlarger light is not 100 percent even, maybe there’s some fall-off, so you have to do some adjusting.
DPP: How was your image of Sade done? That image might serve as a good example of how you so skillfully work with light both in the darkroom and on the set.
Watson: It was done with just a small light. I prefer to light something and then control the light by removing the light rather than adding light. I control it with flagging and different devices, gobos, things like that. I developed that from years of shooting, shooting, shooting. Sade was sprayed gold, but you have to be careful with that. If you shoot it in color it can look nasty. It was done for the metallic effect. I always knew it was going to be a black-and-white shot with the color tone put back in.
DPP: You’ve said in the past that photographing Alfred Hitchcock was a major turning point in your career.
Watson: I was in a studio on Crescent Heights and Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The phone rang one day in 1973, and it was Bea Feitler. She and Ruth Ansel worked together as co-art directors at Harper’s Bazaar. Bea called me and said, “I heard you’re a good young photographer. I would like you to photograph someone famous next Tuesday. Are you available?” I said, “Yes, thank you. I can do it. Who is it?” She said, “I can’t tell you today; I’ll tell you tomorrow.” This was the week before on a Wednesday. At the beginning of my career, I was often shooting hospital supplies, not celebrities. Bedpans are not easy to do because of the reflections.
They called back the next day, and said they would like me to photograph Alfred Hitchcock for the Christmas issue. “He’s giving the recipe on how to cook a goose to the magazine. We would like him holding a platter with a cooked goose on it.” I said, “That’s great, that’s wonderful.” I was very excited. I called them back about an hour later and asked, “Is there any chance as well as the plate that I could do a shot of him holding a plucked goose because it seems a bit more Hitchcockian?” They said, “But we really want the plate….” I said, “I could shoot that as well.” They responded, “Why don’t you like the plate?” I said, “Because he always wears that bow tie, and I don’t want him looking like a maître de.” Which he wouldn’t have…it was Hitchcock. They called back the next day and said, “You don’t have to do the plate, just do the plucked goose.” I offered to them that I could put some Christmas decorations around the goose’s neck to make it look a little more festive. And they said, “That’s great.”
DPP: Was Hitchcock actually a chef?
Watson: He was a gourmet chef. He loved cooking. The magazine gave the story the title, “Alfred Hitchcock Cooks His Own Goose.” I lit him with a light in an umbrella, then two lights for the background. It was in his office in Universal Studios. He helped me a lot. At one point while he was throttling the goose, he pretended to cry. For another shot, he’s holding it out to the side, acting like, “I can’t believe I did this.” I never had to direct him. My contribution was that I got him to hold the plucked goose. He just ran with that. He was a bit of a ham and enjoyed doing it. After the shooting, he said, “You look like you could do with a nice cup of tea.” So he ordered tea, and we sat in his office and had tea and shortbread biscuits. I was a bit nervous, and I think he picked that up and helped me out. When you get something like that, it gives you a lot of confidence.
DPP: And once you had that image in your portfolio, it opened up a lot of doors.
Watson: Exactly. It was such a strong image and it was Hitchcock. He was the first celebrity I photographed. Soon after that, The Los Angeles Times had me photograph the French singer Françoise Hardy while she was in L.A. After that, I started doing a lot of celebrities.
DPP: While continuing to do a variety of work in other genres of photography, including recently capturing the incredible natural beauty of your native Scotland.
Watson: “Are you a fashion photographer? “Are you a ‘this’ photographer, a ‘that’ photographer?” In the end, I’m a photographer.
The Scottish landscapes are all digital. I switched over to digital around 2008 or 2009, which was quite late. For my Ullinish Point on the Isle of Skye shot, I took an 80mm lens, the standard Hasselblad lens, and took the picture. Then I went to a telephoto and shot several pictures of the same scene but much closer. The standard lens gave me a vision of the shot that we used as a master to reassemble, with overlaps, so we were dealing with about 250, 260 megapixels. I did another landscape with a 4×5 with a Phase One back on it. For the exhibition at the Taschen Gallery, we included several 42- x 56-inch prints of the Scottish landscapes on a heavyweight Hahnemühle matte paper. You can walk right up to them and feel like you’re there.
Visit Albert Watson’s website at albertwatson.net.