15 North, Exit 25, Las Vegas, 2001
Coming up in the January/February issue, Digital Photo Pro interviews legendary photographer Albert Watson.
Over the past four and a half decades, the New York-based Scotland native 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 has 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.
Here’s an excerpt from our interview:
Digital Photo Pro: Where do your concepts come from?
Albert 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.
Digital Photo Pro: 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.
Digital Photo Pro: When do you make the decision 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.
Look for the full article by Mark Edward Harris when the issue goes on newsstands January 9, 2018. See more of Albert Watson’s work on his website at albertwatson.net