Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Conversation with Photographer Albert Watson

Jack Nicholson, from Albert Watson's Icons series, 1998 (All photos courtesy of the IZZY Gallery)

New York City-based celebrity photographer Albert Watson is a master of his profession. His images have appeared on more than a hundred Vogue covers and countless other publications from Rolling Stone to Time Magazine, many of them featuring now iconic portraits of rock stars, including David Bowie and Eric Clapton, in addition to Hollywood actors like jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood and other notable high-profile personalities, including Steve Jobs, Mike Tyson, Kate Moss, Sade and Christy Turlington. Exhibited in art galleries and museums around the world, among them the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, Watson recently made his Canadian debut at Toronto’s IZZY Gallery (106 Yorkville Ave; with a retrospective show called ARCHIVE, which closes on December 27. Aged 70 and with a career spanning 40 years, Watson is one of the few internationally acclaimed photographers still working exclusively in film, processing it himself in his dark room. All of his hand-processed images now hanging in Izzy Sulejmani’s gallery are for sale, enabling collectors as well as fans of Watson’s work to own something by one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time, according to Photo District News. “Photography is quick communication,” he told critic Deirdre Kelly during a recent visit to his New York City office lined with some of the images for which Watson is celebrated. “People easily get it.” 

Here’s more of their conversation.
Photographer Albert Watson (Photo by Gloria Ro)

dk: These are wonderful digs you’ve got here in TriBeCa, close to the Hudson River and flooded with natural light. I am assuming this is where you work?

aw: We don’t shoot here, no. I no longer have a studio of my own. We had a huge one in the West Village from 1987 to 2008, about 26,000 square feet. But I sold it to a hedge fund guy. Now, we don’t actually have a studio. We don’t need one. About 25 or 30 years ago, light in a space was fairly important. But nowadays you can replicate the light in a studio with technology. The business has changed, which is why we moved here. We’re now much more focused on supplying work for galleries and museums – fine art work and producing prints and making platinum prints. We make all our prints in the office and rent studios when we need them. Everyone told me that I would miss having my own studio. But I’ve spent my whole life working in Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Milan and other centres, including Toronto, and I’ve become quite used to photographing in other people’s studios. Where I work doesn’t have to be my own space. 

dk: What made you start to focus more on the art side of photography, the collectible prints, as opposed to the editorial and advertising work for which you are famous?

aw: When I was running a business which was full-on photography, I worked Monday through Saturday and sometimes Sunday. I was shooting all the time, and guess what? The following Monday to Saturday I was shooting again. I had to print at night in the dark room because I couldn’t find the time. Then occasionally people would ask me, ‘I’d like to buy one of your prints; what’s the price?’  But three months would go by, more Monday to Saturdays spent working, and it would be, ‘Where the hell is that print I asked of you three months ago?’  So basically I brought in a division of two people to manage the requests for archival work and it grew from there.

Clint Eastwood, by Albert Watson, 1985
dk: How did you evolve the art side of the business?

aw: It started out being a matter of being very selective about what we could do. We went off the radar in terms of editorial trying to carve a new direction for ourselves. We became a lot less visible. Before hand, there were movie posters in L.A., fashion shoots for Vogue. But if you are in Las Vegas trying to produce a book then you are not on the cover of Rolling Stone. You’re working on the book; you’re working for yourself.  But eventually it didn’t matter. Over a period of four years, we made an adjustment and the on-the-radar leads were suddenly on a more world-wide internet scale. We became more in-demand, in a sense. Our stock in photography went up, instead of the image.

dk: So you are a canny Scot!

aw: It sounds like I masterminded it. But a lot of it just evolved organically. Where I was smart was in bringing in my youngest son, Aaron Watson, to manage things. He’s very high on quality control. He’s a business guy, and he’s fantastic at it. I always thought he’d be good but he exceeded even my expectations. He was a journalist before this, the head of sports for AP for 16 years. He’s now 47.

dk: Do you have other members of the family helping you?

aw: Yes, my wife Elizabeth Watson. She’s been an agent for the business side of things, and has also acted as an agent for the studio. My older son Norman Watson, who’s now 52, was a photographer and was very successful. He was also fascinated with the making of a photograph. He studied Quantum Mechanics at Columbia, where he got his Master’s degree.

dk: Where were you educated?

aw: I grew up near Edinburgh and so my early education was in Scotland. I went to St. Andrew’s University where I studied graphic design. I then went to the Royal College of Arts in London for my Master’s degree, returning to St. Andrew’s to pursue film theory.

dk: That’s diverse training.

Gabrielle Reece, Vivienne Westwood, Paris, 1989
aw: But there’s an obvious relationship. If you look at my work it’s graphic or filmic or a combination of the two. It’s that simple. The works really are not that complicated. That photograph over there of David Bowie with his head in a box is just that: David Bowie with his head in a box.

dk: Give more examples of your style in other works surrounding us here in your office.

aw: Okay. This photograph, Monkey With A Gun, is straight forward graphic design.  These images of the dominatrix, whom I met in Las Vegas and liked instantly because she was interesting and charismatic, are more cinematic. She had an instinct for the camera and it shows.

dk: What makes a good photographic subject?

aw: I think in terms of an actor acting it’s something you are born with, an ability to act. You either have it or you don’t.  Classes and experience can make you a better actor but unless you have that charisma as part of your soul then you just won’t make it. The same thing is true of being in front of the camera. You have to have that special something. Look at Christy Turlington here. Christy Turlington is a model who’s got that extra in her. It was there at the very beginning of her career. I shot her on her first trip to Egypt for German Vogue and she was fantastic. She already had an instinct for the camera. Ten years later she was ten times better, but initially, and this is important, she already was good.

dk: How do you get people to work with you if they don’t have that instinct for the camera?

aw: A photographer’s best weapon in his arsenal, which is not a nice way of putting it, is communication. And being able to communicate with someone is very important. If someone is nervous, it’s important to make them feel as relaxed as possible. You have to go in ready to do whatever it might take. You never know, either, who will be nervous. Someone like Jack Nicholson, whom I’ve worked with many times, is never nervous. Others like Clint Eastwood are explosive and direct, so there’s never a problem. But another actor, Joaquin Phoenix, was super nice but also very nervous in front of the camera: a different challenge. I have a theory about actors, in general. In life they are nervous people. But give them a role and they do it brilliantly. They hide behind it. Alec Guinness was one of those people. He was apparently very nervous in reality, but you’d not know it from his acting.

dk: So a good photograph, in other words, requires a lot of behind-the-scenes planning, if not coaxing.

aw: It’s an art. I was always right from the beginning trying to do good work, trying to make it the best it could possibly be. I had influences from every quarter – from the art world to photography.  People often ask me, “who’s your favourite photographer?’ And I say I don’t have one. I have about 200 favourite photographers. I think there are lots of fabulous photographers.

dk: What defines you as one?

Kate Moss, by Albert Watson, 1993
aw: I would say graphics is the dominant feature.  I use graphic design to make a photograph understandable.

dk: Do you have a favourite photograph of your own?

aw: I think in terms of timing, it is the image seen here of Kate Moss because it was taken so early in her career. The shot is so simple. I took it in 1993, in Marrakech, on what was her 19th birthday. A lot of people like it. 

dk: Why do you like it?

aw: It’s a very famous image, but for me it shows that the communication between me and Kate Moss was very good. A lot of subsequent photographs of her relied on her being a celebrity. But in this picture, it’s not about the celebrity, it’s an emotional connection. There’s something observational going on.  It’s a rare image of her.

dk: If you had not found your niche in life as a photographer, is there something you might have wanted to do instead?

aw: Real estate. I love the creative aspects of it, and the fact that it’s easy to make good money. There’s 20 times more money in real estate than in photography and at the time I guess I had no idea. I’m already comfortable doing what I do. But in real estate making money is easy.

dk: Like I said, a canny Scot.

aw: Yes, I guess so.

 Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates

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