Instead of listing the accomplishments of Albert Watson — the hundred plus covers for Vogue, the countless celebrity portraits, the armfuls of awards– it would be easier to simply state the obvious: he’s a photographic icon. For over forty years Watson has created such an abundance of memorable images that to look through his portfolio is analogous to viewing a diary of modern American culture.
From bare-chested supermodels to Andy Warhol holding a beach ball Albert Watson has shot almost every genre and every thing you can think of. He doesn’t have a signature look, a go-to setup, or a single anything. He’s always experimenting and constantly shooting. It’s this variety that has helped him endure through such a competitive industry for over forty years.
Interviewing Albert was such a treat. He’s an endless source for entertaining stories and sage advice. If you want to hear about how to direct Keith Richards on set, get Renee Zellweger to open up, or shoot Bob Dylan at Woodstock then read on.
Seckler: The photo industry is in such a different place now than when you first started. The competition is greater, technology has changed, the clients have changed… do you think it’s possible for people starting out today to attain the level of success that you’ve had throughout your career?
Watson: It’s possible, and people can do better than I’ve done. Remember, everything that was created before I became a photographer influenced me. Somebody starting today can look at my career and previous photographer’s careers, and they can go all the way back to the ‘30s and the ‘20s and look at that — not to do the same, but to look at it for inspiration. Sometimes today the photographers I find are a little bit lazy. Digital has made it easier for them to correct, and then you have an entire industry of people that can fix your work. But, of course, it’s very nice to start with things being 97% perfect and only 3% to fix [in Photoshop], as opposed to people who are shooting 70% and then there’s 30% to fix. Even silly, straightforward things like a white background. If we were working in a white background, we had to make it a white background. Nowadays you just knock it out [in post].
Seckler: If you were starting out today at the beginning of your photo career, how would you go about establishing yourself as a photographer?
Watson: The business is still very much divided into advertising and editorial. Editorial can be your own personal work, or it can be halfway down that ladder. When you shoot for a magazine, you have a certain modicum of control in it. They’re providing the clothes that you have to shoot, so if you say, “Here’s a Gaultier piece that you have to shoot,” you have to shoot it. You can’t say, “I don’t want to shoot the Gaultier, I’m a plain artist, I don’t like clothes,” but you have to do it…. The more powerful you get, they sometimes give you a choice. You look at 30 outfits; maybe you can pick 22 of the 30. So you have a bit of control over what you do, but still, you’re stuck with the 30 outfits. Somebody starting out now, what they really have to do is put a stamp at either end of this. I simplify it by saying “editorial” and “advertising.” Give magazine editors or art directors a sense of what you can do. There has to be this air of confidence that you know what you’re doing…. Most young photographers, you say, “Do you know what you’re doing?” and they say, “Of course I do!” Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. It’s a long learning curve.
Seckler: You’re known for being a photographic Renaissance man. You’ve tackled fashion, portraiture, landscape… is there a single thing you do to prepare for every shoot, regardless of the subject matter?
Watson: You’ve done your research. There are some days you might head out and say, “Today I’m going to do architecture.” It could be that maybe I’ve done research of what other photographers have done — not to copy other photographers, but as an inspiration to see, “Oh, wow, they did a great job with that.” I’m puzzled sometimes by photographers who don’t do something like this.
If I’m driving down a highway in California and I see a neon billboard that’s in the middle of the desert that has “God” written on it in the middle of the day, I say, “You know what? Let’s come back at 6:00 this evening as the sun’s going down and shoot the sign.” I’m quite surprised at photographers who see stuff like that but don’t shoot it. And there are a lot of them. They say, “I don’t do landscape,” whereas I come back with a tripod and an 8×10 camera and I shoot it.
So, as far as preparation is concerned, I think that when you prepare for a job, you want to know what the expectations are. But once you’ve been shooting for 40 odd years, at that point there’s a sequence in the brain that you begin to work naturally towards. A very good analogy is [driving] a car. When you first get in a car, it seems impossible. You’ve got to change gears; you’ve got to do the clutch, the accelerator, the brake; you’ve got to look to the left, to the right, look for brakes, kids in front of the car, all these things. But bit by bit, the more you drive, the more accomplished you become at driving, and then eventually driving becomes a natural thing to you. The ideal position for a photographer is to get himself into that position, of doing what he does naturally.
To do that, though, you have to practice all these different skills. You have to be able to light. I’m surprised at photographers now that just put up an umbrella in their studio and the lighting is the same. Two years later, they’ve still got the same old umbrella, and that means they’re not so concerned about lighting. At a certain point, it puts a stamp on your work, and your work becomes a little bit “same” looking. It’s what I call Xeroxing. Many years ago when you had a Xerox machine, you could take a rather mediocre photograph, put it on a Xerox machine, and it suddenly looked very sort of Andy Warhol- looking. It looked graphic. But the problem is, once you do 20, 30, 40, 50 shots in a portfolio, they all cancel each other out, in a way. You have to find your own thing. You have to keep working at it, not be lazy about it, and do your preparation. Get inspiration from other photographers and use it just as an inspiration. You can’t just be inspired by someone and copy what they’ve done, but use it as an inspiration to make you feel good and say, “Wow that’s great. Let me go out and do my thing.”
Seckler: You have seemingly countless iconic portraits of everyone from Andy Warhol to Jack Nicholson…how do you come up with portrait ideas?
Watson: The one thing with celebrities, you figure that you’ve got a ten-minute attention span. You’re never going to be there for four hours, and you’re never going to be saying to a celebrity, “Remember when you were young and you caught your finger in the door and the pain you felt? Can you take me through that period of time in your life?” You can’t do that. You work in a much more straightforward, clean-cut way, where you might be looking for some emotion. You might give the person very simple things to react to in front of the camera.
I’m always looking for things which are dead simple, if possible — very, very minimal so you’ve got nothing left but to work with the person. Sometimes you can put people in an artificial situation, and it makes kind of a memorable shot. But because it is artificial, in the long term I’m not sure I’m a big fan of that. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just personally not a fan of it. I like working with people, just with their facial expressions. The face can run through 20,000 expressions, you know?
Seckler: How do you create or direct emotion from your portrait subjects?
Watson: The photographer’s best weapon is not his lighting, not the cameras. It’s communication skills. A lot of people, even famous people, are nervous being photographed. They don’t want to be photographed. The only people who are not nervous being photographed are models, in a strange kind of way, because that’s what they do….you have to put them at rest for the most part. The trick with models that are used to being photographed is you’ve got to try and pull something out of them. Otherwise they become bland. I was looking at something very recently. I actually took a piece of paper that covered the entire page [of several photographs], cut a little hole in the paper, and said, “Look at the girl’s expression in every one of these shots. Every single shot, she’s got exactly the same expression.” Now, what you’re looking at sometimes is what the clothes are doing. You think the clothes are funky; the hairdresser’s done something funky; maybe the make-up has changed a little bit as it’s gone through. But sometimes photographers are lazy with the model’s expressions. You want to get some emotion, if possible, even out of a model. It’s much easier with an actor — not a given, but it’s easier.
Seckler: Can you relate a memorable story of a shoot that you’ve had with a celebrity where you’ve gotten them to open up?
Watson: In front of me right now—it just happened to be there because somebody bought it—is a shot of Keith Richards smoking. I asked him, when he was smoking, to think about his music and periods of time where he came up with something that was, to him, Rolling Stone iconic — just to think about his career while he was smoking, to think about specific things, specific moments and so on, and then just smoke. At that point, I was able to get from him a moment of something, where he was. He’s not bland at all in that picture. He’s thinking…. You have to get them to think about something — even when you’re working with a good actress. I took a portrait once of Renee Zellweger. I said, “Imagine you’re in a restaurant. You’re supposed to meet your boyfriend at the restaurant at 6:00, and it’s now 6:20. Where the hell is he? You’re worried, and you start saying, ‘Am I in the right restaurant?’ and so on. But then he walks through the door. So the look that I’m looking for here is you’re happy he’s safe. You smile at him. But at the same time, you’re furious that he’s late.” So there’s a kind of reaction to that with a good actress. You can actually get them to communicate that. They’re angry and happy at the same time. It requires direction, not just the person being there, you know?
Seckler: It sounds like the same direction that a movie director might give to an actor.
Watson: I came out of four years at graphic design and then two years at film school, doing my master’s degree. So I came out as a director. If you look at the work, it’s split into those two categories. It’s either [cinematic] or graphic.
Seckler: Can you remember any significant shoot where you wish you could have done something differently?
Watson: During the second Woodstock I had gone down to the stage because I was to meet Bob Dylan there. He was going to perform, and then afterwards I was going to photograph him. I went down to the stage without a camera; I had a studio set up about 100 yards behind the stage. A tractor-trailer truck pulled up to the back of the stage, the back of the tractor-trailer fell open, and there were six Hell’s Angels came out who were huge — that had to be 6’2’’, 6’3’’, huge guys. And in the middle of them was little Bob Dylan carrying his guitar. It was such a great image and I just had not expected to see that.
Seckler: Some people associate you with being a fashion photographer, but I’ve read you don’t like to be defined that way. How do you define yourself?
Watson: Pure and simply: a photographer. I’m a photographer that has taken fashion photographs. I’m a photographer that has done portraiture. I’m a photographer that’s done still lifes. I’m a photographer that’s done graphic pieces that have concept behind them.
Seckler: Is there anything you don’t like to photograph?
Watson: There’s nothing that I wouldn’t photograph. If I’m doing still life for six days, let’s say, I’m very happy to see a human being. But if I’m with human beings for a month and I know that I have a week of still lifes, then I’m looking forward to the still life.
Seckler: A lot of photographers get burnt out, especially those who have had long careers. How do you stay fresh and keep your creative juices flowing?
Watson: I love what I’m doing and I love art. Therefore I’m always at museums; I’m always at galleries; I’m always buying art books. I’m always looking, and I like what I do. I’ve been lucky because I have such a broad front. I do so many different things.
Seckler: What are you working on now?
Watson: I’m about to go to Benin in Africa for the Bill Gates Foundation, and I’m doing a story on Benin at an exhibition next year for a huge museum in Hamburg where we actually have the whole museum. So we would do a retrospective, and contained in the retrospective would be a story on Benin. The reason it is there’s a part of the Bill Gates Foundation that is promoting Africans to start businesses and to work for themselves. One of the things I’ll be doing, for example, is photographing cotton farmers there. I’ll be doing musicians, artists, and so on. It’s very interesting.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Sarah Lynn Knowles
This piece was originally published 10/3/11 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.