A Visionary in the Realm of Photography
Albert Watson, a true master of photography, has left an indelible mark on contemporary photography and pop culture for over six decades. His work is characterized by graphically arresting yet timeless imagery that transcends traditional boundaries. Watson seamlessly navigates various genres, from portraiture to still life, landscape to fashion, showcasing a deep intuitive understanding of his subjects and the photographic medium’s possibilities. Whether capturing Cindy Crawford, Mike Tyson, a Las Vegas dominatrix, or the artifacts of King Tutankhamun, Watson combines creative innovation with a mastery of technique, solidifying his place as a visionary in the realm of photography.
A Combination of Graphic Design, Photography and Film
Born in 1942 in Scotland, Albert Watson initially studied graphic design before shifting to Film and Television at the Royal College of Art in London. After moving to Los Angeles in 1970, Watson established himself as a photographer. Having already taken photography classes, he became “a combination of graphic design, photography and film mixed together.” In fact, he likes to draw the analogy between driving a car and learning to use a camera.
“You learn to drive the camera, know the camera inside-out.’” And “by the time he moved to the US” Watson says, “it’s like I knew everything about a car, but I had never driven it. You learn the practical, technical aspect of photography, after that it’s about where you take the car.”
His breakthrough came in 1970 when an art director at Max Factor offered him a test session that resulted in the purchase of two shots. Subsequently, Watson’s distinct style attracted attention from top fashion magazines like Vogue, Mademoiselle, GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar.
“The Master of Suspense”
In 1973, he received a pivotal assignment: Harper’s Bazaar wanted him to photograph Alfred Hitchcock, the ‘Master of Suspense’ for their Holiday issue. The story was to be titled “Alfred Hitchcock cooks his own goose” and Watson was assigned to photograph the director presenting a roast fowl on a serving dish. Deviating from the original concept, Watson’s morbidly elegant images of Hitchcock holding an uncooked goose with a ribbon by the neck. These photographs marked a turning point in his career, propelling him into the forefront of the contemporary photography market.
Rap & Hip-Hop
Since then, Albert Watson has crafted some of the most iconic celebrity portraits, many within the rap and hip-hop genre, spanning from the mid-1980s until the mid-2010s. His portfolio boasts portraits of legendary figures like Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, and Queen Latifah, showcasing Watson’s versatility in portraiture. Driven by a relentless pursuit of excellence, Watson reflects on his continuous quest for improvement every time he picks up the camera. He contemplates,
“How can I make that next shot more powerful, more interesting, more beautiful, and most importantly, more memorable?”
Watson’s portraits of these artists undeniably fulfill this objective, leaving a lasting impact. In addition to regular contributions to Rolling Stone, he served as the official photographer for VIBE, a magazine prominently featuring hip-hop artists. He also shot numerous album covers and publicity photos for rappers.
Preparation and Familiarity
Albert Watson emphasizes the significance of preparation when working with celebrities, stressing the need for a well-thought-out plan before a photographic session. He believes that familiarity with the subject’s work is key, allowing him to create more impactful images and adapt plans when necessary.
“If you understand their work, you’ll make a better photograph, and you’ll also know when to seize the moment and alter your plan.”
A Family of Talkers
Watson easily establishes connections with his subjects during shoots as he himself came from “a family of talkers.” Some artists, initially shy, compensate by adopting a ‘tough’ or ‘macho’ persona on set. Albert Watson recalls that they “loved it when they looked strong.” Watson captured them from slightly low angles or with folded arms to enhance their perceived strength. One particular photograph of 50 Cent in a 2003 issue of Rolling Stone goes to show how a ‘strong’ image may not necessarily be ‘tough’. 50 Cent, dressed in all white, appears to personify almost a fallen angel’ next to a statue of an angel under dramatic lighting. He exudes an unexpected vulnerability, showcasing Watson’s visionary approach to celebrity portraiture.
Albert Watson’s powerful portraits of hip-hop artists derive their impact from what he terms “filmatic graphic,” an idea centered around graphic strength. Watson believes that a photograph can possess graphic intensity even if it appears simple. Watson deliberately crafts arresting images. When asked how he makes pictures of such graphic strength, he says that he asks himself the following questions:
“Graphics are written over everything. (…) Is it the shape of a head against the white background? The shape of a head with a strong light against a dark background? What’s behind the person in a studio?”
Carrying Immense Weight
In the black and white portrait of Mary J. Blige’s side profile or a young Snoop Dogg centered in the frame and intensely gazing into the camera, Watson demonstrates how seemingly simple photographs can carry immense weight. Through strategic use of dramatic shadows and silhouettes, Watson distills the essence of his subjects, creating visually compelling images that amplify their presence.
A Beacon of Excellence
Albert Watson’s impact on portrait photography transcends artistic and commercial boundaries, serving as a beacon of excellence for generations of photographers. His ability to capture the complexity of the human spirit has inspired aspiring photographers to seek deeper connections with their subjects, infusing their work with emotional resonance and authenticity. Based in New York, Watson’s illustrious career has garnered numerous honors, including a Lucie Award, a Grammy, three Andys, a Der Steiger Award, a Hasselblad Masters Award, and the Centenary Medal, a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Photographic Society. In 2015, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his lifetime contribution to photography. Watson has held solo exhibitions in major museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, KunstHausWien in Vienna, City Art Centre of Edinburgh, FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Fotografiska in Stockholm, and the Museum of Kyoto, while also being featured in numerous group exhibitions.