Before Albert flew off on another exotic assignment, we were pleased to schedule a zoom call where Albert will shared some behind the scenes stories.
Don’t miss the opportunity to hear one of the legendary creative forces in contemporary photography talk with Holden about his amazing career, some of the great personalities he has worked with – and his thoughts about staying creative in these complex times.
Holden: We have lots of images to show, and I want people that are looking at the zoom call to know that your website is very comprehensive. It’s a brilliant website, it’s albertwatson.net. The nice thing about working with a photographer is there are pictures to see. If we’re doing a zoom call with a novelist or a politician, there’s not much to see. So I’m going to be showing a lot of pictures and Albert, you’re probably only going to be talking about a few of them. But I encourage the zoom participants, to please be familiar with your website, and with our website, and to check out more images. When I went to your website, it was very exciting for me, Albert, to see over the years so many brilliant images and such a variation in images that were really brilliant and outstanding. So I’d like to ask to start with Albert, what were your beginnings into the photography business as a business?
Albert: Well, I was quite lucky in a way. I mean, I’ve had a lot of luck. And, of course, it’s a lot of hard work at the same time. But I was very keen to go to art college and I actually started off working in missile research for the Ministry of Defense. So, I never see that written anywhere but I was. I really came out of school as a mathematician and I got a job as a scientific officer with the civil service. And then I worked. I didn’t like London that much at that time. I went from Edinburgh to London to do that. And then, after that, I went back up to Edinburgh and I spent a year working in a laboratory in a chocolate factory.
So the only thing that I really got out of these two years was really a discipline thing. You know you, you have to be at work at eight o’clock in the morning etc, etc. But then I wanted to go to art college and go back to start a more formal education. So, I went to up to the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, which is about 75 miles from Edinburgh. And at that time, it was part of St. Andrews University and I began studying there. And as soon as I really started studying, I loved graphic design. So this is the most important thing, because if you look at my work now graphic design is written across 99% of it, not all, but a lot of it.
So graphic design came into my life and I loved it. And then, here was the stroke of luck. For the first time ever, you have two years general art, basically studying painting pottery, drawing, doing many many different kinds of areas of art, and all of it was beneficial to me. And after two years of general art, I specialized in graphic design and, for the first time ever, they brought in a photography course that you had to take as a craft subject. So then I had luck again. The guy who was there was a really sophisticated photographer, and he was a really, a darkroom guy. He loved printing work and he was a very good photographer. And he came in and he taught us photography and he taught us the darkroom. So there were two really powerful things: the darkroom came into my life. And of course I just began to get hooked.
At that time I was given a camera. There were only two cameras available at that time. You had to wait your turn and there were eight of us in the class, and I had to wait till it was my turn to get the camera. And, I have to say, the minute I got a hold of that camera, the package of who I am now was was formed. The combination of graphics and a heavy art training (graphics and photography) blended together. Really, at that time, I became obsessive. I was already passionate about photography and, absolutely, I became really obsessed.
Now, at that time, I got the chance to have a scholarship to tour America from IBM, so I toured America. I met a lot of fabulous people. I met Charles Eames in Los Angeles and spent an afternoon with him. And just lots of interesting people. I went to the Aspen Design Conference and so that was also formative. Then, when I came back, I got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, to study film and television and I went into the director’s course there. So then, by the time I finished, the package was pretty much complete. All I had to do was learn how to really be a professional photographer so it really started at that point, even though I had all of this creative training.
Holden: And how did you end up in Los Angeles?
Albert: When I finished at the Royal College in 1969, I taught for one year at University of London. I taught theories of color for one year. And then, after that, my wife got a chance with job in Los Angeles, as a teacher. So I was able, with our family, to go to Los Angeles. I came in as her dependent. And we arrived in Los Angeles in 1970, basically the beginning of September in 1970, and I was in LA between 70 and 74. By 74, I was running a very big studio in LA, and in 1974, I opened a second studio in New York. So I had a small studio in New York and a big studio in LA. In 1976, I closed the LA studio, and then moved to New York full time. So since 1976, I’ve been here in in New York.
Holden: Can you tell us about your portrait of Alfred Hitchcock?
Albert: I was in working in LA, and I just simply shot whatever I could so I could run a studio and make enough money to live. So I did catalogs for department stores. I eveb did a catalog for hospital appliances. One of the hardest things I ever photographed were chrome bedpans. And so I was basically photographing everything I could get my hands on. Then I became a car photographer and then I began photographing Nissan trucks and I did a lot of car photography. So this was all part of what you do in LA. There’s not enough fashion just to do fashion so you did everything.
Out of the blue, somebody had recommended me to a magazine, a very famous art director called Beatriz Feitler, along with Ruth Ansel, they were art directors at that time of Harper’s Bazaar. They called me and said we’d like you to photograph somebody famous and I was very excited. Of course, to get a call from a magazine at that time was very exciting. And I asked who it was. They said they couldn’t tell me and to call back tomorrow. They called back the next day and they said it was Alfred Hitchcock. I was just out of film school so Alfred Hitchcock was like kind of a mythical figure. They said, “He’s giving a recipe for the Christmas issue on how to cook a goose,” because he was basically a gourmet chef. Not a lot of people knew that he loved cooking. They said, “We want him to be holding a cooked a plate with a cooked goose on it,” you know. And so I said, “Sure. You know at that point, I would have done anything, but I thought about it overnight and I said, “How do you feel about that he hasn’t cooked a goose yet, but he’s got it by the neck?” To make it a little bit Christmassy, if you look closely, he’s got some Christmas decorations tied around his neck there. And they called back 10 minutes later and said, “Yeah, we like the idea. You can do that.” You know, that’s basically where the shot came from.
Now, of course, when I went in I was nervous as hell. You can imagine, I mean, I was just almost shaking with nerves. Not because I had to take a photograph, I wasn’t nervous about that, but I was nervous that it was Hitchcock. But he turned out to be really absolutely fantastic, charming and wonderful. And he helped me during the shoot. So, it was another little bit of luck that I was photographing somebody that loved to be photographed. Then after the shooting I was kind of tidying up and he said, “You look like you could you could do with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit,” you know a cookie. And I said, “That be good sir.” There I was sitting in the office, his big office, and asking him lots of questions about about film and movies. I mean all kinds of different things that he did and so on. He was just chatty and friendly and wonderful. And then we said goodbye and that was it.
And then the shooting really changed my life in a way because once that ran, I started getting calls from every place all over the planet. That was 73-74 in Los Angeles, but bit by bit I began to open a studio in New York. And then we moved to New York in 76, but that was a turning point and I was kind of lucky that it was Alfred Hitchcock.
Holden: We’re gonna look at some slides of icons. We could have done hundreds of them because you have shot, literally everybody and done an extraordinary job. But when you look at some of these pictures do any stories come to mind, and we’re going to start with David Bowie. What was he like to work with?
Albert: You know, the interesting thing about David Bowie which is kind of a known fact is that David Bowie was tremendously creative. And he was interested in everything. He was interested in clothing, he was interested, of course, the prime thing was music, but he was interested in everything. He was interested in photography. And for this series that I did with him I wanted to do a series of the pictures. I was with him the whole day. He came at nine o’clock, right on time, super professional.
He brought a lot of interesting pieces with him, that he thought I would like and I wanted to do several pictures that were surreal in nature. And he loved that. And also he loved it that I was prepared. You know, I often say to young photographers, “Preparation, preparation, preparation.” Do not confuse preparation with getting your cameras ready, that’s a given, that is automatic. You really have to think about what you’re doing and prepare for something like that.
Albert: This is Joaquin Phoenix. The interesting thing with Joaquin Phoenix was that, which surprised me, he was very, very nervous to be photographed. I would say that of all the people I’ve ever photographed, he could well be in the top two or three of being super nervous, I mean, almost to the point of shaking and, of course, that concerned me. So I took him upstairs and we actually sat upstairs and chatted for about 45 minutes, nearly an hour. And then he was better. Then he helped the shooting and he was better. Then the shots were good.
Albert: Sade, who I’ve known and am still in contact with every week. I speak to her all the time. This was a shooting for an album called Love Deluxe. I photographed her first in Spain and then I went into London to do some more pictures and I said to her, “Why don’t we do for this just kind of like a nude shot.” And then she said, “Well it’s not really me. You know, I don’t care about being nude. But it’s not really me.” So I said, “Look, the shooting is for you, you own the shooting. You’re paying me to do the shooting so the shots are yours. Keep them for yourself. Put them on your piano later if you want.” But, so I went ahead and did this shot, and just after I did the shot the rest of the group, the Sade Group, including her manager Roger Davis came over to me and said, “Whatever you do, make sure you print this shot because whatever happens this is going to be the cover of the album.” And so I mentioned it later to Sade and she said, “Forget it. It’s not going to happen.” But then of course they persuaded her eventually, and it went on to be very successful
Holden: Talk about this one and about how much freedom, you get, and how much you’re assigned. So this is you being very creative.
Albert: Right, I’ve told this story several times. I went in and, and you have to remember this is before Photoshop, the idea for the shot was to do this kind of night shot with Jagger at the wheel, but in his passenger seat was a leopard. So we organized the leopard. And you have to be careful with leopards because they can be dangerous. They’re so quick. A cheetah is a lot easier of an animal to deal with than a leopard. And it turned out that this leopard was a bit dangerous. So, as I got the leopard in the front seat of the car, the leopard kind of lashed out at Jagger and so on and so there was almost a really serious incident. You have to remember this was before Photoshop. Nowadays you shoot the leopard and shoot Jagger and you will be finished in 10 minutes. So we built this window between the two of them so the leopard couldn’t get to Jagger.
Albert: In the meantime, I said, “Let me do a portrait of Jagger” so I was occupying the time. I said “Let me do a double exposure.” So what I did was I did the picture of the leopard first. In the portrait of the leopard, I drew the eyes and the mouth in so I knew where the leopard was in the film and then we did a double exposure. And I never thought it was going to work because it was only on one roll of film and then the car was ready. We almost never processed this roll of film, but we did process it, and four of the images were perfectly aligned. I had this image here. And then of course we sent that into Rolling Stone and they loved it. Then, I got a call from Jagger who was in LA and he said, “Don’t give it to the magazine. I want to use it as an album cover.” And, of course, by that time, I’d already given it the magazine. There was a lot of fighting going on. But anyway, Rolling Stone wouldn’t give it up.
Something Completely Different
Holden: We’re gonna keep going, because I don’t want to keyhole you as a personality photographer. I would like to go to the next bank of images, because it shows a lot of your breath, and when you’re shooting things that, to me, seem quite unusual. I’d love to know where the inspiration for a lot of these pictures came from. Now for something completely different.
Albert: So, I was in Paris working on the collections and I had planned, after Paris, to fly into Cairo. I had worked to get permission to get into the Cairo Museum for two and a half years. Eventually, I had to get a letter from a US Senator to get into the museum because I knew that there were artifacts belonging to Tutankhamun in there, and I just loved the idea. During this period of time, 80s and early 90s, I loved the idea of just very, very simple, not brilliant photos, but just very, very simple photos of objects that were the objects themselves. You could even say they were fashion. They were amazing because of who wore them. So if you look at this glove of Tutankhamun, it’s actually as far as I know the oldest glove in the world at over three and a half thousand years old. It was not easy to get into, not easy to do, to go into the Cairo museum and then get permission to photograph all these personal effects of Tutankhamun, including his mirror, his sandals. I found it amazing. It was a wonderful experience. The shots are very, very simple, straightforward. I wasn’t going to try and do anything with the shots, except present them almost like passport pictures so the power of it is who the glove belonged to. It’s not an old garden glove. This is the glove that was worn by Tutankhamun.
Albert: So I went on after that to do a lot of things. I spent a lot of time doing NASA pieces, stuff that went to the moon. This was a handbag that was designed for one of the astronaut’s wives. It was made in the shape of the Apollo lander. So I just found these objects very, very nice and challenging in a way to photograph them so simply. But it’s the objects themselves that is the power, not the obvious the photograph.
Albert: And the orchid I did for Italian Vogue. You might say, Why is it for Italian Vogue?” At that time Franca Sozzani was in charge of Italian Vogue. She was very creative and clever and I knew that she would run a picture like this. So, I did this in the US Virgin Islands and the makeup artist came across this orchid from a bush and, of course, I was a bit of a vandal and I cut it off because the shape was so beautiful. As they were getting the models ready for the fashion shoot, I went ahead and photographed the orchid.
Albert: This is a much older shot. I went to China in 79 and I did an advertising job there for Bloomingdale’s but I stayed on. I got permission from the government to stay on and I was in China, on my own, for three and a half, nearly four weeks. I was just on my own. I didn’t have any assistants or anything. This was in a child’s school and a beautiful moment. This child came and she took my hand and she said something to me. The translator said, “She’s letting you know that she can stand on one leg.” Which I thought was funny. And then of course, to be polite, I said, “Why don’t you show me.” And she went right over to this beam that was right in front of the General Mao Pang Tzu picture, there with a teddy bear and the counter there. And she just did that on a beam. I had no idea that’s what she was gonna do because she was five years old. So it was a little bit of luck, you know.
Albert: This is a much more recent picture. I was going through a remote part of Benin, which is in Western Africa, and I was doing a job that was for the Cotton Foundation and Bill Gates’ Foundation photographing right through Benin. Basically, I was completely free to do landscapes, still-lives, people, reportage, anything I wanted to do, so I went there and I had a good crew with a couple of assistants and in one of the villages. I found this girl who was just walking by and I saw her and she was beautiful and the nice thing was when she saw her picture she was totally shocked. That was the nice thing, she was so shocked to know and we were able to print out a picture for her so she was of course, very happy.
Holden: You sort of have a signature trademark which is very unusual which is the chimpanzee. So I thought it would be sort of interesting, just for a moment to talk about why the chimpanzee?
Albert: The chimpanzee was also a little bit of luck yet again. I was doing an advertising job and it involved this chimpanzee called Casey. I got on very well with this chimpanzee, he was always wanting to hold my hand, no matter what. I was in this studio and would be setting up something and the chimpanzee would walk over and hold my hand. And then at the end of the day, the chimpanzee was furious that he had to leave and was screaming and so on so. During that shooting, I realized that, whatever I did in front of the chimpanzee, the chimpanzee copied me. So I shouted and the chimpanzee shouted. If I put my hand a certain way and I pulled my leg up he would just copy me exactly.
Albert: A couple of weeks later, I put together a bunch of props and I worked with this chimp for about 10-11 hours. We did what became a well known shot, the monkey with the gun and detail shots of him. We had a mask for him. And he loved every second of it. Sometimes people disapprove of you putting a hat on a dog or sunglasses on a dog and things like that. In this case here, I would go as far as to say that that was maybe one of the most memorable days in his life. Because he just loved it. He wanted to sit next to me at lunchtime at the table so he brought a chair over so he could sit next to me. It was really kind of remarkable.
Holden: So maybe not such a stupid question, did he ever see pictures of himself?
Albert: Some of the Polaroids, but it was not really particularly interesting. Back then we were shooting film not digital. He was a performer, you know, he probably knew he looked good.
Holden: You make incredibly intelligent pictures and I think they’re so interesting, the construction of the pictures. I think anybody who works intelligently within a kind of medium is aware of what’s gone on in that medium that’s worked really well, what pictures that had been taken have really stayed with them. So I’d like to touch on pictures where there may be an obvious inspiration and ask you know what inspired you? And what was borrowed and what was not borrowed? So I just want to touch on a couple of pictures that may have, you know, references. Because everybody learns from the best and if you don’t, you don’t become the best. So, can we talk a little bit about this which was for German Vogue and the Nickolas Murray pictures?
Albert: So magazines do this from time to time. They’ll come up with a format. They would say let’s do a Frida Kahlo story. I mean, I’ve done lots of stories based on people from the past, I’ve done a Malcolm X story. And I think you look at the references of the hair and the makeup, and sometimes the color ways. And you proceed down the road, you do your research. In this case here, the color was the biggest influence on me. Now, the rest of it, well it’s a Frida Kahlo story therefore you’re beginning to, without being ridiculous, copy the hair, a touch of the makeup and so on. But you’re not going as far as to match a lipstick color or something like that because then it’s just a stretch too far. You’re just exactly copying.
Holden: And we’ve had the prints in the gallery. The colors, the whole vivid sense of being an homage to something, they’re extraordinarily beautiful prints.
Albert: I think it was a homage to her, who was an amazing artist and created. And and her husband, Diego Rivera was an outrageous artist and it was just a very interesting time. So the main thing I got from the originals was the colorway.
Holden: Let’s take a look at this photograph of Kate Moss because we love it.
Albert: That’s a much closer lift, I’d say. So, I’m not so much copying the shot, but the style of the print is is pretty close. Of course I’m aware of all of the work of Man Ray. And I think this was one of the closest influences. But the strange thing is I’m not that good at copying the original. Very often I start out to copy something because I like it and then I’m down the road and by the time we get two hours later, it doesn’t look anything like that.
Working in the Darkroom
Holden: Then it becomes an influence. Albert, maybe 60% of your work was shot in film, because of the time that it was made from the 60s forward, and maybe 40% was shot digitally. You do not give your negatives to printers to print. You’re very careful about making your own prints. This picture of Kate Moss, with the solarization. Can you tell us, how does one go about filling in all of those areas, creating that kind of beautifully sensitive chiaroscuro?
Albert: Just to say something about printing, which I mentioned earlier, I was obsessed by photography, but I was also obsessed by printing. I just loved being in a darkroom printing. I would say you’re slightly wrong. I would say we’re actually as high as about 80% of the total work could be film and 20% digital. I think we’ve been on digital maybe 10-11 years. We were late getting to digital.
I felt very strongly about printing in a darkroom and sometimes a younger photographer would say, “Oh, I have a very good printer in Los Angeles. He understands my mood, what I like” and so on. I’ve been in the darkroom first thing in the morning before you have a cup of coffee and you go and you put the negative in and you’re not warmed up yet but you make a print. And you miss the exposure, you give it far too much light, and you put it in the developer and it comes up too quickly. The image goes dark and you think, “Okay let me just wait.” You process it fully and then you switch on the light and very often you can discover, just by over printing, overexposing, something magical can happen. Something special, something really unusual can happen. A technical printer is never going to spot that.
The choice is up to the photographer. The photographer should be printing his own work not handing it to somebody else to do their thing. You’re always compromising if you do that, there’s always a compromise.
Holden: Your prints are extraordinarily powerful and beautiful and it shows that you’ve gone full circle with how to not just take the picture but how to interpret it. Most photographers are known for single images. They concentrate, they make one powerful image, it’s a standalone image. What’s nice from the very beginning, almost from the 70s when you were working in China, your finished pictures often are made of multiple images. Why? What, what happened that that began something of a trademark for how you work?
Albert: I think it was a natural progression. In the 70s, I drifted away a little bit from graphics. I was very much a handheld Nikon photographer and spontaneous and you would look at a contact sheet and there would be 20 different things on my contact sheet. But as time went on, I returned a little bit to my roots and I became far more interested in graphics. So by the time I got into the 80s, I was already locked onto a graphic style.
There’s one thing you should know here. When I did fashion, I was determined to try and get these models to react to a camera. So I would do the best I could to work on that. Because in so many fashion pictures the model is just bland, they’re there, and that’s it. They’re not expressive.
Albert: Jack Nicholson can come up with this in a split second. He said to me, “I can blow smoke rings.” So then the shooting was over in 15 minutes. He came in and he did that for me so boom. The image is finished, you know.
Albert: Christy Turlington, the fabulous Christy Turlington. I did not want her straight at the camera, not a beauty shot, but I wanted to do the head, almost like the neck was slightly broken. I wanted the graphics of the shoulder to come in the way it came in, and I was using a tiny light on her. Really the light was two or three inches across. I forced her to bend her head back into the light. So a shot like this is about graphics, but there’s also some emotion coming from her, some movement. She’s a supermodel in the fashion business, in the beauty business, but you can’t really look at that and say it’s a beauty shot because it’s not, it’s a portrait.
Holden: What strikes me is when you were shooting these back in the 80s and 90s, now with digital photography, now with everybody taking phone pictures, now with every social media platform, there is such a proliferation of pictures that you basically don’t have standalone images because whatever you see is replaced by the next thing that you see and it goes on ad infinitum. So in a sense, this is very telling and they look very to the moment. So I think they’re really beautiful.
Albert: I think I was probably early on influenced by a lot of classic photography. And a lot of that stayed with me. So if you look at like Edward Weston, I was kind of influenced by Kertesz, Brassai, you know night shooting of Brassai, Rodchenko. And then of course, also the modern German photographers as well I was influenced by them you know Thomas Struth.
Isle of Skye
Holden: Because we’re running out of time, I want to touch on one last body of work to give you an opportunity to talk about which is really expressive, very abstract and different which is the Isle of Skye pictures. Can you talk about these a little bit?
Albert: Sure. Now this is kind of interesting because the Island of Skye I knew before. For those that don’t know, the Island of Skye is off the coast of Scotland and it’s a very sparsely populated, quite large, island. It is very, very beautiful. You know I talked a little bit about preparation. Preparation, preparation! I didn’t want to go there and say, “Okay I’ve got my cameras. Now go to the Isle of Skye because it’s dramatic. And that’s it.” I did so much thinking about this, and I was terrified to go to the Island of Skye and produce postcards. I wanted to work in color, and not in every single picture, but I wanted to work in color.
Albert: I wanted to sometimes work abstractly. I came across the surface of a Loch, a lake, that was absolutely spectacular. And I just became fascinated for three days just photographing the pattern of light on the surface of the water as the wind changed it.
And one other dominating factor, the only book I took with me was a Degas landscape book. I was fascinated by the Degas landscapes – that he could paint a very boring hill and make it not boring at all. That it was something electric and beautiful and amazing. And make it special. So that was the only thing I really had. But I had different things in my head. I had Lord of the Rings in my head. How do I make it strangely mysterious and majestic? How can I just not go there and rely on the drama in front of me? How can I add something to it? How can I make it a little bit mine in a way?
Holden: There’s a big range between abstraction and figuration and taking what’s there and not getting so seduced by it that you don’t make it your own.
Albert: I did a whole series of pictures that were shot from inside the car I was driving. So you’re looking at something and there’s water running down the windshield. It was raining the whole time. I deliberately chose to go to this island in October, November, where the days are shorter ,which is difficult. But I wanted bad weather. So, this is one thing about landscape photography. You have something that you can’t control which makes it interesting for me. You can’t control the weather. Now if you get endless days of the blue sky and white fluffy clouds, it can be quite tricky. If you’re good enough, you should be able to conquer that, but of course I wanted the drama with rain, mist, wind, all the elements that I could squeeze into it with a glimpse of sun once in a while.
Holden: Yeah. Amazing.
Albert: Once again, recreation, in my head. So I actually came away and you never achieve everything that you want to achieve, but I came away with maybe 60% of what I set out to do.
Holden: So, Albert I just want to wrap it up by saying a couple of things reminding people that like your work that you have a retrospective now at Savannah School of the Arts the SCAD Museum. It’s an amazing show. I think it shows your diversity. It’s very hard to think that we can, in a half an hour, talk about your career, because your career has been so rich, your images are so vastly beautiful and they move out in all sorts of directions. I thank you for sharing it with us.
If people are more intrigued and want to know a little bit about how you think and how you can give advice to people. I know that you have a masterclass that you’ve taught. I also look forward to the book, Albert Watson: Creating Photographs (Master of Photography) that you can pre-order on Amazon. So those are secrets from probably one of the greatest photographers out there. I thank you.
I know that you’re leaving tomorrow for Marrakech. One last question, any interesting projects you want to tell us about that are coming up? Now that COVID it seems to be maybe under control.
Albert: Well, I’m not quite finished but I’ve been working on a series of of pictures right now that are dominated by mirrors. Years and years ago, I was in England, and I came across three mirrors that had been made in the 16th century. They were composed of multiple mirrors, and I absolutely loved the look of these mirrors. I actually looked at these mirrors for 25 years. I was looking at these mirrors saying, “I must do something with them.” And I began working with these mirrors and images in the mirrors. Once I did that, I became really fascinated by that because of the possibilities of all kinds of abstractions. The images are powerful. I found that nearly everything I was thinking about would work.
So that’s one thing that I’m working on right now. And of course, due to the pandemic, two weeks ago I was asked to go in and photograph collections in Paris, and I couldn’t get into Paris .I wasn’t allowed to get in there. And so I’m hoping that by the summertime that we’ll be back on track for that.