Photographs with a Lasting Impact

Albert Watson’s photography defies an easy characterization. He has always responded to the subject he is photographing with a style that he feels is appropriate. Whether it is the hard edge, hard focus looks at objects such as helmets, space suits, gloves, or the soft mysterious lighting of Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell, he has always found a way to deliver photographs that have a lasting impact. Albert always stays true to himself. Watson’s visual language follows his own distinctive rules and concepts. With their brilliance and urgency, his pictures stand out against the world of today’s almost limitless images. His lighting and unique composition of subjects, especially his portraits, create a nearly meditative atmosphere. Ultimately, Albert Watson is an artist who greatly enriches our appreciation of photography.

Distinctly “Watson”

Though the wide variety of his images reflects an effortless versatility, they are nevertheless identifiable as Albert Watson’s photographs by their inventiveness and technical virtuosity. Watson’s photography is highly distinctive. Whether it’s a portrait of a Las Vegas dominatrix or a close-up of King Tutankhamen’s glove. This unwavering commitment to perfection has made Albert one of the world’s most sought-after photographers. He is one of the most renowned names in fashion and commercial photography.

Iconic Portraits

Through his many remarkable commissions for magazines like VogueTimeRolling Stones, Harper’s Bazaar, and GQ, Albert Watson has created some incredible iconic portraits which have imprinted themselves into our collective consciousness. A few of Watson’s famous images have become mainstays in pop culture. The Steve Jobs portrait used for his biography, the early portraits of Kate Moss, the pictures of Jack Nicholson blowing cigar rings, the portrait of Alfred Hitchcock holding a goose, and the double exposure of Mick Jagger and a leopard, are examples. Watson’s work ultimately blends art, fashion, and commercial photography into enduring pictures that have helped shape the fashion industry and the entertainment world for over 50 years.

The Cult of Darth Vader

In a 2005 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, with an interview titled The Cult of Darth Vader, made after the last release of the new Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas looks back at one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Darth Vader. Albert Watson was commissioned to photograph the costume, and one of the resulting pictures became the issue’s cover. As Watson recalls, it was a difficult picture to capture because the black armor created a great deal of reflections with the lighting. In addition to this was that the photograph was captured on film, before the days of standard Photoshop editing.

Nonetheless, through his technical prowess, Watson ensured a way to turn a challenging photoshoot into flawless photographs. In addition, the photographer remembers, the movie studio sent an armed guard with them to Albert’s studio. As it was the original costume used in the 1977 movie, the studio was very protective of it. And without a doubt, as the character and its story have a massive influence on our culture.

Albert Watson, Darth Vader, the Original Helmet, ‘Star Wars,’ New York City
Albert Watson, Darth Vader, the Original Helmet, ‘Star Wars,’ New York City, 2005, Archival Pigment Photograph

Director George Lucas described the creation of Darth Vader in the interview.

“I had to make Darth Vader scary without the audience ever seeing his face. Basically, it’s just a black mask. “How do I make that evil and scary?”

“The first film, people didn’t even know whether there was a person there. They though there was a person there. They thought he was a monster or some kind of robot. In the second film, it’s revealed that he’s a human being, and in the third film you find out that, yes, he’s a father and a regular person like the rest of us – he’s just got a bit of a complexion problem.” – George Lucas.

Albert Watson, Darth Vader, the Original Full Costume, ‘Star Wars,’ New York City, 2005
Albert Watson, Darth Vader, the Original Full Costume, ‘Star Wars,’ New York City, 2005, Archival Pigment Photograph

A Black and White Approach

Albert Watson’s picture of Darth Vader is almost clinical. A white background creates a stark contrast to Vader’s shiny jet-black armor. The difference creates a striking, imposing figure that can symbolize fear, discipline, and authority. After all, the character was envisioned from a blend of historical references. These included the mixture of a samurai helmet with an outer space breathing mask, clerical robes, a motorcycle suit of protective equipment, a German military helmet, a military gas mask, and the menacing stature of its portrayal actor.

In essence, Darth Vader represented the faceless, omnipresent evil of unregulated authority and power. In contemporary times, his tragic hero narrative has even been diagnosed as Border Personality Disorder by clinicians. This moves the needle from fantasy to an exploration of the dark parts of the psyche.

The Dark Side

Not only did Darth Vader become a cultural icon, but the Star Wars saga represented American innovation at the time. It moved Hollywood cinema from deep, emotional movies to films presenting an immersive fantasy universe. Above all, the movies referenced archetypes that transcend time to create stories in a dramatic visual way through the use of special effects.

This innovation in filmmaking, paired with the storyline of a rebel Republic in conflict with an evil Empire, had analogous connotations to the Cold War still occurring during the late 1970s and 80s. The notion of an all-powerful lurking evil lingering around the corner was prescient on the minds of Americans at the time. It’s no wonder Vader became the personification of evil for generations of American youth. The dark, towering figure, with a mechanical voice, unknown to the viewer if man or machine or monster, became the reverberating villain influencing Western cinema to the present day. He became the pervasive dark side that is always in the world.

A Worthy Adversary

Albert Watson’s career has combined a wealth of commissions of great personalities, and titans from the creative world, joined to inventive personal projects. Moreover, he has had a significant impact on contemporary photography. Watson’s work still has a major influence on a new generation of image makers. Ultimately, Watson’s mastery at capturing subjects, with Darth Vader’s trademark contrarian attitude and arms crossed pose, offers the character the capacity to transcend from the silver screen to popular culture. For Albert Watson, the Scotsman with an Order of the British Empire (OBE), for his lifetime contribution to the art of photography, Darth Vader may be a worthy adversary.


Albert Watson was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. He studied graphic design at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee and film and television at the Royal College of Art in London. Unhindered by being blind in one eye since birth, Albert studied photography as part of his curriculum. In 1970, he moved to the US with his wife, Elizabeth. She got a job as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles. There, Albert began shooting photos, mainly as a hobby. Later that year, Albert was introduced to an art director at Max Factor, who offered him his first session, from which the company bought two shots.

Albert’s distinctive style eventually caught the attention of Harper’s Bazaar, and he began commuting between Los Angeles and New York. In 1976, Albert landed his first job for Vogue. He moved to New York permanently, shifting his career into high gear. Despite the taxing toll of his commissioned assignments, Albert Watson never stopped devoting time to his personal projects. In addition, he has published various books throughout the years.  His latest one, part of the “Masters of Photography” series, called “Creating Photographs” published by Laurence King Publishing. Photo District News, the influential photography trade industry magazine, named Albert as one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time, alongside the names of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.