ALBERT WATSON FEATURE
Scottish photographer ALBERT WATSON has waited a long time to publish his ﬁrst book. His subjects include Hollywood celebrities, supermodels in Paris and standing stones on Orkney. Lila Rawlings went in search of the enigmatic, little-known man behind the camera lens.
here’s more than a hint of autobiographical allusion lurking behind the title of Albert Watson’s new book, Cyclops. On one level, it could be a reference to his Gargantuan, almost mythological reputation within the glamorous world of glossy magazine photography. But the fact of the matter is that since birth, Albert Watson has sight in only one eye. He looks at the world as if looking through the single lens of a camera, which might account for the concentration and clarity that have become the trade mark of his photographs over the last twenty years. He is courted by the editors and art directors of Vogue, Rolling Stone. Newsweek, Time, and lately The List, who go weak at the knees at the thought of an Albert Watson cover. Despite this, his name is still relatively unknown in the public domain —- he’s been described as ‘the greatest little- known photographer in the world’. As yet, he is still to receive the kind of international recognition enjoyed by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Herb Ritz.
On meeting the slight, intense Watson, the descriptions of his hyperactive ‘human dynamo’ qualities seem to be an understatement. There’s something engaging about his high octane speech (characterised by a weird kind of Penicuik meets Manhattan twang) and his
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animated, expressive eyes, disconcertineg magnified through his small round specs. He is back in Edinburgh, his home town, to visit friends and family and is waxing lyrical about the place he left 27 years ago. ‘I always liked this city and the surrounding countryside, but now I’m obsessive about it.’ His no—nonsense approach to photography and attitude towards his own talent come as a refreshing surprise from someone who spends so much time working in the superficial worlds of fashion and advertising or photographing Hollywood celebrities. ‘Taking photographs has always felt very natural and comfortable to me, discovering something that I could do well was just like a footballer realising that he has a good kick.’
Born and raised in Edinburgh, his first contact with photography was via his dad’s Box Brownie which he used to take photos of his baby sister. He left Scotland aged 24 after ﬁnishing his graphics training at Dundee College of Art to pursue an interest in film and TV at the Royal College. When his wife was offered a teaching job in the States, Albert and their two small sons relocated to Los Angeles. According to his friends, he was very much ‘Liz’s unemployed husband’ at this time, who picked up a camera more to relieve his boredom than fulfil a burning ambition to become the next Irvine Penn. In 1976 he followed the work to New York where he started taking photographs for magazines. Eighteen years and 286 Vogue covers later, he is one of the most commercially successful photographers in the world. When Martin Scorsese or Jack Nicolson want their portraits taken, it’s Albert they choose, not just because he is guaranteed to make them look good but because of his reputation for being fast and extremely professional.
‘My work is about diversity, which I love. A normal working trip for me would start in the Orkneys where I’d be photographing standing stones, then to Paris to cover the catwalk shows, followed by a visit to Cairo museum to work on some still lifes from Tutankhaman’s tomb and finish up in Gracelands to photograph Elvis’s gold lame suit.’
Although he’s in big demand for his portraiture and fashion work, he’s keen to resist being type cast as a celebrity photographer. ‘Most people pick up on my portraits, but places and things are an important part of my work,’ he says. ‘They see me and say, “Look at that Scottish guy taking photographs in Hollywood” which is ﬁne, but it’s all part of the personality cult that’s too restrictive and ultimately about manipulating people.’
Anyone who has ever worked with Watson is familiar with his single-minded, rigorous approach. ‘I gave up everything to become a good photographer and I expect the same from the people that want to work with me.’ This has
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meant an unconventional, often difﬁcult, life for his family. ‘My kids didn’t have birthday parties, I missed their graduation because I was on an assignment. That’s why Cyclops is dedicated to my family because they gave everything up for me.’ Far from discouraging his offspring, his ambition and drive seem to have inspired his oldest son, Norman, whose photographs can be found adorning recent issues of both The Face and Arena. Watson happily offers up his Scottishness as the reason behind his love of hard graft, ‘In the last 24 years. I’ve probably done 48 years worth of work. When we went into the archives to research the book, we found 6.8 million pieces of film.’ Prolific by any standards.
At 53, Cyclops is his ﬁrst book and brings together an eclectic collection of black and white photographs, exquisitely printed using a new CristalRaster technique that accentuates the slick, highly polished look of his work. The images have arrived from a number of sources. Some began as commercial commissions (album covers for Sade or Ryuichi Sakamoto), others from magazine assignments (celebrity portraits, fashion spreads, reportage shots), and perhaps most interestingly, some are snap shots of things and places that tell of Watson’s own personal obsessions. From Sade’s shimmering skin tones to the rough textures of a pebble found in Skarra Brae, Albert Watson’s work is very much about the nature of ‘things’.
‘I think some people have difficulty locking into what my pictures are about because I like to combine still lifes with landscape, fashion and
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