Interview with Albert Watson

It probably comes across in my voice during this phone interview, but I was pretty nervous to be interviewing Albert Watson. After all, Photo District News had named Albert one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time, up there with Richard Avedon, Jay Maisel, Helmut Newton and other photographic legends.

For those of who who haven’t heard of Albert, I guarantee that you’ve seen his work before. He has shot over 200 covers for Vogue and 40 covers of Rolling Stone, including an incredible double exposure shot of Mick Jagger and a leopard for the 25th anniversary edition of the magazine.

His client list reads like a celebrity who’s who of the past 40 years, including iconic photographs of Alfred Hitchcock, Sean Penn, Kate Moss, Christie Turlington, Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs and many other movie stars, musicians and supermodels.

In 2007, a large-format print of Kate Moss taken by Albert in 1993 sold at Christie’s in London for $108,000. His limited edition prints have become highly sought after by collectors.

To label Albert Watson as a portrait photographer would be doing him an injustice, with his work spanning across several genres. Earlier this year, Albert put down his film cameras to shoot landscapes in the Isle of Skye with Phase One for a BBC documentary.

In this interview, I spoke in depth with Albert about his life, his work, his inspirations, his camera gear, his advice and much more. It’s a fascinating glimpse back in time by an expert photographer who seems to remember every little detail with his interactions with so many famous historical figures.

If you enjoy the interview, please Like and Share to support Shotkit. Over to you Albert…

Interview transcription

Tell us a bit about your personal life:

I was born in Edinburgh, My mother was a hair dresser and my father was a Physical Education teacher and was originally a professional boxer.

Were your parents supportive about you wanting to become a photographer?

Well I had already left home and was already married by the time I decided I wanted to be a photographer, so I was very independent. I think that later on they were happy, because I was successful.

Was there anything specific that you can remember that made you want to become a photographer?

I was trained as a graphic designer and when I got a hold of a camera, I just felt comfortable with it, and became quite obsessive about it and thought about photography all the time. It was one of those things where as you love it so much, then maybe you should do it. It also fitted in well with what I was doing at art college in Scotland, since I was doing graphic design with a craft subject – photography for 4 years, and then later I went on to the Royal College of Art in London, and I was at a film school there for 3 years.

Did your schooling at the Rudolf Steiner School in Edinburgh affect your creative development in any way?

It certainly did. Rudolf Steiner schools have this particular way of teaching. They try and bring a creative, artistic way into everything – writing, reading, mathematics, the sciences. They bring a lot of creative thought into the teaching of those various subjects.

What was the first camera that you received?

It was a Box Brownie from the 1930s and I still have it. I didn’t receive it though, I borrowed it from my father. Then later for my 21st birthday present, my wife bought me a camera – a Fuji Automatic.

Tell us about the Mick Jagger Double Exposure shot you did for Rolling Stone magazine in LA in 1992.

I wouldn’t say it was by accident as it was obviously intended, but it wasn’t planned as I’d planned to do the shot of Mick Jagger driving the Corvette with a leopard in the front seat.

This was back before the days of Photoshop of course. Nowadays with Photoshop you would just do a shot of a leopard and a shot of Mick Jagger and then splice them together in the car, but back then of course you did it for real.

I’ve shot a lot of wild animals, but leopards are quite tricky and dangerous, whereas a cheetah for example is a better animal to work with. Since the leopard is dangerous, I had to build a partition in the car to protect Jagger from the leopard. While they were building the partition I decided to do this double exposure shot on one roll, where I shot the leopard first and then drew the shape of the leopard on the viewfinder of the camera, rewound the film and then shot Mick twice. Four of the frames actually matched perfectly – the eyes lined up, so it was a little bit lucky. We ended up never using the other photos of Mick in the car. There wasn’t anything wrong with them but the double exposure shot was so strong that Rolling Stone just chose it instead.

Tell us about the photo of Christy Turlington from 1990 in New York. What camera did you use?

The camera I used was a 4×5 Horseman.

How did you light the picture?

Well, nowadays people are not so interested in lighting. I rarely see a photo that’s been amazingly lit, because a lot of photographers tend to go the easier route which is the softbox. I can understand a younger photographer using a softbox because most people look pretty good with a softbox. Girls look pretty, guys can look quite strong and even if the light’s a little bit soft, you can always increase the contrast a bit when you go and make the print.

In this case here with Christy, I used a very small light source – only 5″ across. A lot of time people don’t realise that it’s the distance the light is from the subject that’s crucial, and then you can get fall-off. Basically, if you stand next to a light bulb and the light bulb is 4″ away from your face, the light is very contrasty and falls off very quickly. If I was to move you back 6ft, then there still would be some contrast in the light but not a lot. If I move you back 30ft, by the time the light gets to you it’s very soft. So that principal of lighting, we apply all the time, and the crucial thing for us is distance.

There’s a photographer from New York from the 70s called Francesco Scavullo who was very famous, but the funny thing was, I noticed that every single time he did lighting, it was always exactly the same. He used to have a piece of string hanging from his light, and he would take that piece of string and touch the nose of the person he was photographing with the piece of string, and that way, he was sure his light was always in the same position. The only thing he would change was the height of the light in relation to the height of the person. If you look at his pictures, the light is always the same.

Did you backlight Christy Turlington to achieve the separation?

No, just careful positioning of one light. When you use such a small light source, then of course you can increase the contrast on the face to wherever you want it.

Actually, there was one light on the background, just to make sure that the density of the background was correct.

Going into a shoot like this, does the client ask you create a certain look?

No, this particular shoot was for a magazine and I was completely in control of it. The only requirement from them was that I photograph Christy Turlington all day. That was it. They had some clothes too, but they were just plain black shirts, so I spent the entire day just doing portraits of her.

I didn’t want to do a beauty shot of her – I wanted to concentrate seriously on portraiture, which is different. Most fashion photographers will go in and do a beauty shot. They’re not so interested in portraiture.

When you know how to light, you can experiment with photography. Learn to drive the car first, and then you can take the car anywhere. Learn to do lighting and you can do anything.

Over the years, did you ever encounter famous people who were very difficult to shoot?

I never had a problem with that. The only person that I ever photographed who was very difficult was Chuck Berry the singer. He was a pain in the neck and he was just plain rude. No matter what you said he was rude. He was painful.

You seem to have the ability to make the subject relax and reveal a candid side to them through your photography. Do you have any tips to achieve this?

Well if you can’t communicate with people then it’s going to be very hard, so good communication is obviously the first thing. Celebrities are used to being photographed, and that’s what could make them difficult – that they’re used to be being photographed. Basically I treat everybody the same. I’m direct, organised, efficient, quick and nice to everybody.

How much do you research your subjects before photographing them?

It depends who you’re photographing. For anybody you’re photographing who has some degree of fame, you need to know a lot about the person. When I was photographing Al Pacino, I found out that he likes a particular type of coffee and I made sure that we had that. I actually went out and bought an espresso machine and the correct coffee. When I gave him the coffee he said “I love that coffee” and I said “I know!”

You do research on it, you check with PR people, and just do a lot of research no matter who you’re shooting. I don’t just go to a Wikipedia page and that’s it, I do a lot of reading about the subject.

We’re totally organised when we do these things so we can get the people out nice and early. If they give you an hour and a half, you try and get them out in an hour.

You shot Steve Jobs for his biography. How was it meeting Steve and working with him?

He was fantiastic. I’ve photographed a lot of business people, like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and so on, and Steve was easily the most charismatic. It was more like shooting a movie star like Clint Eastwood. I just had the feeling from him that he was ridiculously smart.

In speaking to him, I thought he was totally aware. He looked around the room and I figured that he sized up in the first minute that we were totally organised and prepared for him and that we would have him out early. I said “we’ll have you out in 15 minutes” and he said “that would be amazing”.

He loved the shot but unfortunately he took the only 2 Polaroids I’d taken – I wish I still had them, but Steve asked if he could have them.

What camera were you shooting with?

Still the Horseman 4×5.

Was that iconic Steve Jobs ‘thinking’ pose something you came up with?

No, he said “I did a shot a few years ago a bit like this”, and I said “you can do whatever you like.” I controlled some things like his attitude and so on, but if someone wants to give you something you take it. It was actually his select in the end – he chose that one.

In your photo of Alfred Hitchcock holding the goose taken in LA in 1973, you went against the original plan of having the goose on a platter. Even though this was your first major shoot and you were obviously very nervous, what made you want to make such a decision?

I wasn’t concerned that I wanted to be different from everybody else, I just thought it was the right thing to do. So I challenged the magazine on that a little bit, and they called back and told me that I could go ahead with my idea.

What camera were you using?

A Hasselblad and a Nikon. I used two and a quarter film in the Hasselblad obviously, with Tri-X, and I shot the Nikon in colour with Kodachrome.

And the lighting setup?

It was a Balcar light with an umbrella. Back then I just did very simple lighting.

How was Alfred Hitchcock?

He was fantastic. He helped me. I think he sensed that I was a little bit nervous which I was of course, and he just made the whole shoot a pleasure.

Regarding the transition from film to digital – when did it happen for you?

It was quite late, about 5 years ago.

What was the first digital cameras you started using?

I think we’ve always used Phase One backs on Hasselblads. I just did a project up in Scotland on the Isle of Skye with Phase, shooting landscapes with Phase.

What camera did you use for the BBC documentary on the Isle of Skye?

The Phase One IQ280. We’d shoot 4, 5 or 6 80mp landscape pictures with it and then reassemble them in a computer so the definition is better than an 8 x 10.

How do you find shooting landscapes compares to shooting people?

I’ve always done landscapes. I did a book called Maroc and that’s full of landscapes, and even when I was younger I did landscapes. So, I’ve always done still life and landscapes. With photography I’m very old fashioned – I’m a ‘photographer’. Nowadays when you say you’re a photographer, people always want you to say what kind of photography you do. With me, it’s quite difficult. I’m not really a celebrity photographer, even though I’ve done many celebrities; I’ve done many nudes, still life, landcapes, fashion… hundreds of thousands of fashion! Millions! Each thing offers its own challenges. If I’ve been shooting landscapes for a month, then I’m very happy to get back to shooting human beings.

You’ve also done a lot of tv commercials. Does motion picture excite you?

It does, but it’s challenging as you have to try and solve problems. Unfortunately, with tv commercials, there’s so many people that aren’t brilliant who you have to deal with. TV is very expensive to do, especially if you’re doing a long commercial. It can be half a million dollars or more to do a 30 second commercial. When you get sums of money like that, everyone’s very nervous. The client’s very nervous, the agency people are very nervous… and it’s not a great creative environment. It’s challenging and interesting to do and I’ve certainly done enough of them.

Are you very hands on with the post processing of the digital files?

We’re very hands on. We’re totally in house. We do all the printing ourselves from film to paper, or digital to paper, the Photoshopping is done by our retouchers too.

I’m completely and absolutely a printer. I spent 45 years in the darkroom. Tomorrow I’ll be in the darkroom all day. Therefore for me to switch from 45 years in a darkroom to a computer screen and printing on paper is different, but of course after 45 years in the darkroom, you actually learn something about printing.

How do you feel about the transition from film to digital?

I think it’s always interesting that photographers always want to talk about this. They seem to think it’s very important. When things went from twin lens reflexes to single lens reflexes, or if you go back to the 50s there was no such thing as a zoom lens, but then in the 60s, you suddenly see movies using zoom lenses. So as technological advances come along, you should be aware of them, and you should adopt them. But in the end, I could show you a 16″ x 20″ print and ask you if it’s a digital file, a film file, or a film file that’s been translated into digital – even if you put the 3 prints next to each other at this size, it’s very hard for people to tell. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard. People make such a fuss about it, but if you look in a magazine, the only way you can really tell that they’re using digital is because everything’s so clean. People are putting everything through retouchers. Before, photos went from the negative straight into the magazine.

I think it is an important technological revolution but just because it comes along, it doesn’t make the pictures that much better. You still have to take a good picture.

Do you have just a small everyday pocket camera?

I’ve got a Canon Sureshot and an iPhone which I use for reference pictures, for locations or whatever.

Do you have an all time favourite camera/lens combination?

A 4×5 camera with film in it is pretty good. 8×10 gets a bit clunky and heavy, whereas a 4×5 you still have flexibility. There’s a certain quality of the lenses, and there’s a certain quality in the fact that it’s a plate camera. The lens choice is completely open. I can use an 80mm, a 120mm, a 100mm, a 150mm… very rarely am I using a 250mm on portraiture.

Is there anyone that you haven’t photographed yet that you’d like to?

Not really. I’m just interested in everybody. I did a project a few years ago in Africa on the west coast and it was just fabulous to photograph all these people. So you could say I would like to go and photograph people all over the place. If I wanted to photograph someone, I could probably get to them though.

It’s always interesting to photograph important people. Someone I wouldn’t mind photographing is Lady Gaga. So many pictures of her I hate because it’s all about all the junk that she’s got on because basically she’s like a Christmas tree. But I think that underneath that she’s really interesting. I’d like to do something not too over the top with her – some strong portraiture.

Do you still find photography challenging even after all this time?

Of course! I’m critical every day of what I do. You can always be better.

Do you have any tips for an aspiring photographer who’s picking up a camera for the first time?

Nothing more than the really obvious – if you’re really interested in it, you should be shooting every single day. You should have the camera with you and you should be shooting everything, then spending time later to really analyse what you shot. You should spend a week shooting everything, then spend a few days analysing what you shot, making notes, selecting what you think are your better pictures and beginning to be really critical of your own work. You only get better by shooting every minute of every day. The only thing that you can practise everyday and you don’t beat is golf!

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