Interview with Albert Watson
The 1942-born Albert Watson made history with his portrait of Steve Jobs, as well as those of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and many other prominent creative figures. Over one hundred covers have been shot by him for Vogue, and he has collaborated with brands like Prada and Chanel. During Fashion Politique’s photoshoot with Carmen Dell’Orefice, he said:
Photography encompasses many different things. It can be a picture of a flower, a still life, the Tutankhamun gloves I photographed in the Cairo Museum, a Catherine Deneuve cover, or a movie poster for Kill Bill. In other words, the first thing you have to do is to have a passion for photography, pure photography.
Here is the full interview with Danilo Venturi, Director of IED Firenze and author of Brand Persona: The Four-Step Method.
Albert Watson by Mark Edward
From fashion to landscapes, you have covered a variety of subjects in your work. How do you approach a project differently in maintaining its signature style?
I think overall I have a general love and obsession with photography, which encompasses many different things. It can be a picture of a flower, a still life, the Tutankhamun gloves I photographed in the Cairo Museum, a Catherine Deneuve cover, or a movie poster for Kill Bill. In other words, the first thing you have to do is to have a passion for photography, pure photography. I never said to myself, “Okay, you are going to be a portrait photographer, a celebrity photographer, a fashion photographer”, or “you are going to specialize in still life and on occasion, you might pick a landscape picture”, nor did I ever tell myself that I wouldn’t be any of those things. For years, I wanted to go to an island and do landscape work for six weeks. And so therefore, I would look back at my life and say, “I loved those six weeks that I spent on the remote island, almost at the edge of winter”. I always wanted to do that, and I did it. The bottom line is that, in the very beginning, when I was young, I was trained as a graphic designer. Nonetheless, graphic design was never a major part of what I wanted to do. It was very important to me, but photography was more important. Then, I always had a love for movies, new movies, old movies, movies from ten years ago… whatever. So, the pictures that I do are a combination of graphics and film. When I approach a landscape or a fashion shot, I am working naturally. I’m not analyzing. When I take a picture, I’m not saying, “Oh, I love that picture, but it doesn’t look like me so I’m not going to take the picture”. I take the picture, and I think, “Oh, that looks good, that’s fine”, and I just accept it.
One of your most iconic photographs is the portrait of Steve Jobs. Can you share with us the story behind the photograph and the experience of shooting it?
Basically, he was supposed to arrive at nine o’clock in the morning in Cupertino where the offices of Apple were. He was there between nine o’clock and ten o’clock. At five to ten a PR guy came, very bodied, and said to me, “He is just about to come, he’s going to be here in five minutes, and he doesn’t like photographers. In fact, he hates photographers”. I said, “Well, I’m sorry, I just have to take his picture”. Then, the PR left and went to get Steve Jobs. In in those five minutes, I thought, “Wow, how can I make Steve Jobs feel a little bit better about a photographer?”. Obviously, I was well prepared. I was there two hours before the shoot, everything was lit and marked. Everything was planned. I was shooting film, not digital. When he finally arrived, I told him, “I have good news for you, I only need you for thirty minutes, not an hour”, and he was so happy. He said, “Oh, that’s great. I am so busy right now”. He was really happy, smiling. He said, “Are you sure that’s all right with you?”. I said, “Yeah, that’s fine. I can do it. I’m organized”. And he said, “Oh my god, you are shooting film? Why aren’t you using a digital camera?”. And I said digital wasn’t quite there yet, at that time. And then he said, “Well, I agree with you”. But then he pointed his finger at me and said, “But we will get there”, meaning the digital will conquer film eventually. So, the shooting went very well. He then saw a Polaroid that I took and loved it. He said, “That’s maybe one of the best pictures ever taken of me”. At that point I thought he was just being nice, because I was being nice to him. And then a few years later, there was a call from Apple saying they needed the picture urgently. We prepared it and sent it to them. Apple used it as his obituary picture. He died that afternoon, and they used that picture as an announcement. So, in other words, the bottom line was he did like it.
You mentioned digital. Your career has spanned over five decades, with the digital revolution and social media dominance. How has the photography industry changed?
There are different areas of photography. Some people work for National Geographic, others do car photography, and so on. One thing included in digital photography is always the use of computers. With digital, you just assume it’s a camera. For example, car photography had to be immaculate because there wasn’t any retouching, going back into the 70s, 80s, and the 90s. It was very minimal, you had to get on a piece of film, the whole thing, looking pretty much 95%. Perfect, right? If there was a bad highlight or something like that, you had to fix it. A lot of times, I would go out to the desert at four o’clock in the morning and set up the car shot for the sun to just come over the horizon line. It was the perfect flat light with some vibrancy to photograph cars. Nowadays, the computer has changed that. For example, the creative approach and the technical approach is different because of the computer. If a shot perhaps is a little bit too magenta in the blink of an eye, in a hundredth of a second can change it. So, computers changed a lot. A photographer doesn’t have to be quite so disciplined. For me, the digital camera, and the film camera, of course, are different animals. You look in a digital camera and you see a rectangle. As a photographer, who you are and what you do is determined by what you put into the rectangle, right? What you put in the rectangle is what you are. When you look through a film camera, you see a rectangle, and who and what you are is determined by what you put into that rectangle. The two systems are interpreted differently, but essentially, it hasn’t changed. The big change for me, personally, was not the cameras at all. I hit the shutter, and I get a picture. I hit the shutter on a film camera, and I get the picture. The big change, once again, is the computer adjusting things for you in a vastly different way to what used to happen in a darkroom when you put a negative in that category. The computer gives you a lot more control. And it’s a control that of course, you must be careful with. We’ve got lucky because we spent forty years in the darkroom and now for our reports, the printing is a combination of analog and digital together. That has changed, but not changed. Computers are the change. That’s the biggest thing.
All right let’s talk about the human side. What impact do you hope your work has on your viewers? And what do you want them to take away from it?
The main thing that I was always striving for, that you can’t do all the time and you are lucky to do it 10% of the time, is to create memorable images that stay in somebody’s head. The memorability factor is quite important to me. The interesting thing with art is that it is memorable. If you think of a lot of great art, you remember it, you remember the image, because your mind holds on to it, because it has an effect on you. You’re always trying to do images that are direct, interesting, sometimes there’s some complexity, but images where you’re attempting to make the viewer enter the picture, get a hold of it, remember it. In many cases we sell pictures that people eventually want to buy in a frame and it ends up in their living room or bedroom. Memorability is an important factor. This way you can take a horrible picture of the city, and someone can look at it and say, “Well, that’s memorable”. I want the picture to have a pretty good and artistic quality, that it seduces the person looking at it.
You are a giant in photography. There must be a question for the next generation. How do you become Albert Watson?
My feeling is - and I’ve used this analogy many times - when you first learn to drive a car, it’s very impossible, and you think you will not be able to do all these things, like change the gears, turn the wheel, look in a mirror, and then not kill yourself or somebody else. After a bit of time, you feel better about it, you get more confidence, and you’re able to go around the parking lot without killing anybody. Then bit by bit, in six months, a year, two years, you begin to jump into your goals. I think the handling of photography is like that. You simply get better and better at it for you to do it again and again. But you need that secret ingredient, which essentially is obsession. You must be obsessed. Waking up in the middle of the night. Waking up in the morning, going to exhibitions in the great museums of the world and galleries all over, from Paris, to London, to Berlin, to New York, and so forth. You are aware of art on the internet, you are aware when you enter a bookshop. Your obsession, continued endeavor, addiction is a driving force to make you a bit better and better. I call it the slog. Lots of people have done the slog. You can think of somebody like a Mozart. His father had him at a piano when he was two or three years old, so Mozart obviously had the DNA from his father. At the same time, his father was drilling him from the age of two and three. Even when he was in his bed, his father was there practicing music. So, by the time he was getting to seven or eight, almost or nine years old, you could almost say that Mozart had about eight years of experience in music. He wrote a simple opera when he was seven. It’s at that point where it’s called the slog. They always said when the Beatles arrived, “How did they get so good so quickly?”. But then if you look at the history of The Beatles you understand that they arrived in 1963. If you do some research on it, you will see them as very young guys on the back of a truck playing as a group and it’s 1959. By the time they arrived in 63 they had been playing together for five years performing in places like Hamburg. Up to five gigs a day for the whole summer and early winter. So, anybody who wants to do it, it’s a slog. Slog is just showing up, working all the time. You need that. It’s not the secret ingredient, but you need that ingredient of obsession. A new obsession combined with the slog makes you better over time. You just get more familiar with everything. Like a car, you become able to drive it more naturally. Photography is a bit like that. I’m sure that you have been interviewed many times. So far, is there any question that you never had but would like to answer?
One thing that I was speaking with my family, is that a lot of people in life look forward to retirement. The interesting thing about photographers is in general they do not look forward to retiring. The good news is photographers never retire. But sometimes when you think of the whole situation of a photographer, like family, friends…and wife. I’ve been married for 62 years. The bad news is photographers never retire. I think the question could have been why photographers do, for the most part, never retire. The obvious answer is that they love what they’re doing. That’s the easy answer. They enjoy what they are doing. A lot of photographers work till the end. Peter Lindbergh died not so long ago, I think two years ago, a year and a half. When he did, he was basically working. Richard Avedon was working on the job. Irving Penn was printing, he felt sick, and he died. He was 92. I think there is a thing regarding work, you live longer when you are working longer. You get to 60, then you get to 70, then to 80. It’s just an interesting discussion that photographers seem to just keep on going for the most part. I’ve met photographers that were one or two generations ahead of me and they were still working people, like Cecil Beaton. I mean, he was still working. That’s a question that has an easy answer. Why do photographers never seem to retire? You know, they just keep on going. Yeah. And maybe painters. Painters do it either. It’s not a job, it’s your life.