Icons of Photography: Albert Watson

Albert Watson was born in 1942, in suburban Scotland and blind in one eye. He was the son of a boxer and a teacher. His formal education started at a Rudolf Steiner school – arty, ‘alternative’, rooted in Germanic mysticism and idealism. Those articles of faith stayed with him. Physical masculinity, the Celtic fringe and its Calvinistic work ethic, a rock-heavy conviction that there is significance in art and education, a belief in the physical world as a spiritual entity: all these early teachings and beliefs are there in his photographs. There and clear. As, of course, is his (literal) singularity of vision. He called his first book Cyclops.

He is, for want of a less mealy-mouthed phrase, the least famous of the world’s most successful commercial photographers. Yet he is known and celebrated for creating famous pictures: iconic images that resonate way beyond the world of photography. The bull-neck of a monochrome Mike Tyson. The yellow feministic violence of the poster for Kill Bill. Not just images that set out to be iconic but ones with real, lived-life magnitude. His portraits are memorable, often hinged on a simple but really clever device. Steve Jobs of Apple with his hand on his beaded chin, that’s a Watson.

A latecomer to the game, he only started working as a photographer in his late twenties – having already made his way through the British art school system, first studying graphics in Scotland, then film at the Royal College of Art, then lecturing. Like many another Scot before him, he had to emigrate to become himself. He moved to the US on August 28, 1970. That the specific date has become part of his biographical notes makes clear how pivotal a moment it was. He went because his wife Elizabeth had taken a job in a California primary school. There, at something of a loose end, he took up photography as a hobby. 

‘I kind of just felt very, very comfortable with photography when I first came in touch with it as a graphic designer. It fitted me perfectly. When you find something that fits perfectly then it will always cause you to be passionate, and you are onto a good thing. That over-riding passion tends to dominate your life. Also, I have another passion besides photography: I like working.’

Within three years, he would take the picture that would make his career, if not his name. Taken for the Christmas 1973 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, it’s a portrait of Alfred Hitchcock holding a dead goose with a ribbon round its neck. It would be unfair and stupid to say that he’s spent his working life making variants of the same picture. His work is far too varied for that. Yet that early iconic image did prefigure much of his future work. It is sharp-focused, black-and-white and uncluttered. His compositions are invariably simple, rarely angled or aggressively cropped. 

The Hitchcock photograph clearly has meaning. Moreover, that meaning is both shaded and enlivened by a peculiar dead-pan surrealism – that most genuinely popular of modern art influences. He splashes it into and over many of his pictures. A monkey with a gun, Mick Jagger as a leopard, a black shiny high-heel at the end of a black, shiny leg on top of an old-fashioned electric hob. He credits his earliest photographer influences as Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz and Brassaï but, to my eye, there are even louder echoes of the work of Man Ray, another suburbanite who had to cross the Atlantic to become himself (if in the opposite direction). 

In 1976, Watson moved to New York and photographed his first Vogue cover. He has since shot more than 250 Vogue covers – plus 40 or so for Rolling Stone. He is a very commercial commercial photographer. He has worked for Mademoiselle, Time, Vibe, GQ and Arena. For The Face he did a memorable Malcolm X-inspired fashion shoot – when he was already twice the age of the magazine’s editors, let alone its readers. He has shot campaigns for Gap, Levi’s and Tiffany. He has made 650 TV commercials and he did the posters for Memoirs of a Geisha and The Da Vinci Code as well as Kill Bill! He was even the official photographer for Prince Andrew’s marriage to Sarah Ferguson.

‘If somebody’s paying for a job I’ll try to make sure they get what they’ve got to get. But I much prefer to go the way I see it and the way that I think is correct for a client.’ 

He’s so prolific, across so many areas, that sometimes clients ask, in all naivety: is there another Albert Watson? His work schedule can make workaholism seem like an understatement. On one day, he did a fashion shoot for French Vogue in Paris, took Concorde to New York for an afternoon advertising session, then a flight to Los Angeles for a Frank Zappa album cover. He has a reputation as a hard taskmaster yet, in the words of an art director he is also ‘an incredible sweet-heart and still works harder than an art school grad on their first assignment’.

The subject matter of his own personal work can tend to the unoriginal – motels, Las Vegas, neon, Kate Moss naked. But his take is always original. Further, he is unafraid to work with the unoriginal. Like all the best commercial photographers, he can express our shared universal unoriginality – because, at heart, he shares it. He is quite unafraid of the obvious. His picture of Nine Inch Nails, thickly covered with mud, for example.

His blind eye? That’s the one that lets him see so well – just as it did for the singular vision of those great one-eyed film directors Fritz Lang, John Ford and Nicholas Ray. As Lang’s high contrast black-and-white film noir dramas, so Watson’s machine-gun panorama of Jack Nicholson in sunglasses — and his picture of a hooded and revolvered Tupac Shakur. As Ray’s red-jacketed James Dean, so Watson’s Mia, a pale-skinned pole-dancer in an empty, daylight-bright Las Vegas club, flattened on the dance floor like a spatchcocked chicken, her face hidden by a tumble of curly hair – or his Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone half-obscured by his own cigarette smoke.

As Ford’s Monument Valley, so Watson’s pictures of Elvis’s gold lame suit, Tutankhamen’s glove and Alan Shepard’s space suit. He is good on still lifes. His monocularity makes him acutely conscious that, unlike movies or painting, photography does not offer the consolation of temporality. There is a clarity of vision, a compression of time into the moment. He takes inanimate objects and reveals their essence as markers – and makers – of civilisations. The word ‘icon’ has, like many another word – valence or irony, for example – been badly abused by both social science academics and the art world writers who have abducted and further degraded the language of other logorrheic disciplines. Watson’s still lifes really are modern-day icons, though: emulsion- thin, flat representations of worship, shining with deep, deep love. He imbues the objects with veneration – not just his but ours. He reflects our own dreams back at us.

Whether photographing standing stones in the Orkneys, Dennis Hopper or Tutankhamen’s socks in Cairo, says Watson, ‘I don’t really have a different way with them. My approach to the end image is the same. I’m after an image that has power, so I want power from a sock, or a rock, and power from Dennis Hopper.’

Since 1987, he’s worked out of a giant studio, with a big staff, on Washington Street in Manhattan’s West Village. His wife runs the business. His son Norman is also a photographer. If you want to buy a Watson print, contact his other son Aaron.

© Peter Silverton 2021

Image: David Eustace

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