the wisdom of albert watson

One of the most influential photographers of our time, Albert Watson is the legend behind Pringle of Scotland’s 200th anniversary campaign.

by Anders Christian Madsen
07 September 2015, 9:30am

His portrait of Alfred Hitchcock strangling a naked goose in 1973 definitively put him on the map. In the five decades that followed, Albert Watson's epic career has seen him immortalising the most influential people of our time. In 2014, Watson - who was born in Edinburgh in 1942 and lives in New York - set out to capture the majestic nature of the Isle of Skye. The pictures attracted the attention of Pringle of Scotland, who approached Watson to use them for the 200th anniversary campaign alongside original portraits of Scotsmen associated with the house, shot by Watson: Robert Montgomery, David Shrigley, Anna Freemantle, Stella Tennant, and Englishman Luke Treadaway. Watson told i-D about getting the perfect shot, his thought on fashion photography right now, and working with icons from Steve Jobs to Michael Jackson.

How do you approach portraits like the ones you shot for this campaign?
When you do portraits, there are lots of things you can do. You can set out by saying, "Eye contact or no eye contact?" You can say to them, "Think about your life,' or, "Think about tomorrow," or, "Think about what you're going to be doing this evening or next week." When I did the shot of Steve Jobs that was on his book cover, I said to Steve Jobs, "Just imagine you're across the table from a lot of people, who don't like your ideas, but you know that you're right." He said, "I'm good at that." And that's exactly what he did in that shot. He's got a slight smile, but he's almost menacing. Sometimes people are good at that. So you try to communicate with people and put something in their head. Then you get a better picture.

What do you do to make a person feel comfortable on a portrait shoot?
Not that long ago I was photographing Al Pacino. They wanted to do it at 10 in the morning, which is pretty early for an actor that's doing Broadway, so they said, "He likes a nice cup of coffee." So I found out what particular type of espresso he likes and how he likes it, so when he arrived I had that ready for him. You might go, 'Wow, you went to all that trouble?' To be quite honest, ten minutes? A little bit of research. Send an assistant out to get some coffee. Bring down from your apartment an espresso cup with a little bit of lemon on the side. Not really that difficult, you know?

Looking back at your work, do you have favourites?
When I did more fine art work in the 1970s, the work was very good. The fashion work in the 1970s, looking back on it, I didn't like it. It was too much pandering to what the magazines hoped to get. And of course, when you do that you become tremendously successful. But once you got into the 1980s, I was more difficult and the work became stronger. But stronger in the fashion world isn't necessarily better. Stronger means better pictures, but it doesn't mean to say that people liked them. Grace Coddington once said to me, "Sometimes these pictures you do are just simply too strong." And I knew exactly what she meant: they're heavy.

Is there anyone you would have loved to shoot?
I missed they heyday of Madonna, because I was about to shoot her for Rolling Stone, but then she ended up having a huge fight with the magazine the day before and cancelled the shoot. So that was my only connection with her. I had meetings with her about what we were doing, and she seemed quite good to shoot.

Tell me about shooting Michael Jackson's Invincible album cover.
He was fabulous. I spent three days with him and he was fabulous. The weird thing is he wasn't weird. I found him tremendously respectful. He called me 'maestro' all the time. He requested to meet 'the artist' before the shoot, which he did. I went to his hotel and spent a couple of hours with him. He was totally quiet, respectful, and… amazing, you know? We were basically just chatting. He liked to do snapshots of his kids and he showed me that and asked for advice on better pictures and stuff like that. Snapshots are snapshots so you say, "Well, I think they look just fine."

What's your view of him?
He was wonderful and charming. I actually felt sorry for him because at the end of it, I felt that he was a lost soul, you know? And sometimes that kind of adoration—you have to remember he was famous when he was five or six or seven. The Beatles had that grounding of four years before they became famous, so they always had this grounded feeling in them, even when they got involved with drugs. They had a good way of dealing with that fame, in a way. But he had that adoration throughout his career and it just mentally affects you. I've photographed people at 21 and they become hyper famous, and they're 30 and they're 40 and it affects them. Sometimes not in a bad way, but it affects them.

To what degree does fame breed vanity?
If you're a brilliant writer, you can have a little cottage in the Lake District, and the only thing you have to worry about in terms of vanity is when somebody takes a picture of you for the back cover of the book. And because you're a writer, who cares? Looking in the mirror is not a major part of your day. Michael Jackson's pictures were in front of us every day in the tens of thousands. He would look at them and say, "I don't like this." It was the pressure of that. He had such talent that who cares? God given is God given. God says, "I'm gonna give you some talent to sing and dance and write a song," and after God gives you these things you say, "Oh, can I also look like Johnny Depp, please?"

What are your views on the broad spectrum of fashion photography today?
I think there are a lot of good things, but because of digital everybody is over by a screen looking at every image. Therefore everybody is micromanaging every single aspect of it, so if you're doing a shot and she's got her thumbs in her pocket, somebody looks at it and says, "Make sure you get her hand in the pocket." But maybe those thumbs in the pocket were just fine? A lot of fashion photography, to be honest, depends on what's in front of the camera. If you take a nice clean light in the studio and you photograph a boring catalogue shot with a boring model and you ask them to just basically stand there, and you take out that boring make-up and the boring dress away and put her in an Alexander McQueen with outrageous make-up and hair, and you ask her to stand in exactly the same position and light, and you compare the two pictures, of course all of us would prefer the Alexander McQueen. But really, the two photographs are exactly the same. The difference is what you're shooting. The photographer didn't do anything different.

So it becomes boring?
A lot of photographers wind themselves into a position where what they shoot is exaggerated. And sometimes, basically, it can be a little bit boring when you look at their body of work. They used the same lighting from Tuesday to Friday to next month to the month after that. They didn't change it at all, only the fashion. Of course not everybody is like that, but there are some. Sometimes photographers are brilliant fashion editors. There's not a better fashion editor in the world than Steven Meisel. He understands everything. He's in there with the make-up artist saying, "I want the eyeliner to be neon blue."

Which portrait has been the most important to you?
Confidence wise, it was the shot I did of Alfred Hitchcock. That's one of my favourite shots for what it did for me, but is that one of my best shots? No, not at all. The vast majority is better than that shot. But it gave me confidence and therefore it's a good shot.


Text Anders Christian Madsen

albert watson