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Albert Watson’s Guide to Timeless Photography

Albert Watson’s Guide to Timeless Photography

A singular figure in photography, Albert Watson shares wisdom gleaned from half a century behind the camera.
Andy Warhol, Glasses, 1985 © Albert Watson

On the cusp of his 80th birthday, Scottish photographer Albert Watson has become one of the greatest photographers of our time. With more than 100 covers for Vogue, 40 covers for Rolling Stone, and 100 album covers for Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Sade, Aaliyah, and Jay-Z, Watson stands alongside Irving Penn and Richard Avedon as an artist whose work has transformed the very way we see.

Since publishing his iconic photograph of Alfred Hitchcock holding a cooked goose by the neck for the 1973 Christmas issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Watson has become a veritable force of nature. Whether shooting fashion, celebrity, portraiture, advertising, landscape, still life, or fine art, Watson is equally comfortable photographing Queen Elizabeth II or Tupac Shakur.

Alfred Hitchcock, Los Angeles, 1973 © Albert Watson

With the recent publication of Creating Photographs, Watson offers an affordable and accessible guide to the secrets of his photography career, including, “Be bold,” “Capture the geography of the face,” “See the beauty and charisma of objects,” and “Surround yourself with good people.”

The book opens with a chapter titled, “Learning from the journey,” Watson looks back on half a century behind the camera. “I wasn’t trying to be a photographer so there was a lot I had to learn. I assumed that I should be learning technical things in the same way you learn to drive a car,” he reveals. Learning on the job, Watson discovered how things worked, what made them good or bad, and how he could make them better through the fusion of technique and creativity.

Divine, New York City, 1978 © Albert Watson

Preparation Meets Opportunity

Albert Watson is a master of the form who knows a photograph begins before he even picks up the camera. Among the lessons he imparts in Creating Photographs is the understanding that photography is “80 percent creative, 20 percent technical” — a lesson gleaned from studying graphic design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, where he learned the secret to making great art begins with the seed of an idea. But the best ideas are flexible, adapting themselves to the subject so that the photograph becomes a collaborative experience.

“Sometimes you get lucky,” Watson recalls, sharing the story of the time he art up the studio with a series of slim mirrors to photograph Jack Nicholson. “I had an idea that you would have eight or ten Jack Nicholson in the camera at one time, each from slightly different angles. When Jack arrived, he had a cigar. He asked, ‘Do you want me to get rid of the cigar?’ and I said, ‘No you can use it.’ Then he suddenly said to me, ‘You know, I can blow smoke rings.’” Watson’s story is a telling reminder of what Roman philosopher Seneca once said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Christy Turlington, New York City, 1990 © Albert Watson

Think on Your Feet

Iconic images are often deceptively simple, but extremely precise. They become indelible, unforgettable, and profound, capturing the very essence of the moment as it unfolds. Albert Watson pens a chapter titled, “Look for Memorability” in the book, recognizing that the secret to a great photograph is the way it leaves its mark. Consider the image of Mick Jagger in Car with Leopard, Los Angeles, 1992 — a searing moment of danger and glamour in equal doses.

Mick Jagger in Car with Leopard, Los Angeles, 1992 © Albert Watson

“Nowadays you just simply do a shot of a leopard in the Corvette and then do a shot of Mick Jagger, then place them together later but back then you did it as one shot. It was a little tricky because the leopard was dangerous and Jagger was nervous, quite rightly,” Watson recalls. To solve the problem, he built a plexiglass partition between them, knowing that it would disappear into the gutter of the magazine when the horizontal image ran as a double-page spread.

While they waited for the partition to be built, Watson had a stroke of genius and suggested to shoot a double exposure of Jagger and the leopard’s faces, and proposed the idea. “I almost didn’t process the roll of film because I was just really playing for time,” he recalls. “But it turned out that about four of the frames were matching perfectly. That’s the kind of thing you can do with the computer now, but it would be quite difficult to get that kind of intensity.”

A Philosophy of Creativity

Gabrielle Reece in Vivienne Westwood, Paris, 1989 © Albert Watson

For Albert Watson one of the most important things a photographer can do is “Find inspiration” in the world of art. “You’re always trying to do something unusual. Even if you can’t always pull it off, you have a philosophy of creativity,” says Watson. Books and museums provide ample sources for ideas and innovative ways to express the complex mysteries of life that surround us.

In 2013, Watson spent six weeks at the Isle of Skye, in the northwest of Scotland, making landscapes, creating a series of quiet yet majestic images that reveal the wondrous, unknowable grandeur of his lands. “The Isle of Skye is a dramatic place and sometimes landscape photographers are guilty of letting scenery dominate what the picture is. In other words there’s something dramatic in front of you. But I wanted to do something where the mood of the landscape was very often the dominant feature of the photograph. I was interested in how I could photograph a simple hill and turn it into a work of art,” Watson says.

Tree in Mist, Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland, 2013 © Albert Watson

Thinking back on Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, Watson began looking at the work of Gothic Victorian paintings by English and German artists, as well as landscapes by French impressionist Edgar Degas. “When you mix all of these ideas together, it forces you to think in a different way,” he says.

Work It Out

With the understanding that many could not afford to spend $2,100 on his book Kaos, a Baby Sumo limited edition of 1,000 copies that comes in a faux chimpanzee fur clamshell box, Watson penned Creating Photographs as a way to reach broader audiences and equipping them with tools to map their own journey through photography.

Waris Dirie, Ouarzazate, Morocco, 1993 © Albert Watson

Ultimately a great photograph is like a symphony in a single frame, offering a virtuoso’s gift for balancing technique and innovation without ever overplaying their hand. “A lot of the time photographers are looking at their equipment and the lights. That’s a given. Now how are you going to take a shot you remember, an image that has power?” Watson asks. “You don’t just sit back and the idea comes. You have to sweat a little bit.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Creating Photographs, published by Laurence King, $19.99

Kate Moss, Marrakech, Morocco, 1993 © Albert Watson
Mike Tyson, Catskills, New York, 1986 © Albert Watson

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