Rumpelstiltskin, the character from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, enabled a miller's daughter to spin straw and turn it into gold, to please the King, in exchange for increasingly demanding gems. Albert Watson does more or less the same with photography: he transforms reality into dreamlike rectangles – as this editorial “dreamscapes” confirms. Fortunately, his name is much easier to say than Rumpelstiltskin. Photography by Albert Watson.
It could be an folktale, but it's just the reality of a photography lover who never stopped working hard for his goals - sorry, the term goals is fallacious, the correct word is achievements. Scottish Albert Watson, who moved to New York in the 70s, is 80 years old and has more than half a century of a picture portfolio as diverse as it is recognized: from landscapes to celebrities, from fashion to historical still lives, as well as archaeological artefacts, even if the name sounds just vaguely familiar to you, the photographs will surely be well known. Watson photographed Alfred Hitchcock, David Bowie, Kate Moss, Joaquin Phoenix (who, he recalls, was incongruously shy in front of the lens), Clint Eastwood just to name a few… that iconic black and white photograph of Steve Jobs? It's Albert's. He photographed the who's who of the Arts and worked with the who's who of Fashion. And they all know that they also have worked with the who's who of Photography - no wonder the Photo District News named him one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time, alongside names like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. The scot, at the height of his experience and at the core of his humility, is grateful for all the achievements, but is more modest in his self-analysis - which only adds to his charm: “I think that, working for magazines, there are many different types of photographers, but there are two main categories: photographers who work for magazines which are fashion photographers, and photographers who work for magazines which photograph fashion. And the difference is, if you think about some of the great ones of the past, like Guy Bourdin, he was unquestionably not a fashion photographer. he was a photographer who liked and interpreted fashion, but his images were based on pure photography. Or Richard Avedon: yes, he was a fashion photographer, but first he was a photographer, and only after did he photograph fashion”. We are on the phone, from Lisbon to Essaouira, in Morocco, where he has a house, on a whatsapp call that he managed to fit into a schedule made up of itinerant stops around the world. “I'm not saying I'm on the same level as them, but I'm saying I'm more of a photographer. Even when I was doing fashion photos, like the 'yellow' production in the Algarve, the result is usually photography: for example, if you look at the graphics of the photo of the model holding the cage, the bird is yellow and she he is wearing yellow, because that was the theme, but you have the church in the background, there was a fisherman passing by (I was lucky he went by at that time). This is one thing I feel lucky about and now I think the reason we sell so many photos in galleries is because the images tend to look more photographic rather than just a fashion photo. Also, if I may add one thing, there are random photos - I worked a lot for Vogue Italia, with Franca Sozzani - that didn't even have fashion trends. That's the bad news. But the good news is that these photos are now very successful. It's kind of a weird thing.” What's not strange is the recognition it has received over the years, validated by a countless list of awards, including a Grammy (for the cover of the album Come and Gone, by the band Mason Proffitt), and an Order of the British Empire ( OBE), the only one he keeps in the “studio safe next to my cameras”. The rest, he's not ashamed to say, are somewhere, kept in boxes and drawers. Not because they are unimportant, he is truly grateful, he undelrines, but an exchange of words with Watson is enough to realize that his greatest reward is his body of work.
The applause is not unfounded, nor is the way he describes himself as a non-fashion photographer, but one that (also) captures Fashion. His versatile and varied style in themes and image is largely due to his training as a graphic designer and his years studying Cinema and making advertisements. “I use, even if sometimes not so evidently, to graphics all the time”, he acknowledges, when we question the influence of this background on his work. “And of course Film, working as a director when directing models helps, because, and of course, this is just my opinion, but if you look at 10, 12 page editorials, the model doesn't change her expression, mood, attitude... nothing - she's just there. And since I've worked in film and with some really good actors, it's amazing how, in just a few pictures, they can give you a very different attitude. And sometimes, if you don't ask a model to try that, to look worried, to look sad, the expression is repetitive.”, he admits, also sharing that his body of work has become heavier and heavier over the years. Just flip through this editorial, inspired by William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, confirming such point of view. “I think in the 70s I had a much lighter style, like this ‘yellow’ editorial I did in Portugal, much easier, it was certainly very popular at the time because the photos were laidback. You know, they were light, full of color, and graphics and stuff. And in the 80s, I actually changed the style a little bit to a heavier, stronger, more powerful image. And it was hard at the time, even now… Grace Coddington once said to me: 'be careful, your pictures are getting almost too strong for the magazine' and I know what she meant, that a strong picture is always better, but sometimes a strong photo is not what a magazine is looking for. Sometimes they look for an interesting photo, but not too heavy, you know? I think Vogue Portugal does this very well. I took some pictures recently in Paris, and I think it was the first time ever that I did something for Vogue Portugal, and at the beginning it's a little difficult, you don't know what they want, what they would like - of course you can look for the magazine, but you often have to think about what your interpretation is for the magazine. And if I did something else now, I would do it even stronger.”
The image that depicts the “yellow” story of the seventies is one that he captured in the Algarve and will be exhibited at the new gallery In The Pink, in Loulé, which debuts the show titled Fashion in June, where it presents a selection of images not only from Watson, but also by Bastiaan Woudt and Kristian Schuller. The curatorship was certainly challenging, because Albert has been accumulating images not only in quantity, but also in quality throughout the years. Just think that his first cover for Vogue dates from 1976 and, since then, there are more than a hundred covers for this title alone, not to mention the other magazines like Rolling Stone. “In the early 70s, I dreamed of working for Vogue. And I remember the first time I did it, I did a cover that was on display at a bus shelter, in Manhattan, and I remember driving iaround the block like ten times to see it over and over again, because I couldn't believe that it was my picture at that bus shelter. Then you do another and then another and you find yourself and you have five covers on a newsstand, for different titles, but you never take that for granted, you are always happy that people still want you to do something for them”, he admits. The love for photography has remained unshaken over the decades, although there are nuances that he misses from the beginning of his career, especially with regard to the Fashion industry: “I miss very good and very strong fashion editors. People used to ask me what's the difference between a stylist and a fashion editor, and the difference is that a stylist is a stylist, just focuses on clothes; and a fashion editor is, in my opinion, 50% stylist and 50% art director. So when you're working with someone who's great with clothes, but can also work with you artistically, the end result is really good. There was a fantastic American editor that I learned a lot from, named Polly Mellen, and she was a great editor, she was like a tyrant, but always interested in intense work. Always interested in how the photo could be better, how it could be more infinite, how the model's attitude could be better. Sometimes a girl would be having coffee in the kitchen and she would grab me and say: 'look at her attitude there, look what she's doing with her hand, the way she holds her cup' and, of course, many times I jumped at what she was saying because she would be right. Because of that, she not only perceived the clothes beautifully, but also perceived the artistic side, and that is difficult now. In the old days, at least, that was how it was, it was a partnership between a fashion editor and a photographer and the fashion editor participated in the photos. And that I think has changed.”
He doesn't even have time to dwell on it - the scope of his work means he's always moving around the world: “over six weeks I photographed landscapes on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland. And details of trees and mountains and the surface of the water... after six weeks of this, I was really desperate to have a human face in front of me. I remember a series of events when I was shooting Couture in Paris and I was also working with a celebrity, Catherine Deneuve, and from there I traveled to Cairo to photograph Tutankhamun artefacts in the basement of the Cairo Museum. Then I went from Cairo to London, and then from London to New York, and I did part of an advertising campaign for Prada. And I flew from there to Los Angeles to photograph Denzel Washington for a movie poster. If you think about it, this period of basically two weeks, I've been to Paris, Cairo, New York and Los Angeles. I like that. I think working with models for three weeks and then having three days of still lifes, I'm going to be really happy to do the still lifes, because I'll be fed up with models.” And it is in this diversity that he finds the fuel for an enthusiasm that never fades: “without a doubt”, he emphasizes, when we ask him if it's still magical, at 80, to photograph. “I was very lucky to have discovered photography and the minute I picked up a camera, I knew this was it, forever. Even today I like the process of, if I'm shooting, working on the production to make the shooting interesting not only for me, but also, for example, for a magazine. To improve. You try to do your homework, you try to research the images you want to do that haven't been done before. Someone said I give 100% on the first photo and 100% on the last photo and that's the best compliment I've ever heard, I never get tired of it." Not even the demanding agenda dissuades him, which is not to say that it's not exhausting: “I think I get a little tired of travel in itself. Something stupid, like taking off your shoes at the airport again, packing and unpacking again. Of course I can do it, I'm about to do it - again. And I say to myself: you can't complain about these things. You can get tired, but you can't complain. Because it's a dream to do all these things. And because that was the goal.”
One for which he always fought and that made him learn first-hand how hard it is to move around in this area, even after proving himself. “I did a small book recently, though of mostly for photography students, called Masters of Photography”, released in 2021, joins a handful of Photography publications signed by Albert Watson, “and I did it to try to say 'you don't need to do it like I did, but that's how I did it', a little bit to try to help them on how to make a better image. At least do it their way, not mine, but put the same intensity into it. A lot of people don't get it... they like the idea of the glamor of fashion photography, you know, traveling to Paris, taking pictures and things like that, or to New York or London or Milan, they like the idea of models, and so on, but some of them are not prepared to do the hard work”, he says. We took the cue and asked: is it harder or easier to be a photographer in the age of social media? “I think the technical side is easier now, because a lot of photographers now see something wrong and say 'okay, I'll fix it in photoshop later'. In the past, we didn't have that, the photo basically went from a negative to a piece of paper and went to the magazine, there was no retouching - only if maybe the magazine wanted it and, in that case, they did it themselves. This is certainly the easiest thing to do, because photoshop can fix a lot of mistakes. And I admit that one of the great improvements for a photographer is the computer. I have my own retouchers, who work full time in the studio, but when I retouch I do it like an analogue photographer, not digital, because I spent forty years in the dark room making prints, so when I approach it from a computer, I still have it all in my head. I think nowadays it's easier to succeed quickly, I think it's harder to maintain that momentum over years and decades... working for magazines like Vogue over 50 years is something very difficult, today.” Above all, because it is as important as it is difficult not to let yourself stagnate. He is the first to speak of technologies as an added value in the area and, despite praising the beauty of analog, he confesses that he shoots in digital: “And there is a reason for that, which is I am very good at making an analog interpretation of a digital file. . After all, cameras are no different, in a way. When you look through the camera, what do you see? A rectangle. That's what a photographer's life is, it's a rectangle - it can be more square, it can be horizontal, it can be vertical, but it's angles and it's what you put in that rectangle that makes the photo. When you look through the digital camera, you see a rectangle. If I look through an analog, I see a rectangle. There are some mechanisms that are different and I think digital cameras now are probably better than analogue ones, because of the resolution and the amount of information that goes into the archive, but of course there's a tremendous beauty in film and in getting into a dark room with a negative and print it on a piece of paper, there is something organic about it.”
He talks about photography with a palpable passion in nis voice echoeing on the other side of the smartphone, so we didn't want to be cruel and ask for his all-time favorite photo. But since all fairy tales always have an evil witch, we were mean enough to pressure him into a top 3: “there is a beautiful fashion photograph of Lisa Fonssagrives, who was the wife of Irving Penn, against a canvas background, it's a very simple photo, but there's so much power in it, the expression on Lisa's face is so powerful that I think it's really good. I think Richard Avedon's Beekeeper, which portrays a bald man covered in bees, is amazing - this is the best example when you say Richard Avedon is a fashion photographer and then you look at that picture and you know he is, first and above all, a photographer. And I think there are so many pictures that I like of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, pictures that I think are very special… There was something that Guy Bourdin did that was really smart: he got eight designers in Paris to make dresses from their new collection for a group of girls in their 10, 12 years. And he dressed them all in the designs and created a party atmosphere. And he had hair and make-up, like a normal production. Of course, you can criticize a photo of like this, but he was inspired by an image where a 10-year-old girl took her mother's makeup and was putting it on herself. Trying to look grown up. And to make a story like that, with all these 10 and 11 year old girls laughing and dressed up, which was basically the idea, but at the same time getting the credits from all these designers… It seemed brilliant, a brilliant preparation, a brilliant concept and that's what magazines did at that time, photos like that are no longer seen, they have an intellectuality”, Watson argues. He indulges our curiousity of knowing what his favorite fairy tale is. “Peter Pan, by James Matthew Barries, who is from Scotland”, and which fits perfectly in his relaxed speech and in his love for photography that always seems to have a childlike pureness. Ah, one last question that almostskipped my mind, so I ask: Albert is blind in one eye since birth. Did that interfere in any way with his work? “Not at all. And the reason for that is that, most of the time, if you think of the average person who has sight in both eyes, when they pick up the camera, they only use one eye to look through the viewfinder.”
Translated from the original on The Fairy Tale issue from Vogue Portugal, published may 2022.
Full credits and stories on the print issue.