Albert Watson Talk

Albert’s presentation was a review of his 50 year career, he has a wide ranging portfolio including fashion, (celebrity) portraiture, still life and landscape.

Watson’s baptism of fire into celebrity portraiture came when he was commissioned to photograph Alfred Hitchcock for the 1973 Harper’s Bazaar Christmas issue. “Very few people knew that he was a gourmet chef and he was giving the magazine his recipe for Christmas goose. They wanted to do the goose cooked on a plate and him holding it, but I thought it was funnier that he would hold a plucked goose.” The photograph of the director holding a goose with a bow round its neck became one of Watson’s most recognisable images (Phaidon, 2017)



Giving some further detail to this anecdote Albert explained he was nervous about challenging the original brief but felt it would make a better image and thankfully the magazine agreed and helped form Watson’s unshakeable view that in order to succeed you must have absolute belief in your self and your photographic vision.

Another iconic Watson portrait, his portrait of Steve Jobs, shot for Jobs’ autobiography. This was done in 15 minutes, Watson stated that when dealing with time pressured celebrities it is essential to be organised, efficient and confident. He said that Jobs instantly warmed to the environment where it was clearly set up to deliver a result efficiently.

He went on to explain his belief that mastery of the craft was an essential prerequisite, he is also a firm believer in controlling the entire process from capture to final print.   “We’re very hands on. We’re totally in house. We do all the printing ourselves from film to paper, or digital to paper, any retouching is in house too. I’m completely and absolutely a printer. I spent 45 years in the darkroom. Tomorrow I’ll be in the darkroom all day. Therefore for me to switch from 45 years in a darkroom to a computer screen and printing on paper is different, but of course after 45 years in the darkroom, you actually learn something about printing.”   (Phaidon, 2017)

All prints sold by Watson from his website are produced in house. Even the  huge scale (9×6 feet) exhibition prints he insists on personally supervising the production of at the printers who can print at that scale. He has a long term collaboration with the printer and will take over their facility for several days to produce test prints, optimise files before committing to final prints only when totally satisfied with the result.

Asked : Do you still find photography challenging even after all this time? his response was  “Of course! I’m critical every day of what I do. You can always be better.”

I think this is key to his approach to photography and ability to sustain a very significant output over a very long period of time. A relentless pursuit of quality coupled with unending curiosity about the world and his subjects. He also spoke at length about the need to seek inspiration from all available source – painting, sculpture, film. He also reflected on his own background, trained initially as a graphic designer he discovered photography and knew it was going to be significant, following his degree he went on to train for 3 years as film director and cites these influences as having strong impact on his subsequent work.

An example of image with strong graphic influence, produced as part of a project sponsored by Macallan Whisky.

In light of my own project on shoes it would be remiss not to include a couple of classic Watson images.

He showed this image as referencing his film background.

Talking about the move to digital, which occurred relatively late for him in the last 5 years or so, he was dismissive of comparison between film and digital. In fact his whole attitude to the artifacts of photography whether it be cameras, formats film or digital is that ultimately they are all simply tools and you should learn to use them and then apply them when appropriate to achieve the particular result you envision. His way of dealing with the difference between darkroom and digital manipulation is to employ Photoshop experts but he still supervises the work – knowing enough to be able to explain what he wants but recognising it is more efficient and cost effective to employ someone who can achieve the result so much quicker while he retains, crucially,  control of the artistic vision.

“I think it is an important technological revolution but just because it comes along, it doesn’t make the pictures that much better. You still have to take a good picture.”

Finally asked :

Do you have any tips for an aspiring photographer who’s picking up a camera for the first time?

Nothing more than the really obvious – if you’re really interested in it, you should be shooting every single day. You should have the camera with you and you should be shooting everything, then spending time later to really analyse what you shot. You should spend a week shooting everything, then spend a few days analysing what you shot, making notes, selecting what you think are your better pictures and beginning to be really critical of your own work. You only get better by shooting every minute of every day.

Again I think this is a key aspect of his approach from the earliest days, practice, practice, practice but not merely blindly – be critical and always seek to improve.

This entry was posted in Individual Practice 2: In Step, Professional Contexts 3.

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