Meet Albert Watson, Rock Photographer

Ed RampellCategories:2012Featured ArticlesMusic

Rock Cellar Magazine

[Editor’s Note: Our Every Picture Tells a Story column is normally made up of lots of pretty pictures with very little text.  Once in a while we like to talk to the people who make these pretty pictures.

Photographer Albert Watson

Rock Cellar Magazine roving reporter Ed Rampell caught up with celebrated photographer Albert Watson at his latest exhibit in St. Moritz, Switzerland where he was participating in the 5th annual St. Moritz Art Masters, an international art and culture summit.  A centerpiece of the summit is the “Walk of Art,” consisting of 30 exhibitions at various hotel, church and other venues scattered throughout St. Moritz – arguably Switzerland’s swankiest, ritziest resort village.
Rampell was staying at legendary Badrutt’s Palace, renowned for its old world charm, as part of a jaunt across the Alps to cover Badrutt’s Palace and Swiss Deluxe Hotels’ other posh properties.  Here is his exclusive interview with photographer Albert Watson. Be sure to check out the gallery of Watson photos at the end of the interview.]

You Know His Photos.  Now Meet Albert Watson, Photographer
Interview by Ed Rampell

The photographic memories of British lensman Albert Watson are a virtual rock ’n’ roll hall of fame, frame by frame.  The award-winning photographer won a Grammy in 1975 for the album cover of Mason Proffit’s Come and Gone.  In addition to shooting rock royalty ranging from the Beatles to the Stones and beyond, his camera has immortalized filmmakers, inventors, presidents, aristocrats, and fashion models.

During a session for German Vogue Watson took what are believed to be the first nude photos of Kate Moss, with the 19-year-old “heroin chic” supermodel posing naked on a Marrakesh, Morocco rooftop in 1993.  Watson has also helmed advertising campaigns for companies such as Chanel, and directed TV commercials and music videos. The Edinburgh-born Watson still speaks with a Scottish accent, although the 70-year-old shutterbug has been based in New York for decades.

Photographer Albert Watson. Photo by Rob McDougall

Rock Cellar Magazine: How did you get involved with the St. Moritz Art Masters exhibition in Switzerland?
Albert Watson: A request was made by one of the organizers here through my office in New York. We looked at the project, found it interesting and said we`d do it. I’ve been to Switzerland many times before, but not St. Moritz. It’s nice staying here, beautiful.

RCM: Your two photos in the exhibit of David Bowie have a surrealistic quality, reminiscent of painter Rene Magritte. How did they come about?
AW:  Arena Magazine in London called and asked me to spend a day with him.  I called Bowie before the shooting and told him I had a bunch of surreal things I thought were appropriate and he said, “that sounds great; I like the idea.”

Bowie came from an almost performance art background before he was a singer. He was a mime artist; he’s really an artist and a singer. I know singers are artists, but Bowie is an artist-conceptualist and he’s also a singer.
We did 10 pictures in the day, all black and white;  it was always going to be a black and white shoot.

RCM:  Are most of your photo-shoots conceived as black and white shoots and is that your preference?
AW:  I shoot tons of color.  Basically, 75% of what I shoot is color; maybe even 80%.

RCM:  Yet almost all of your photos in the St. Moritz Art Masters are in black and white.  
AW:  Yes, I think the majority is.  It just sometimes happens that way.  You can go to other exhibitions and it’s the other way around.

RCM: Being from Scotland, you have photographed many of the great U.K. rockers.  Tell us about a few of the most memorable or famous ones you’ve shot.
AW: Let me see.  Eric Burdon… I’ve done a lot of work with Sade – she’s not a rocker but she’s very beautiful.  I did her videos as well.  I did the Love Deluxe album and then I did three videos from that. I also did Lovers Rock and her Greatest Hits album cover.

RCM: Of course, Paul McCartney…
AW:  Yes –  for Rolling Stone’s “Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll” for the 25th anniversary in 1994.

RCM:  What’s it like photographing Sir Paul?
AW:  He was very good; he’s been doing it for so long –  McCartney has been performing certainly longer than I’ve been a photographer!  We did one shooting; to me it was fine, it was okay – it wasn’t great.  It was a little bit of an “early-Beatles-looking” sort of thing (laughs) and I didn’t like it so much.
In the end I spoke to him and I said, “Let’s do a second day, if you can give me the time.  Maybe three hours.”  And then I went down to his house in the south of England, and we did it there.
The second shooting was stronger because I felt the first shooting was cute; but I wanted a fairly heavy portrait of him.    He gave me two hours, which was plenty – then I went and did a very strong portrait of him, which I was very happy with.

RCM: You also shot the Rolling Stones, right?
AW: Of course.  I’ve done them all, many times.  When you ask for British rockers that should have been first!  I’ve worked with both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger many times.  In 1979 was the first time I photographed them, then through the ’80s and ’90s.
Both of them are fantastic and very, very professional. They’re very open to things and they’ve done it so many times; they know what’s required.   I get on very well with them; Keith’s funny; he’s great to shoot.

RCM: Many reviewers commented on how literate his autobiography was. Did that surprise you ?
AW: It did.  I think he had a little bit of help with the book. But if he wrote it, then good for him, but I think he had a journalist balancing it out for him.

RCM: When did you start shooting rock stars?
AW: The first rock star I ever actually photographed was when I was still at school – Donovan.  I did a portrait of him for the London Times, in 1969.  I would say Donovan was easily in the top 10, he was very big back then. He was great looking, he was a tremendous hippie.

RCM: The St. Moritz Art Masters exhibit includes your classic photo montage of Michael Jackson. Talk about that a bit.
AW:  That was for the cover of the last album he did.  He was fabulous; I mean he was really fabulous.  Sometimes these people who are hyper famous – they’re very respectful. If you come in with a good body of work and they look at it and they give you the nod and say, “good, this is fantastic,“ then they’re immediately respectful of you. They immediately call you an artist, they say, “it`s an honor to be photographed by you.”  They’re quite humble actually, and he was super professional.  It was great to shoot him dancing, ’cause it was so easy.

RCM: In the St. Moritz Art Masters show you also have a photo of Snoop Dogg. A rapper among rockers?
AW: I’ve done a lot of rappers: Jaycee, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, years ago.  Run DMC, Snoop, I’ve done a lot of them.  Naughty By Nature.

RCM: How do rappers’ “thug persona” match up to how they really are in person?
AW: Well, I’m very lucky. I have a slight advantage because I’m obviously older than them.  They’re very kind and respectful – “it’s an older person; I better be nice to him,” sort of thing (laughs). Therefore they’re very well behaved with me.
The most professional of them all is actually 50 Cent. If you have a 10:00 shooting in the morning with him he’s there at 20 to 10.  He’s really the most professional of them all.  And when you’re shooting him he’s very professional as well.

RCM: You also photographed Marilyn Manson for the St. Moritz Art Masters. What was he like?
AW:  He’s another one, he’s a little bit like Bowie in a way.  When he arrived in the morning you think you’ve got – kind of a vampire visiting, and he’s not at all.  He turned up in jeans and a leather jacket and he had a whole bag of props that he brought with him, for the shoot for Details Magazine.

He had requested a Vogue makeup artist – like a real beauty makeup artist. He said, “I want really Vogue cover makeup, but I’m going to destroy it.” So after an hour and a half of having this makeup put on he then took some Vaseline and destroyed the makeup.  That was the idea of the shoot, really.  Plus he had some great props; he brought that flying helmet with him.  He was super polite and very cooperative and did exactly what he was told.

RCM: Can you dish some dirt? Was there ever a time when you were set to photograph a celebrity and they were just wasted, or couldn’t wake up, or something like that?
AW: I think the only musician that I ever had trouble with was Chuck Berry, during a shoot for Rolling Stone.  He was a nightmare.

RCM: In what way?
AW:  I don’t know – if you ever interview him ask him why he was a nightmare!  (laughs). It was almost like he didn’t want to be photographed.  And I said to him, “Well, if you didn’t want to be photographed I wouldn’t have flown from New York to New Orleans to do it. The only reason I flew from New York to New Orleans was because it was you.”
He was just rude, for no reason.  I’m never rude to anybody.  He was just rude.  And we did one Polaroid, and he said, “Is that it?” and stood up.  And when I say one, I don’t mean five Polaroids.  We were totally organized; all he had to do was sit down; I had the camera, you know? He stood up to walk away and I said, “That’s just a Polaroid.”  Then he said, “okay,” and sat down.  I did two more flashes.  And I mean just two flashes.  So in total I got three flashes: One was a Polaroid and then two pieces of film.  It was a waste of time.

RCM: Who are some of your own favorite photographers and influences?
AW: I get asked that question quite a lot.  I like hundreds of photographers – I like the old school photographers, I like modern, younger photographers, if I see the work is strong and good.  So it’s not as if I have one or two favorites.  If you select an era, the 1930s, then I have maybe 20 photographers from the ’20s and ‘30s that are fantastic. And then you have the ’50s and so on.

RCM:  What do you think of Annie Leibowitz?
AW:  She’s a fabulous photographer.  She’s really, truly, much more than me, a celebrity photographer. Celebrity is maybe 8% of what I do; whereas with her it’s close to 95%. I drop in, do some celebrities, then drop out again. I’m heavily involved in fashion, landscape work, still-life work.  I’ve done a whole book on Morocco.  But it’s not really travel – the Moroc project, a book on Morocco, is really more a fine-art project. Then I did a book [Strip Search] on Las Vegas – that is all real people, real situations, real architecture, desert, everything.

RCM: Your Alfred Hitchcock photo displayed in the St. Moritz Art Masters exhibit is iconic. Whose concept was it?
AW: It was done in ’75. It was Harper’s Bazaar’s idea.  Very few people know he was a gourmet chef.  For the Christmas issue he was going to give the magazine the recipe for goose – how to cook a goose.  Of course, it was a good headline because Alfred Hitchcock cooks his own goose!  They wanted to have Alfred Hitchcock holding a cooked goose on a plate, and I said, “I know he’s cooking a goose, but I think it’s funnier if you see it with the head and feet and everything. And it’s more like he’s going to give you the recipe – he hasn’t done it yet.” I thought they were going to shoot it down, but they came back and said the editor thought it was a good idea, and that’s how we did it.

RCM: What was Hitchcock like?
AW:  Perfect; he was another person. I was very nervous, because at that time I hadn’t done [non-musical] celebrities. Now I’m not nervous at all with any celebrity, because I’ve done so many.  So for me it doesn’t matter anymore, you know?  But back then I was nervous, and I think he saw I was nervous and he was helping me the whole time to make it go well.  He was contributing to the shooting, and he was funny the whole time.  Witty from the minute he arrived…

RCM: You also took probably THE classic photo of Steve Jobs.
AW:  He loved that picture.  Which was very nice, because I heard he was always very difficult with photographers – he hated them!  With me, I had no problem at all (laughs).  I shot that for Fortune Magazine.  And later, Apple bought that shot.

RCM:  Can you describe the shoot for us?
AW:  The whole shoot was 20, maximum 25 minutes – from the point he arrived until he left.  Basically, I started quite long, and at the very end I did that shot. He was sitting back a little bit and I asked him to lean forward to me, and I said, “concentrate on your next project, and nothing else.”  And he did that for about six frames, then we were finished, and that was the shot that came from it.

RCM: You’ve also shot so many outstanding movie posters. What are a few of your favorites? 
AW: I’ve shot so many – The Sopranos, Kill Bill – Uma Thurman in the yellow jumpsuit; Da Vinci Code; I did Tony Scott movies like Déjà Vu; Memoirs of a Geisha.

RCM:  A personal question:  Many people may not know that you are blind in one eye.  How does being monocular affect your photography?
AW:  No idea.  I have no comparison.  I could give you an answer to that if I had had eyesight until the age of 21 and then lost one eye – then I could give you a perspective on it. But when you’re born that way it’s all you know.  There’s one interesting thing about it:  If for a moment you concentrate on your vision – you say, “okay, what am I seeing right now?” as I look towards you. “What am I seeing?” I’m seeing my hand here – it’s peripheral here.  Then I come around to here and I see you clearly here.  As I come around here my hand disappears.  I only notice that if I concentrate.  Because in your day-to-day working, you’re moving the whole time – I’m really not aware of it.  Also, for the most part… photographers use one eye, anyway. Most times the photographer puts his eye to the camera.

RCM: What’s next for you?
AW: I go to London for a dinner at the Royal Photographic Society.  After that I go to Hamburg, because I have a big museum show opening in September; Sade is coming to the opening.

RCM: Anyone in particular you feel the need to photograph?
AW: I’ve done just about everybody I’ve ever wanted to, but I’m always interested in the next person.  Somebody always pops up in front of me…

RCM:  That’s an enviable position to be in.
AW: –Yes, no, no, it’s nice.  I can pick and choose now.  Whereas 20 years ago I used to do everything.  But now I’m a little bit more choosy.

Related Posts