One Eye on the Prize: Albert Watson and ‘Cyclops’

“He’s the great unknown. That is to say, he’s the greatest little-known photographer in the world, or the least-known great photographer in the world.”

… Nicholas Callaway, book producer, New York.

“Albert is a maniac, he’s intense and he brings an intensity to his work and has done for so many years that you either achieve genius or end up in a mental asylum. He’s achieved genius.”

… James Truman, creative director of The Condé Nast Publications.

Albert Watson may not admit to being either a maniac or a genius but he will agree he is an obsessive when it comes to his photography.

Until the publication of his first book, Cyclops*, he was certainly little-known except amongst the global network of print media junkies who have been following his work through magazines like Rolling Stone, Details, Arena, The Face, Interview, Vibe, most of the Vogues, and five-star advertising clients like Levi’s for more than twenty years.

Although Cyclops is Watson’s first book after all that time, it is a rare achievement, a fully integrated bookwork where the power of the photographs, the deftness of the editing and the beauty of the reproduction process combines to make what may be the most significant book of its kind since those by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Cyclops also places Watson well within the same constellation as Penn and Avedon, and like them he has assembled a star team to produce his monograph – innovative designer David Carson, picture editor Laurie Kratochvil, reproduction genius Richard Benson and far-sighted book producer Nicholas Callaway.

I spoke to Watson just before the European release of Cyclops, while he was in the middle of a typically hectic Watson working day.

He was prepping for the last two days of a major Levi’s jeans shoot, and as we spoke his studio was rapidly lling up with assistants, hair and makeup people, models, a TV camera crew and the rest of that day’s thirty-member team.

Watson’s control and efficiency in the studio, however packed with bodies, is legendary.

I ask Watson what a typical working day was like for him.

“Well,” he replies, “we keep very specific work diaries here, and we actually have twenty-three years of diaries that tell where I was on a given day. If you name a date from 1974, for example, I can tell you the model’s name, who did hair and makeup and so on, and I can even tell you who did the lunch. Some of these diaries are quite fascinating from a schedule standpoint, you know.”

I asked him to give me an example.

“There’s one entry where we shot a cover at 7:00 in the morning for French Vogue, in Paris between 7:00 and 9:00 am,” he says.

“Then I went to the airport and got an 11 o’clock Concorde. I was in New York at 9 o’clock, in the New York studio by 10:30, and I worked from then to 4:00 pm doing advertising. Then I was on a 6 o’clock plane to Los Angeles, then I went to the Los Angeles studio at approximately 10 o’clock, and I worked there from between 10:00 pm to 1:00 am on an album cover for Frank Zappa. I actually did sleep on the plane, but I worked for a complete twenty-four hour day because we finished by 1:30 am, and that in turn was 10:30 am Paris.”

“That was just one time, but I’ve done outrageous things like that many times. I think it’s amazing I had the ability to do that, but it was done by having a staff in New York and a staff in Los Angeles. When I walked into the New York studio it was already set up, in Los Angeles it was already organized, and the same thing in Paris.”

“There’ll be a certain point in my life,” Watson says, “when I look back and say, my God, I can’t believe I did that, and at the same time that kind of pressure takes its toll, you know?”

“So do you ever take any real vacations?” I ask.

“I’m not very good at that, and in fact one of our major discussions right now is about how to just suddenly plan for vacations,” he replies.

“Even the last ten days have been outrageous in what we’ve been doing. I was in Milan for the thirtieth anniversary of Italian Vogue, saw the publisher of this book in Italy, did PR there, then I was in Rome and Milan again for four days, then I went straight into this heavy Levi’s campaign.”

He continues.

“Saturday I fly to Paris for some kind of award ceremony, then I begin ten consecutive days working there, then I come back here for some more promotion for the book, then I’ve got two lectures up in Boston regarding the printing of the book, because that was quite revolutionary. I think that I’ve had enough, even though I still feel fine and I’m in very good shape.”

Watson’s gruelling work schedules would not be possible without his meticulously organised, purpose-built studio in Manhattan’s Washington Street, and his large staff there headed up by his wife Elizabeth.

Continuing with the theme of work as a family affair, son Norman worked as a studio assistant for three years before moving to London to make his own way as a photographer, and other son Aaron, now a political editor at Associated Press in New York, contributed some interviews and text to Cyclops.

I question Watson about his family’s involvement in his working life.

“Elizabeth is an essential part of the whole operation,” he says, “guiding a lot of the stuff that’s going on downstairs, a lot of the business end like organising the shooting, travel, bookings, models, everything like that. She reps me as well, but there’s not a lot of that these days. Norman is fantastic, and he was the best photographer that went through here, although I wouldn’t say the best assistant, and there have been hundreds through here. He got no special treatment, believe you me, in fact it was the total opposite. It was a tortuous time for us both, but he will be a very important photographer in time.”

Elizabeth Watson was indirectly responsible for Albert’s entry into professional photography, after she took up a teaching post in California.

Watson had recently graduated in film from the Royal College of Art in London, after studying graphic design in Dundee, Scotland.

The RCA was in its heyday back in the mid-sixties and as Watson relates, “there was a lot of energy back then, a lot going on in the arts and music, a very vibrant time”, and a number of now famous people were studying there including Watson’s film classmate and brother of Ridley Scott, movie director Tony Scott.

On arrival in Los Angeles, Watson was at loose ends until someone suggested he pick up a stills camera to keep himself off the streets and to earn a little extra cash.

Watson told me about those early days in the 1970s.

“I’d done a little bit of photography but not a lot, and I got started quickly, making a living fairly soon, within about six months, and then I was really learning from that time on. At the very beginning I had lots of very good assistants who were making suggestions and so on, and from that point on I was basically self-taught.”

“I opened a studio in New York in 1974, and I still had a large studio in Los Angeles, and bit by bit I increased the business in New York and wound down the business in Los Angeles. At that time the magazine market was 50% in Europe and 50% in New York, and I didn’t want to be so far away from it.”

Watson pays tribute to his early Scottish schooling for having equipped him well for his new vocation, although not in an obvious way.

The son of a former boxer and physical education teacher, Watson received a solid European-style education in Edinburgh, at the Rudolf Steiner school.

“It was art-oriented, that’s for sure. They were very interested in your inner creativity, but at the same time they were instilling a certain amount of discipline to maximize it. And I have, from my Scottish background, a very, very solid work ethic. I’m dedicated to the work, to doing good work and doing things the right way,” he says.

“A lot of the way this studio is set up is not really my innermost personality, to be as organised as this place seems to be. When people see a place like this they immediately assume I’m a neat freak, or that I’m obsessive about it,” Watson declares.

“I am obsessive and I am a neat freak, but it’s not the real me! If you become too obsessive about perfection, it has a derogatory effect on the work, and it can become too heavy and clunky, and it loses some of its spark. That striving for perfection can really interfere with the spontaneity of the image.”

What Watson’s photographs set out to do, instead of pursuing a pointless ideal of perfection headlong, is strive after power regardless of the subject matter.

“I try and approach every single thing in the same way,” he says. “Now if you’re doing standing stones in the Orkneys, and then you’re photographing Dennis Hopper, then you’re photographing Tutankhamen’s socks in Cairo – I don’t really have a different way with them.”

“Obviously you’re not communicating with a sock, but I am communicating with Dennis Hopper, and my approach to the end image is the same. I’m after an image that has power, so I want power from a sock, or a rock, and power from Dennis Hopper.”

Watson’s photographs become icons of the person or object he is portraying.

Laurie Kratochvil, picture editor of Rolling Stone, agrees.

“A lot of his photographs are very iconographic and very sculptural, the way helights them and the angle he has them at so they’re all very heroic. That’s one thing I really like, how you can always tell an Albert Watson cover.”

At any given time somewhere in the world, there is at least one magazine with an Albert Watson cover shot on the news-stand.

The day we spoke was typical.

Watson relates the story.

“We were at a news-stand to pick up a newspaper, and I’d say that altogether we had five covers on that one alone. Right now, this month, we have work in American Vogue, English Vogue, German Vogue, L’Uomo Vogue and then we have Details, Rolling Stone and Interview. It’s a fairly broad cross-section.”

While photographing celebrities in a way that turns them into icons standing in for themselves, Watson depicts objects by searching beneath their surface for what they actually represent.

The range of non-portrait subjects goes from various sexual fetishes he discovered in the street markets of Marrakesh, through the Druidic standing stones of northern Scotland, the contents of Elvis’ house Graceland and primped up pedigree prize chickens to Tutankhamen’s golden thumb stall.

Watson’s passion for what objects mean intimately relates to the design of his book.

He elaborates.

“I’m not a fan of looking at a book, then having to go to the back of the book to find out what a thing is. That’s a little bit frustrating, like where you go to a museum in Russia and you’re looking at all these things in glass cases, and all the labels are in Russian. Eventually, you find out that a tunic with a little hole in it belonged to Lenin, and there was an assassination attempt and that’s what the hole is! I love the written word with the visual.”

In the search for the designer who would balance the beauty of the images with a more freeform typography, Watson called on the services of radical West Coast magazine art director David Carson, more usually associated with alternative youth culture publications like Raygun.

“He was perfect for what I wanted,” says Watson, “and out of about 280 pieces of type, I think I only changed three out of those, so he had an almost completely free hand. The only thing I asked him to do, is whenever possible to keep the type elegant. And this he did.”

Another contributor was artist Jeff Koons, whom Watson asked to write a short text piece to go opposite his portrait of him.

“I had assumed he would do something quite simple, but then he spent six hours interviewing me
one Saturday, which was unbelievable, and then proceeded to spend four days working on that one piece of writing, which kind of staggered me,” admitted the equally workaholic Watson.

“What Koons is into right now is pretentious poetry. A fine artist like that is always on the cutting edge of something, and he loves poetry that’s very exaggerated and flowery, you know. A lot of his work now is almost what we used to call in the 1960s concrete poetry.”

Pretentious or no, Koon’s semi-concrete verse plumbs depths of Watson that he is usually reluctant to talk about – why he makes photographs at all, and what he actually believes in.

I try to draw Watson out on those very subjects.

“I think that sometimes when you are setting out to decide what to do with your life, you can be lucky enough to gravitate towards things, like if you’re six feet six and you just become a basketball player,” he says.

“Early on I kind of just felt very, very comfortable with photography when I first came in touch with it as a graphic designer. I have a belief that you have a certain electrical pattern in your brain that responds to certain triggers, and that photography in my case was a trigger. It fitted me perfectly.”

“Consequently when you find something that ts perfectly then it will always cause you to be passionate , and you are onto a good thing. That over-riding passion tends to dominate your life. Also, I have another passion besides photography – I like working. So when you have a passion and you like working, then you have a very good combination.”

It is one that has served Watson extremely well throughout his working life, and that single-mindedness permeates every aspect of what he does.

I observed Watson during a book signing session in a small specialist bookstore in London.

An unassuming albeit rather dandyish gure turned up at the door behind a gathering crowd, his close-cropped grey hair covered in a deep navy knit cap, above a bee-embroidered dark blue vest underneath a black Japanese-influenced suit.

He passed through the throng of fans, each of whom had their copy of Cyclops tight under their arms, like a hot knife through butter.

Then he sat down behind the sales counter, stretched his arms, pulled a pair of pens out of a deeply hidden recess, and proceeded to sign books continuously for the next two and a half hours straight.

Every so often he would beam gently at someone whom he recognised, exchanged a few words in his soft Scottish burr, then went back to work.

Watson had just flown in from Paris, and was due to fly back to New York later that evening.

I asked several of the book purchasers how they came to know Watson’s work, as they were waiting for the inky signature to dry, and they all told me a version of the same tale.

Each had noticed a picture in a magazine that had somehow entranced them with a graphic simplicity and extraordinary lighting.

After a while they noticed other photographs with the same kind of power, that carried the identical credit line.

They were hooked.

When news of this impending book leaked out into the photographic press, Watson’s fans placed their advance orders and waited for the day when he would turn up and reveal himself, pen in hand.

Having broken the drought with this first book, Watson is now putting together another and very different one for release late in 1995, containing far more of his very broad range of work and packaged in a much less serious and more fun manner.

Right now, Watson tells me, the dummy has between 700 and 800 pages, looks a lot like a yellow pages phone book of photographs, and will be more like a behind-the-scenes sketchbook of his methods and ideas, in full colour as well as the monochrome of Cyclops.

Personally, I can’t wait.

* The title of the book, Cyclops, derives from the fact that Albert Watson only has one fully-functioning eye.

© Copyright Karin Gottschalk 1994, 2002, 2017. All rights reserved.