View all Art in Issue K

An Interview with Albert Watson

Each year, the St.Moritz Art Masters transforms the idyllic surroundings of St.Moritz into a melting pot of some of the world’s most relevant and thought-provoking artists. This year, the St.Moritz Art Masters turns its attention to America, featuring an esteemed handful of artists from and inspired by great nation - from its icons, to its landscapes and pop culture. The list includes: Robert Indiana, Tom Wesselman, Silvester Stallone, David Smith, Louise Nevelson, and legendary photographer, Albert Watson.

On the 9th edition of the St.Moritz Art Masters and in the snowy vistas of the Swiss alps, Albert Watson is awarded the St.Moritz Art Masters Lifetime Achievement Award by Cartier. The prestigious award celebrates his iconic career that spans over 50 years, while also celebrating the unveiling of his latest exhibition in the Kempinski Grand Hotel Les Bains, entitled KAOS.

Today, it would be very difficult to find a photographer, whose lifelong career has had more of an impact than Albert Watson. While you couldn’t easily pick Albert out from a crowd; in his signature spectacles and with a low-key yet absolutely charismatic smile,  anyone can easily recognise an Albert Watson portrait, with his body of work permeating the realms of art, fashion, culture, and history.

Could you tell us about your first experience with photography? How did your love for the craft begin?
Well, it was actually very simple. I was a graphic designer at college; and as a part of that course I had to acquire a camera for a photography class. It was really at this point that I became obsessed with photography.

You finished graphic design at the Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, followed by a degree in Film and Television at the Royal College of Art in London. Do you think your background in film and graphic design has had an impact on your style as a photographer?
Oh yes, definitely. Not just 100%, but 150%! If you look at the work, it is divided into three categories. It is either graphic, filmatic, or a combination of both.

Your first celebrity portrait was with the late great Alfred Hitchcock. Could you tell us a little bit about this experience?
The funny thing is, not a lot of people knew Alfred Hitchcock was a gourmet chef. He was giving a recipe for a christmas goose to Harpers Bazaar; and they asked me if I could photograph him with the goose to go with the feature about the recipe. They originally wanted for him to hold it on a plate, but I told them people may mistake it for a turkey. I also added the Christmas decorations to the goose, so people would know it was Christmas; and that was one of the defining details of the portrait. Alfred was fantastic. I was so nervous because I was very young back then. I was worried about shooting such a legend, but he really made the whole experience a pleasure.

You are often referred to as a perfectionist or a workaholic. What do you think it means to look for perfection in a photo?
In the beginning, I thought that it was my job to learn everything I could about photography. Not that I know everything now, of course not; no one does. I had to learn the technical things which I found very difficult, but once I got them, everything became easy. Handling a camera is just like driving a car, you become more familiar as time goes on. Photography is a balance of two things; one is the technical aspect and the other, the creative aspect. The important thing is to get rid of the technical as much as possible; and that opens up a lot of doors so you can let the creativity flow fluently.
You don’t want to spend 95% of the time working on technical things. The technical aspect should be 5% and then 95% should be creativity. Even if you go back to basic technical concepts, but the idea is good, you can still come up with a pretty amazing photograph. It really is a partnership of being familiar enough with the technical aspect that you can make space for creativity.

Since beginning your career in 1970, the industry has made boundless changes, most notably with the move from film to digital. Has this affected the way you work in any way?
I would say that there is a path that people always forget about. There is a path from film going to digital cameras, but the main thing that people don’t speak about is the computer. The digital camera didn’t actually make that much of a difference, well it did, but not a lot.
The computer, on the other hand, is the real difference maker. The control that this gives a photographer is something that I appreciate. I think that in some jobs, film is absolutely better. If the end product goes to a magazine, then its great, but if you want to turn the photo into a book, exhibit it in a gallery or a museum, then there are different things that come into play. For a magazine, it is very hard to tell the difference between the two, possible but hard. In our studio, we are very dedicated to bringing the authentic feeling of film photography to digital images as often as we can.

Las Vegas is a constant source of inspiration for your work; from the neon lights of the Budget Hotel series, the stunning desert landscapes, to intimate portraits of a dominatrix. What is it about Las Vegas that has inspired you to create such wonderful imagery?
I have always liked Las Vegas. Right before I went to Las Vegas, I had worked on a book on Morocco called Maroc. Working on this book made me really immerse myself in their culture and their lifestyle. Due to the nature of Morocco, I wanted to work on a project that was completely opposite to that, something that would force me to do a lot more colour work.
The general feeling of Las Vegas is something that is very superficial, but it is also a very well done and very well organised city. Very few cities in America are more organised than Las Vegas. You can get some of the best food in the world, and see the best architecture. The whole thing with Las Vegas is that it is overtly glamorous. It has an over-the-top decadence that was exactly what I was looking for.

You are known as one of the 20 most influential photographers in the world, an honour also awarded to your fellow greats, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. What is it about your body of work that makes it so distinctly powerful?
I just keep going down the route I’m on. In life, the ultimate goal is to swim the fastest, or perform the best. I am always heading toward this elusive goal, which of course, I can never actually achieve. But I want to get there just as well. Down the road, my work just started to speak for itself, beginning to influence other people because of the diversity and intensity of the work.

Your signature style is instantly recognisable with all the wonderful portraits you’ve taken through the years. Steve Jobs, Kate Moss, David Bowie, Christy Turlington and Andy Warhol are just a few of the many legendary subjects you’ve had in front of your camera. Is there a particular portrait you took that resonates with you until today?
I think definitely the Alfred Hitchcock portrait. It was my first celebrity shoot and definitely the most important at that time. It’s not the best photograph, but I do consider it one of the best. The portrait of Steve Jobs was also equally memorable, he loved the shot and thought it was great because it was so simple and it ended up being very iconic as well.
You have to remember that these pictures were taken more than thirty years apart. Now things are a lot more competent and I’ve learned a lot throughout the years. In fact, some of the really basic ideas I had in the 1970s have remain unchanged until today. The only difference is that I’ve grown more comfortable.

At the St. Moritz Art Masters, you will be receiving a lifetime achievement award from Cartier and also presenting your latest exhibition entitled “Kaos". Could you tell us a little bit about this new exhibition?
Kaos, is one of the few words that sounds almost the same in every language in Europe, regardless of minor differences in spelling. The Scandinavians spell it as “Kaos”. The English, German, and French all spell the word as "Chaos", while the Spanish spell it as “Caos”. I think it says a lot about the work. I think that a lot of the things that I put together are very chaotic. I’ve got Vogue covers beside Fortune Magazine covers; and space suits beside Kate Moss. Strangely enough, it has a profound unity.
The big exhibit, with over 350 images, will actually be at the Museo della Permanente in Milan this November.  However, this exhibition at the St. Moritz Art Masters, while smaller, is equally as important.  It is a celebration of receiving the lifetime achievement award from Cartier, which is a great honour.

Finally, what do you think makes a photograph iconic?
Memorability. People have to remember the images; if you don’t remember the images then it doesn’t work. There is strength in simplicity, and I think that makes images more iconic.

Interview by Hannah Tan

View our Gallery of Albert Watson's KAOS