Albert Watson is not the easiest person to profile. It’s not that he isn’t one of the most polite, kind, and gracious personalities we’ve had on set—he is. The problem is that, no matter what kind of narrative you try to assemble around him, giving definite form to what has been a historic career, he rejects it. It’s not malicious, or even particularly disappointing; in fact, it’s quite refreshing. Call him a fashion photographer and he’ll say no, I’m just a photographer who does fashion. Ask him about the move from film to digital, and he’ll say he wonders why people make such a fuss, you still have to take a good picture. Inquire whether there’s anyone he’d like photograph and he’ll coolly reply not really.
On the other hand, Watson is a joy to interview. Charming accent aside (if you haven’t heard him speak yet I advise you do) he’s a trove of stories, wisdom, and knowledge. While his humility prevents him from crafting a grand narrative of his life, thus making the profiler’s job a little more difficult, his passion for photography prompts him to share all that he has learned during his extensive and celebrated career. With Albert, there are no trade secrets; Creative Live could likely create a seminar just based on the things he says offhandedly in his discussions with others interested in the craft.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to forego the typical profile arc—from birth to education to contemporary work, etc.—and instead focus on a few of the most interesting concepts that Albert shared and which guide his work. In doing so, I hope to encourage readers to reevaluate their own work, asking if they hold themselves to as high a standard as Albert does. If you don’t yet still hold out hopes of being the next Albert Watson, it’s time to ask yourself why not. If you do, keep up the good work, you’re on the right track.
Watson’s success was, even to himself, unforeseen. He didn’t enter photography with his eyes set on being one of the greats, nor even trying to emulate a role model. Instead, from the time of his very first shot, he envisioned a large ladder lined up ahead of him, to be taken one step at a time. This was the ladder to success. Not success—as it is often mistaken for today—as in fame, but creative success. This failure to peer into the future outside of a brief glimpse of the very next step was not a lack of self-awareness, but a healthy dose of it. Rather than ruminating on the past and his current progress, he keeps in mind that he always has rungs to climb. There is no end, per se, no ultimate goal, but a way of going forward.
More concretely, Albert explains that his “ladder” way of thinking is regulated by the pace of his shooting, regardless. Waking up at 5 AM and working all day, not stopping to eat lunch, he’s certainly not going to pause to think “wait, what rung am I on? And how close am I to being a legend?” but more likely he will ask himself “wait, how can I do my best here, today, at this shoot?” The result, however, is largely the same: an “almost subconscious” way of putting oneself “under pressure to do a better job.” If always doing a better job led him to become a legend in his field, so be it; he just wanted to get the job done right.
These rungs, to continue the metaphor, are found most often when we are faced with an obstacle. As a challenge to our current level of skill, obstacles make us better. In attempting to downgrade their status until they are no longer an “obstacle” to anything, we must up our game. If we are already doing the best we can, an obstacle is a blessing in disguise; by overcoming it, we better ourselves. And when you’re working as much as Albert, you come across obstacles frequently. With a 325-day-a-year shooting schedule, even if an obstacle arises once every ten shoots, the other nine going seamlessly, that’s still 32 obstacles overcome a year—either that or one defeated photographer. While Albert may not be counting rungs, he is certainly, through his obsessive devotion to his craft, putting himself in a position to climb ever higher.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
“I realized early on,” Albert tells me, “that preparation is the most important aspect for a photographer.” Where in real estate they say “location, location, location,” in photography they should be saying “preparation, preparation, preparation.” I laugh. By this he doesn’t mean—as it is often understood in the industry these days—making sure one’s equipment is in working order. Of course that’s important, you can’t shoot without a working camera, but that kind of preparation is so obvious as to not need repeating. No, when he talks of preparation, he means something much different, something dealing more with the photographer’s mindset than any basic, material necessities of shooting.
So what is this preparation? Without getting too mystical, it’s something deeply, deeply existential. Even after receiving a job, agreeing to it, flying to location, and waking up the morning of the shoot with 30+ years of photography experience behind him, Watson prepares for the day by asking himself: “Who am I? What am I doing? And what are my dreams for today?” Um….what?
Much as it may appear similar, this is far from the empty, high-flown rhetoric of European philosophers, nor is it the angst-ridden pleadings of punk rockers. It is the extremely practical method of reflection undertaken by one of the world’s foremost creators in an effort to get at the root of the problem at hand: what am I going to do today? Sure he knows it will involve shooting, as well as all of the particulars—models, clothing, actors, landscapes—that he has agreed to or decided to use, but, ever the creative, Albert doesn’t know where he is going to take all of this, the opportunities being endless for someone as capable as he. Asking himself “who am I?” is a way to reach back into himself, retrieving with his answer a genuine, conscious decision of what his role is for that day. What he decides, he will act accordingly, giving his creativity a direction to explore and flourish. To do otherwise, allowing creativity complete free reign over one’s unconscious mind, failing to differentiate between goals and distractions, isn’t a sign of creative genius, but a lack of preparation.
You see, many people believe creativity is some “magical thing,” Albert laments, “either you have it or you don’t.” And while there is certainly some truth in this statement, he admits, it’s far from the whole truth. Instead, Watson compares the creative organ to a well-oiled machine. With upkeep, maintenance, and frequent usage, it continues to function well, delivering results. Under conditions of neglect, disregard, or abandonment, it fails to function. Like a muscle, it needs to be worked out, kept flexible and ready for action. Working ninety-percent of the year, always refocusing his creativity to the task at hand, Albert’s is shredded, as they say.
“I’m constantly battling against mediocrity,” Albert tells me, and when I think about it, who isn’t? While Mr. Watson has been more successful in his own battle than most, I think we all search for distinction in whatever we do. So what is his secret sauce? How has he slayed this dragon of averageness? Is it an anti-mediocrity sword pulled from a stone? A little blue orb worn around his neck at all times? Nope. Neither. It’s “layers,” he says, “layers.” Ah, of course, I say, feigning comprehension. You see, like many of Albert’s tips and tricks, this one begins by plunging the listener into confusion, making understanding, when finally reached, all that much sweeter.Watson is quite the storyteller, and here he begins another tale. Early in his career, he relays, he was shooting a job for International Paper—a paper-products brand, unsurprisingly—which involved a child and the natural swampy landscape of the Everglades. The current shot was of the child from behind, allowing the viewer to access her point of view as she looks out amongst the wilderness. Albert took the shot, and—shocker—it was “beautiful, really beautiful” (never one to toot his own horn, a declaration from Watson that a shot of his is beautiful is not a declaration to be taken lightly). On a set full of creatives, all with their own aesthetic preferences and preconceived notions, Watson’s shot had somehow achieved unanimity: “everybody loved it.”
Then, in the brief lull that follows a successful shot, the creative director spoke up. You see, earlier in the day, Albert had shot the same child as if departing from home on a bicycle, ostensibly traveling to the spot in the woods on which she now stood. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” the creative director chimed in, “if in the shot she had the bicycle?” He was saying, in other words, “wouldn’t it be great if you retook the shot that everyone loved, but instead put the bicycle in the frame to achieve narrative continuity?” Recall, of course, that this is not a film they’re shooting, in need of a stable plot requiring the connection to be made explicit, as the director suggests, between the two scenes, but a series of ads for a paper company. While many photographers would bristle at this suggestion—given moments too late and dealing with a non-essential part of the work, asking to redo an image everyone had applauded—for Watson, this was an opportunity. An opportunity, that is, to add a layer.
Like an onion, a photograph can have many layers; unlike an onion, the photographer must put them there. “Is there something else,” Albert asks himself in an effort to add these layers, “that I can put on top of this to make it a bit more unusual?” While for others these non-central aspects of an image—like achieving continuity with another image taken beforehand—may seem a waste of energy, missing the forest for the trees. For Watson, however, no detail is too small, no addition to minimal. The forest, after all, is made up of many trees. “It’s a very small thing,” he admits, “but it’s another layer.”
His talk isn’t cheap; with the concept of “layers” in mind, one can discern a common theme in Watson’s work, and one that he is exceptionally proud of. When I later ask him what he would like to be remembered for he responds: “I hope that [people] would feel I had delivered something above and beyond pure observational photography.” While specifying that there is nothing wrong with observational photography, a lot of the best things he did, in his mind, involved “conceptual communication with people.” “I didn’t just photograph Jack Nicholson,” for example, “I photographed him in sixteen mirrors.” “I didn’t just photograph a monkey,” he continues, “I photographed a monkey with a gun, or a mask.”
In sum, Albert’s not a settler, the get-in-and-get-out type, trying to get by. He’s an artist with the work ethic of a day laborer, taking each shot to its next level. Never satisfied with simply capturing an image, he always seeks to add his own conceptual layers to that image, in doing so communicating with those on the other side of the lens.
“You know it’s funny,” Albert says, “some people complain they can’t look at my work because it’s ‘overly technical.’” Meanwhile, he admits, “I’m not technical at all.” …Huh?
For Watson and many others, the “technical is painful.” He is, after all, a “creative,” as they say. Given a choice in the matter, he’d likely prefer flexing his creative muscles all day long without impediment, not stopping to bother with technicalities. But he has the presence of mind, and perseverance of soul, to understand that, as with any art, there are two fronts on which one must get better to succeed: the creative and the technical.
For many artists, the latter can seem a superfluity. After all, they’re not engineers. And this is a trap many artists indeed fall into, relying on innate creativity to overcome a lack of technical skill, which they neglect to improve upon. Albert, however, displaying his abundance of common sense—refreshing to hear from the mouth of someone whose stature is such that they could, for all intents and purposes, say “phooey” to anything common—recognizes that the two sides of creation are not as far apart as they seem. He signals this by describing each as a vital part of attaining what he calls “fluency.”
“It’s necessary,” he says, to improve one’s technical skill because “the technical benefits the creative side” by making one more “fluent,” or, able to “do more things.” The interplay between technique and creativity, he explains, is a feedback loop, each enabling the other. As you gain the ability to “do” more things, you are not only able to put more ideas into practice, making them into reality, but you are also able to imagine even grander things. And, as your imaginative palette expands, so must your technical skill, or you’ll risk falling short. For the motivated artist, this latter kind of frustration isn’t an option; once they can envision an idea, they must communicate it by their chosen method, or go insane.
“The driving force,” Albert says, was always to improve, “an admirable mission.” What’s most impressive, however, isn’t merely his drive, which is common enough, but his intelligence in directing that drive in pursuit of legitimate goals. His concept of “fluency,” among others, is a constant reminder that the ability of the mind to create and the hands to make are not as distinct as their descriptions would make them out to be. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the work, the finished product, and one’s “fluency” in speaking the language of that medium effectively. This can’t be boiled down to one skill set, but rather must involve every aspect of the work and its production, mutually reinforcing each other’s progress as they go along. “Plus,” he says, “there are certain side benefits. Like knowing when to use a small camera, or a big one.”
Sometimes Photographers Are a Bit Lazy
When I asked him how he managed—unlike many of his contemporaries—to stay relevant, Albert launched into another tale, this time with a warning (“I’m going to tell a quick analogy,” he said). As a young man, Albert found himself driving 500 miles for a job, his family along for the ride. At around 3 AM, with them snoozing beside and behind him, Albert, without realizing it, fell asleep at the wheel. His nap lasted “two, three seconds,” and when he awoke he found himself drifting into the other lane, putting his life—as well as the lives of his loved ones—in danger.
“It was an interesting thing,” he says, “that happened next.” Instead of remaining in this dulled state of consciousness, or stopping off somewhere to purchase a caffeinated drink, the “adrenaline hit,” and he remained alert for the rest of the trip. What he learned from this experience—above the fact that his adrenal glands were in good working order—was that one could, both literally and metaphorically, “fall asleep at the wheel without realizing it.” Our perceptions of our current mental competencies, in other words, are not always what they seem. There is no period right before sleep in which you realize “oh shoot I’m going to fall asleep.” Rather, it just happens, and when you think back to it the next day you can recall no such definitive moment.
Bringing the story back to the realm of photography, Albert explains that many times photographers are prone to becoming complacent. In his own polite dialect this is expressed as: “sometimes photographers are a bit lazy.” What is important to realize, however, and what this experience had taught him, was that you won’t know you’re becoming complacent until it’s too late and you’re waking up with your vehicle breaching two solid yellow lines. Therefore it’s simply not good enough to think you’re being proactive rather than complacent. Instead, one must make a conscious, concerted effort to remain active and always on the attack.
To wit Albert, as soon as he feels the tiniest bit of laziness “creeping in”—whether in himself or those working alongside—he seeks a creative resource for energy; “let’s have a cup of tea,” he’ll announce, refocusing the team on the task at hand. And this effort does not go unnoticed. One day on a job he was told by the creative director that he was hired because he shoots as if “the very last shot you’re taking is as important as the first,” a testament to Albert’s never relenting focus. So next time you find yourself driving on a late night, barely keeping your eyes open, ask yourself: “what would Albert Watson do?”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Resource Magazine. You can buy the whole issue here.
Photos of Albert by David Johnson
Original Photos Courtesy Albert Watson