From May 20 - July 9 2011, the Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam hosts a unique exhibition with the work of Albert Watson: the most unknown famous fashion, celebrity and art photographer of all time. Gallery owner Roy Kahmann sat with him just before the opening of the 'I Observe' show.
Your book Cyclops was my starting point. It is still one of my favorite books of all times.
Well, I am honored. A lot of the pictures that are shown in that book are well-known. In the 1970s, I was very successful – doing many advertisement campaigns and shoots for all the big magazines. At the end of the 1970s, most covers of the French Vogue were made by me. Ever since, my pictures started a life on their own, becoming icons on themselves. But probably only a few would know the name of the one who shot them.
This might be true, but there is a smaller circle of people that know all too well who you are and what you have achieved. The other week, you gave a talk in New York for a thousand people, among which 980 turned out to be a photographer! How do you explain this particular attention?
I was a little nervous at first, being confronted with such a big crowd of colleagues paying 80 dollars to lecture them.
I think it was because of Cyclops...
This could well be. Cyclops is an important book, also from an historical point of view. Not only because of the mixture of genres but also due to its specific juxtaposition of images. For me, a book always has two dynamics: a left and right page relationship and the flow to the next spread. I think that when the book came out, people were not yet that familiar with the rhythm of Cyclops. Today, such is much more common and better absorbed, also due to the fact that a contemporary audience is much more trained in making connections between images.
So how did the book come about?
I always wanted to make a compilation book. But back then, everybody was against it. The graphic community, so to say, wasn't ready for my ideas. There were no books like this at the time, and there still are only a few which show the look of one photographer, including all his or her styles and approaches in one publication.
You have had many celebrities in front of your camera. Most people that see your work at first will focus on who is depicted rather than that they have a particular interest in the way you portrayed them, photographically. What are your thoughts on that?
The cult of the celebrity, since Andy Warhol, is something that the planet has been consumed by. But the essence of a celebrity – instant recognition – has faded. Nowadays, there are so many but the revolving door is very quick on them. Almost anyone is staged as a 'celeb' but my interest is mainly in those people that stand out because of their unique talent. As can be seen in the portraits I made over the years, those in the pictures all can be named without hesitation.
Even after 18 years, she still is a top-model. That is a talent.
The first celebrity you encountered was Alfred Hitchcock. Is there anyone nowadays that would still make you nervous?
No, not even Obama. For Fortune magazine, related to power and money, I have photographed many big names, some of the most powerful and influential people in the world, but it is just a job. No nerves.
But I guess celebs can have their singularities. You had a peculiar shoot with Clint Eastwood, apparently?
First of all, unlike most celebrities, Clint Eastwood is actually much bigger in real life. Very tall, a Mid Western giant. But he is also an awful dresser. Clint doesn't really like to be dressed up and almost made our make-up artist cry as he refused to be powdered. Eventually, when everything was set, I made the Polaroid and Clint said: please don't sell this to anybody, I want to use it for the cover of my book. Three years later, so it happened.
A learning experience?
This is just an example of how a nightmare shoot can evolve into an iconic image. And also how a person can change attitude from time to time. Frustration and excitement go hand in hand, but that is exactly what makes what I do so interesting.
A portfolio by Albert Watson was published in in GUP#27. Click here to see his portfolio online.