Time to focus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am

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DURING THE past few months, one of Albert Watson's most iconic photographs has been splashed over the pages of every newspaper, magazine and website in the world.

It's a black-and-white shot of Apple founder Steve Jobs, a striking image of the businessman before his body began to show the physical decline of cancer. Wearing his trademark black turtleneck sweater, Jobs looks at the camera, his chin resting on one hand in an obvious allusion to Rodin's The Thinker.

The photograph is a fitting epitaph for a person the world has called 'the Da Vinci of our time', one that encompasses his influence, his intelligence and his intensity. But the power of the image derives as much from the person behind the camera, as the individual in front of it.

'Photography as a modern medium, even more so now, has the ability to connect to the average person very quickly; the memorability of the image is key,' says Watson. 'Memorability, power and iconic quality is what I'm looking for, but don't always achieve.'

For a man who has shot some of the most iconic images of our time, that's a remarkably modest view.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1942 with only one functioning eye, Watson might seem destined for the medium of photography. He studied graphic design and film before discovering photography in the 1960s: unlike those two similarly creative fields, photography offered Watson not only a sense of immediacy, but complete control over the finished product.

The five decades since have been spent shooting images which have burned their way into the pop-culture consciousness: over 200 Vogue covers, 40 Rolling Stones covers and a list of celebrities that includes everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Queen Elizabeth II - the majority of which, mind you, were all shot on what most people consider to be an archaic art form: film.

The obvious question of digital versus film emerges, and the story behind that iconic image of Jobs is a good example of how Watson's views on the debate have changed. Photographed in 2006 for Fortune's 25 Most Powerful People in Business, Watson turned up to shoot Jobs with just a film camera.

'Wow, you're shooting film,' said Jobs. Watson nodded and replied: 'I don't feel like digital is quite there yet.' 'I agree,' said Jobs, before adding, 'But we'll get there.'

Five years later and Watson feels they mostly have, although not as wholly as he'd like. 'For day-to-day commercial work and certain art projects, digital is fine,' says Watson. 'But for fine art projects culminating in a large print, film is more beautiful.'

Indeed, it's his preferred format, and is one of the few things he shares with the new crop of fresh-faced photographers on the scene - but little else. Although they may have a fancy photoshoot or two under their belt, 40 years of international photography has hardly gone to Watson's head.

For example, when asked how he feels about recently being named one of Photo District News' 20 Most Influential Photographers of All-Time, he simply says: 'It's of course very flattering to be included in a list like that, but many photographers are missing.'

Among the names he'd include are Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Paul Outerbridge, Andre Kertesz and Brassai. But those choices notwithstanding, Watson's inclusion in that list has raised awareness of his profile: case in point, his much-publicised collaboration with his home country's Scotch whiskey The Macallan earlier this year.

The second in their Masters of Photography series, it had the photographer follow the complex path the whiskey's oak wood makes from Spain to Scotland. The collaboration culminated in a limited-edition Scotch that Watson endorsed; a project that one could argue treaded the line between artistic and commercial.

'Commerce in photography often helps me in a good way to tighten up and be organised,' he says. 'There were not many projects like this, so it was a rare opportunity to travel in two different countries that turned out to be both challenging and rewarding.'

He also recently staged a show in Paris called 'Exposed', made up predominantly of nude female images which he hopes viewers saw as 'beautiful, not obscene'. And after having directed more than 300 TV commercials over his varied career, he plans to finally approach the medium he studied all those years ago: feature films.

'I'm currently working on a film project that I hope to direct,' he says. 'And of course, cinematography would play a major part.'

But his most notable recent piece of news was the Bonham's sale of his nude image of Kate Moss, which went under the hammer last month for a surprising ?16,250. 'It's always a humbling experience when someone hands over a lot of money for one of your images,' he says.

Despite the art world uproar surrounding that iconic image, he's not too bothered about it. Watson will turn 70 next year and instead of focusing on the past, he would rather look forward with all the eager anticipation he had when he first got into the field.

'Hard work and preparation stimulate the creative process, and I have a very good team which enables me to concentrate on the image,' he says. 'I'm always looking for a new face and nearly every shoot I do now is a dream shoot.'