Alfred Hitchcock stood before him in his trademark black suit and bowtie, brandishing a limp plucked goose, complete with Christmas ribbon tied around its neck.
Albert Watson clicked the shutter.
It’s an iconic image that brilliantly captures the filmmaker and his flair for the macabre, and when Watson shot it, it was one of the the last times he’d feel nervous in his work. Today, the Scotsman is a legend in the craft of photography. But in 1973 he had never shot a celebrity when Harper’s Bazaar reached out and asked him to capture Hitchcock for an article in which the culinary-minded director shared his preferred recipe for how to cook a goose (literally).
The photo made waves—and it inspired confidence in the lensman. This episode of Design Matters, recorded live at Adobe MAX 2018, explores that shot, and everything that came after.
As with all of the live episodes of the show, here we present a curated collection of some of our favorite quotes from the interviewee, in this case focusing on Watson’s craft, character and a medley of things in between.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
*All of the original sources are linked on the last word of each quote.
“I came out of four years at graphic design and then two years at film school, doing my master’s degree. So I came out as a director. If you look at the work, it’s split into those two categories: It’s either [cinematic] or graphic.”
“At the beginning of my career, I was often shooting hospital supplies, not celebrities. Bedpans are not easy to do because of the reflections.”
“When I am talking to young photographers I have this analogy: When you first get into a car it seems impossible. You’ve got to look in your mirror, switch on, coordinate clutch and breaks, be aware of what’s behind you and what’s in front of you—so it seems absolutely impossible and just too difficult but if you want to drive, you’ve got to learn it. I was old school. I felt a responsibility to learn the techniques of photography. The technical was painful for me. People say, ‘But you’re so fluent,’ but it wasn’t like I loved it. I was not one of these photographers where they love technical things. I was interested in the end product. Ultimately it was what the car can do for you and where you are going to go.”
“The technical aspect should be 5% and then 95% should be creativity.”
“Are you a fashion photographer? Are you a ‘this’ photographer, a ‘that’ photographer? In the end, I’m a photographer.”
“I’m in the Cairo Museum basically photographing gloves, socks and other Tutankhamun artifacts, then I’m flying to Paris for a French Vogue cover plus couture pictures. That’s what I am and what I do. People did have a hard time in the beginning, because they could never pinpoint me. I said, ‘In the end, it all looks like me because it is me.’”
“A lot of times you look at a young photographer’s book and in a weird way it looks like my book UFO. You see it especially right at the start if he has a photograph of his girlfriend, a photograph of his grandfather, a photograph of a sunset, a photograph of the car on a beach, a still life. There’s a little bit of everything and I think the weird thing with me was that I never really lost that love of a little bit of everything. … The way I see it is I discover a road, it goes straight and then it takes a curve; then it’s in a forest and then it’s up a hill and you follow that road and at the end you finalize an image. I am working naturally.”
“Every so often there is a journey a shot will take from a magazine to a book, a book to a gallery, a gallery to a museum. It’s not so easy for a shot to make it all the way through—but if the shot is strong, it will.”
“The soul and the essence and the power of the picture has to be in the taking.”
“I’m never casual. I’m always pretty determined about finding things. Basically I’m always looking for things. Any good photographer should always be looking for something, you know. If you’re casual you’re not going to be successful in what you find.”
“A nightmare shoot can evolve into an iconic image. … Frustration and excitement go hand in hand, but that is exactly what makes what I do so interesting.”
“The photographer’s best weapon is not his lighting, not the cameras. It’s communication skills.”
“I think [photographers] should always be looking for intensity and power. I mean, I don’t know any great photography that is not powerful in some way or another—even sometimes a snapshot can have a sense of power, or mystery, or spontaneity, but it should always have a characteristic, some characteristic. … Sometimes it’s very difficult to see why that picture is so powerful and sometimes it’s just there because it has some mystery and a quality, a soul to it.”
“A good photo can reveal the inner self.”
“When I did the shot of Steve Jobs that was on his book cover, I said to Steve Jobs, ‘Just imagine you’re across the table from a lot of people who don’t like your ideas, but you know that you’re right.’ He said, ‘I'm good at that.’ And that’s exactly what he did in that shot.”
“I’m always looking for things which are dead simple, if possible—very, very minimal so you’ve got nothing left but to work with the person. Sometimes you can put people in an artificial situation and it makes kind of a memorable shot. But because it is artificial, in the long term I’m not sure I’m a big fan of that. … I like working with people, just with their facial expressions. The face can run through 20,000 expressions, you know?”
“Fashion photographers in my opinion are sometimes a little bit guilty of not really strongly thinking about the makeup and the clothes, and so on. Whereas sometimes a NASCAR photographer, he can tell by the sound of the engine what the car is. You should know the difference between a low-level silk, a high-level silk, or regular cotton or brushed cotton. You should know these things.”
“Digital can turn someone who wasn’t a photographer into a photographer but it can’t turn a photographer into a great one.”
“[I’m] a big fan of the computer; it’s another arrow in the quiver, as it were, in the service of the mood and feeling. No one complains that actually Van Gogh’s sunflowers aren’t quite the right color for a sunflower. He was working emotionally with his paints. Artists use what tools they have to convey the ideas they need to convey.”
“I’ve done a vast amount of commercial work, which helped the creative work because it focuses you. When you get some time off you make damn sure you use it well.”
“When I get behind the camera, time disappears. I enter a state of euphoria.”
“I’m critical every day of what I do. You can always be better.”
“The photographer is part magician; he can do wondrous things with lighting, he can alter things and make things stranger and weirder, and more appealing or even less appealing. The photographer can be the master of his own destiny.”
Debbie Millman: Albert Watson first came to fame in 1970 and has become one of the world's most successful and prolific photographers. He has photographed every supermodel of the past three decades, Orkney's Standing Stones, Chairman Mao's limo, the most iconic photograph of Steve Jobs ever taken, the first monkey in space, death-row convicts in Louisiana, a dominatrix in Las Vegas, the astronauts of Apollo 14, Elvis Presley's gold lamé suit, and hundreds of artists, celebrities, royalty, and cultural leaders.
Albert Watson, thank you for joining me for this very special live episode of Design Matters here at Adobe MAX in Los Angeles, California.
Albert Watson: Happy to be here.
Debbie: Albert, is it true that before you took up the photographic arts, you worked at Duncan's Chocolate Factory in Scotland?
Albert: I did. I actually started out as a mathematician, and I worked at the Ministry of Defense in London strangely enough, and I was operating a very primitive computer as you can imagine back ... That would be 1960. The computer was pretty rough. It's about the size of this airstream here.
Albert: So, I operated that for a year, and then I went ... That was in London. Then, I went back to Edinburgh where I'm from, and I got a job in Duncan's Chocolate Factory testing and tasting chocolates, so I did a lot of chemistry work because I was basically interested in mathematics and chemistry were the two things I was primarily interested in at that time.
Debbie: At that time, did you want to become a mathematician?
Albert: I did, and in fact, I was going to go ... I'd always planned to go back to university and I actually ... By going to night school, I gained entrance to go to Edinburgh University and study mathematics, but also, I got into St. Andrews University, which was the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. I ended up having a choice, so in 1962, I could either have gotten into mathematics or gone into ... What I wanted to do was art, and in Dundee, between '62 and '64, I studied basically many different types of art. It was a general art program, and the idea of that was to find out what you were drawn towards or what you would be good at and so on.
After two years of doing everything from painting, drawing, pottery, silversmithing, and so on, I gravitated towards graphic design. So, 1962 to 1964. Then, I trained to become a graphic designer, but in 1963, for the first ever, they offered a photography class, and of course, by the first month of 1963, I became really pretty much obsessed by photography. I just knew for some reason that it was ... I just wanted to do it all the time every minute of the day and night. By 1964, I qualified as a graphic designer, but I had what was called a craft subject in photography.
Debbie: Now, I want to talk a little bit about your parents. Your mother was a hairdresser and your dad was a former professional boxer.
Albert: That is correct.
Debbie: What influence did they have on you as you were growing up?
Albert: I think it was a fairly normal upbringing. I had two sisters, but I think possibly, my father was an old-school disciplinarian, so he was the kind of guy that if you went in to use our bathroom, make sure you fold the towels before ... and make sure the toilet seat is always down.
Debbie: Oh, good for him.
Albert: Because just in case a lady comes in after to use it, the toilet seat is down, you know? So, it was a nice kind of discipline thing that I hated at the time, but later in life, appreciated because I would consider that I have fairly good discipline and with fairly good discipline. But then, over the years, developing a deep passion for photography, those things came in handy.
Debbie: Now, I understand that your father always hoped you'd get a proper job. What proper job would he have liked you to have?
Albert: I think the first time he saw me doing ... Strangely enough, the first thing he ever saw me photograph was a fashion shooting, and he saw me running in there, and adjusting the clothes on this girl, and just making sure that the hair was okay, and checking the lighting, and then running in and doing the clothes, and fixing a strap in a shoe. Then, as I went back to the camera, he said, "Funny work for a man, this, isn't it?" So, he was a little bit, you might say, prejudice about that and ...
Debbie: When did he come around?
Albert: He came around I think ... He didn't come around for years. That was, let's say ... because I moved to LA. I went down to London, and between '66 and '69, I was at the Royal College of Art Film School. So, I then entered the film world, and if you look at the work right now, you'll see that it's really a combination of graphics and film together.
Albert: That's where that all came from, and then 1970, I moved to LA. In 1972, he actually visited me in LA, and he still thought it was a bit odd what I was doing, but he was impressed that I had a studio and a house by that time, so he thought, "Well, you must be doing all right." I don't have to send him any money or anything, and so there was no ... Basically, I was doing fairly okay, but he was never impressed until 1986. In 1986, I got a call from the Queen to go and do the Royal Wedding. I was commissioned by the Buckingham Palace to do the Royal Wedding in '86 of Andrew and Fergie, and then he was impressed by that. Probably one of the simplest jobs I've ever done. Stressful, but simple.
Debbie: What made it simple?
Albert: Simple because basically, they're standing there and you take the picture, so you're not ... You don't have time. There were basically 11 situations I had to photograph. The first one involved 61 people in the Throne Room in Buckingham Palace.
Debbie: So, is that the whole immediate family?
Albert: Everybody. Everybody that was a cousin, second, third cousin, and so on.
Debbie: Oh, okay, so the extended.
Albert: It was quite complicated because at that time, Fergie's mother was living with an Argentinian polo player, so she was separated from Fergie's father and was, as I said, living with this polo player.
Albert: At that time in 1986, which you probably remember or not, Great Britain was still at war wit Argentina, so the Queen couldn't be in the same picture as the Argentinian. So then, I had to rearrange the whole group. So, anyway, there were 11 situations. The first one was 61 people, and then it was like 49, and then 47, and all the way down to a single shot of Fergie. So, all of that had to be done in 30 minutes.
I had this alarm that went out every five minutes. A little buzzer showing you that was running like ... Count to three, I knew that was 15 minutes and so on, and so it was a bit of a nightmare that way. Stressful, but we got it done, and one roll of film per situation. That was it. 12 frames per situation.
Debbie: As one of the most accomplished photographers alive today, it might surprise some to learn that you were born without vision in your right eye, which is also why you title a book of your work Cyclops, and that is also the name of your company.
Debbie: An article I read from about 10 years ago said that the vision in your left eye is actually 20/20, but you wear glasses to protect it from hazards because you're down to just one.
Albert: One eye.
Debbie: But it looks like you're wearing bifocals now, so I'm wondering ...
Albert: Now, I'm wearing bifocals because a lot of times, and when I'm working, and if I'm in a dark room working with negatives, or even sometimes when I'm working on a computer screen and I have to go close, I use a bifocal to just ... It's just more comfortable for me, and I don't use it that often. When I'm on a plane, I don't really need them if I have good light on a book so ... But the one eye, a lot of time, people ask me about that. They say, "Oh my god, a photographer with one eye."
But if you think about it and you watch a lot of photographers working, if they're working with Canons or Nikons, and a lot of different cameras, when they look through the camera, they only use one eye. They're not using two eyes to look through a Nikon, or a Canon, or a Hasselblad.
Nowadays, of course, photographers are working off of a screen anyway. They might frame through a camera, but you're checking on a monitor next to you that can be quite big, so times have changed for that, but it never really bothered me. If I don't think about my vision, then it seems normal to me. If I concentrate on my vision, I'm very aware that I don't have sight on the right side. I can feel that, but somehow it didn't bother me.
Debbie: You talked about the revelation that you felt when you first took that first picture and that sense of wanting to do it over, and over, and over again.
Debbie: I believe that that came when your wife bought you a Fuji automatic fixed lens camera for your 21st birthday. Is that correct?
Albert: That is correct, and it was ... We didn't have two pennies. We lived together, and she had saved up for that. I think that we had three egg omelet between four people for a while, and so she bought this little camera I think that was like I think $30 or something like that, but I used it, and it became really ... I learned to use and maximize what it was capable of. Of course, it was great. It was great to have my own camera. Otherwise, you were only getting a camera from the school every third weekend, so it was pretty limited.
Debbie: When it came to picking up the art of photography, you've said that you were old-school and felt a responsibility to learn the technical side of the craft, which was painful for you, and your advice to young photographers today is get the technical thing out of the way and become so fluent in it that there is no stress, and you've likened it to mastering driving.
Debbie: It's overwhelming at first with all the gauges and gears, but once you've learned it, it's muscle memory, and you can focus on your destination. So, I have two questions. Why was it painful at first?
Albert: Because I'm not really a technical person. I'm not somebody that is really going to go to camera shops and go through all the latest equipment and test out the latest programs or the latest software in digital world. In fact, I actually got very good ... To speak about something technical, I actually got very good with Photoshop because when I was doing Photoshop, I find myself operating Photoshop at about five miles an hour. When I then began employing a really good technician, we could go at 80 miles an hour. Then, I found the most efficient way for me was to truly understand Photoshop and what it was possible of, but to have those people working with me in-house.
The thing that didn't work for me that a lot of photographers still do is they send their work out to a digital house, and the digital house does some work on it, sends it back. He makes a correction, sends it back. It just didn't work for me at all. To me, it was very important to be on the equipment with these very good technicians, so I sat between two technicians going from a left screen to a right screen. It's highly productive.
Now, I'm totally aware because I see them 8, 9, 10 hours a day operating Photoshop right in front of me, so I'm seeing what is possible. Therefore, working with them is a great way of me, through their ability, to control the image because I'm primarily interested, which I always have been interested in is printing. Obviously, in the first years of my life, I was interested in dark room, so what you would call silver gelatin printing, and so I was used to traditional dark room, and it gave me a great advantage with that knowledge moving into digital, so I was able to apply a lot of the philosophy of print-making right into the digital world, then into Photoshop.
The Photoshop became very good, but going back to the camera and your original question regarding technical things, I didn't enjoy it. Unfortunately, photography attracts a lot of especially guys who love cameras. They just love the equipment. They love changing lenses and getting all the latest equipment, software. I mean, I have a dentist who has every Leica camera ever made. He's obsessed by it. He loves it. He said he can't wait to finish at 6:00 every night, and he goes home, and he works on his photos for seven hours when he gets home.
Debbie: I kind of love that you have a dentist who's also a photographer.
Albert: Also, a photographer. He's obsessed. Then, of course, when he ... Of course, when my house is full of cotton ball and he's trying to ask me questions about photography, it's not so easy to communicate with him, but he really is a ... He loves the equipment, and he does enjoy taking pictures. It's not fair of me to say that he's not 100% technical and never takes a picture, but the technical side, he has a love of that. Whereas I find a lot of the technical things a little bit annoying, but some of it, as you said, pointed ... You have to learn it. You should have a knowledge of that so that you know what's going on.
Debbie: Given that you've been working through so many different phases of technical requirements or technical advancements, how long did it take you to feel like you've mastered each phase of the technical skills of your craft?
Albert: Well, I think it took at least ... Remember, I had a lot of training first, but from ... You get training at school. But then, you hit reality. You're no longer just trial and error. You have to be doing the real thing. You can't fake it anymore. You can't say, "Oh, I'll try it again tomorrow." I mean, you had to do it on the day and get it right, but I think in the beginning, and I've given this analogy quite a lot. I think in the beginning, I would do a shot on a Monday that I would say is equivalent to the Sistine Chapel, and then on Tuesday, I would look at the contact sheet and think that it wasn't as good as I remembered it, and then on Wednesday, you throw it out.
So, the idea was, "How do I manage to break this down to not let that happen?" But I think it began to take 10, 12, 14 years before I became really fluent, I felt, and comfortable, so as it ... When I saw a vision of something, I had a creative idea, then I had the skills to carry out that idea. I'm always learning. Even to this day, I'm always ready for a surprise, something that doesn't work.
Debbie: So, you like the act of learning then?
Albert: Of course. You're always learning. There's always something new that comes along that you want to try, and you find it difficult, and you have to learn to master it because that's ... You're meant to be so-called. Especially at my age anyway, you're meant to be a master of photography, so you better learn a lot of that stuff, but technical stuff has to be a means to the end, not something on its own because sometimes you get a photographer that's completely fluent. You see the way that he handles his camera, and the way he handles it is very quick, and fluent, and natural.
Sometimes, I see that, but then ... I've had assistants that were technically very, very strong, very good, very proficient, and I remember one assistant going away, and he said he was going to ... He'd saved up enough money to work on his portfolio for six months. So, after six months, he asked, "Can I bring it? Can I bring in some pictures?" like for me to have a look at them. Then, he called up, and I made an appointment with him at the end of the day like at 5:30, 6:00, or something. I was actually looking forward to seeing him, and when he brought the pictures in, they were ... I mean, they were pretty horrendous. They weren't great, and I wanted them to be great. You understand?
Albert: I wanted them to be, "Wow, that's fabulous. You did a good job here." So, of course, you're always positive to someone who's trying to do good work, but ... I think I said briefly, I touched on it today at the talk that I think a lot of photographers, for them ... You say to them, "Are you prepared for the shooting?" and they say, "Oh, yes. I've checked all my lenses. My batteries are good. I've got a tripod. I've got the cables. I've got this, that, and the next thing." Preparation to them is that. Now, that should be almost a non-discussion for preparation.
Debbie: Yes. Table stakes, right?
Albert: It's absolutely necessary. You can imagine that if ... Early on in your life, if your father is taking you on holiday and you ... everything is packed, and everybody is ready to go, and you're all ready, and the car won't start because there's no gas in it, then at that point, you go, "That's ridiculous." So, I think that there's quite a lot of photographers that preparation means technical, and they're technically prepared for the shooting.
But then, conceptually, they're very weak at preparing that, and that supports the idea. I mean, I was hanging a show once at a museum in Sweden, and there was a photographer waiting to photograph me, and I said, "I'm going to be about two hours." He said, "That's fine." He was watching me hang all these pictures, and then eventually, after two hours, I said, "Okay. I'm ready. Where do you want me?" because he's the photographer, and he said, "You know," he said, "I've been thinking about it, but I'm not quite sure yet." So, I mean, with all this work around you that I had pictures from every part of the planet, and he just ... and then he turned to me. He said, "What do you think?” It's always a little bit intimidating when you are a young photographer working for an old photographer who's been doing it for a long time but in two minutes, in two seconds, I made some suggestions and he said, oh. I love that and that's great but he should have been prepared. He should have... I know he was just looking at the pictures not thinking. I think that's a major problem with photographers, that their not thinking about communication. I mean, I had an interesting exchange with Steve Jobs, where I had really one thing prepared for him, that I thought about.
I thought it was something that he would respond to and like and that it would be easy for him to do. I said to him... He said, what do you want me to do. A lot of times, that's what they say. What do you want me to do? I said, I would like you to give a fairly strong eye contact and I want you to imagine you are across a table from a lot of people that disagree with you, but you know you are right. He just... of course he smiled and he said, oh. That's easy. That's every day for me. Then, I did that shot of Steve Jobs and it was just really coming from the preparation of that one line.
You like at that line, and some times you say to young photographer, the photographer might say, well, it's not kind of a brilliant Shakespeare line. I said, No, but it was really right on the money because when you see him, he responded to that. He gave that ice cold look, with a tiny smile, and you just felt that he was a bit of a killer, which he was.
Sometimes it can be that simple. One line, you know?
Debbie: But you have to know an awful lot to come up with that one line.
Albert: I did on Steve Jobs. The Steve Jobs book wasn't out, but every single damn thing that I could get on Steve Jobs, I read. It shows that I knew if I was communicating with him, chatting with him about life in general, which you do, sometimes, that I was prepared and I knew all about him. Everything about him, I knew everything at that point about Apple, how it started, what they did and the different people involved, and so on, etc. I knew a lot of things. I mean Pixar Films. I mean, I knew...
Debbie: This is the days before Wikipedia as well, so how would you find out this information.
Albert: Well, it was on the edge of it. In 2006, I did that show. So, I think Wiki was there, but I just got every book and every article I did I went to the library and picked up that stuff when I knew I was photographing him.
Debbie: When you're with Steve Jobs, I think you had 30 minutes. With other artists or other subjects, do you have multiple scenes where you ask them to think about something specific or is it just that one?
Albert: If you think of like the movie poster for Kill Bill, with Uma Thurman, when she's in the yellow jump suit and I spent a day with her because we had to do movie posters for all of the world. So, the Japanese one was completely different. There she was dressed as the bride. If you remember that part of Kill Bill, so, she was wearing all these costumes but they were pretty sure that the one that they wanted was the jump suit, the yellow jump suit. Of course, I did some action shots, and they asked me what I liked. I said, to me the best shot is that she is not in action and that she's cool and kind of ice cold.
In the end, that's the shot she actually used. I thought they would go for one of the action, when she has her legs apart and she has that sword. She was very good with the sword, because she had done a lot of work with it. So, you basically, someone said you have to do action and I'm fine with that because that was the nature of Kill Bill but I thought that a simple portrait of her, that I would be able to get something quite cool. Maybe even a tiny bit sinister in it with great simplicity, you know?
Debbie: Well, there does seem to be layers of emotionality to your greatest photos, where you see different aspects all at the same time.
Albert: Yeah. A lot of it is timing when you are shooting a person. You have to be really watching what they're doing. I always preferred, once I got out of the 1970s and into the 80s, when I really began to work very heavily, sometimes a lot of editors and magazines complained that my work was getting to heavy, to strong.
Debbie: What does that mean?
Albert: Well, especially in fashion photography, sometimes if there's a lightness to the pictures and a little bit of frivolity and so on, a lot of times editors quite like that. I was doing quite a lot of pictures that were quite heavy and quite dark, in a way and a bit moody. It was what I liked at the time. I would get into quite a few fights with them stylistically. They would keep bringing up pictures that I did before that were much lighter and happier and so on.
But that change for me was going to be a natural change. When the pictures became... Sure, I agree they were heavier, for me the pictures were stronger but in some ways less appealing, maybe to a mass audience and it became more specialized. These are the shots that we sell now for thousands of dollars. So, I'm glad I stuck with it.
Debbie: You've said that the photographer's best weapon is not his lighting and not the camera, it's his communication skills. How are you able to get a subject to open up and to feel comfortable and to trust you.
Albert: I think, in the end, I try to be whenever possible, completely honest with the person and very natural. I'm never tricking a person into something. I'm always very direct of what I'm hoping to get and what I get. I'm also, often when the person goes into hair and makeup, I'm in there watching them have their hair and makeup done. Sometimes, they are communicating with the hairdresser or the makeup artist and I can feel something, see something in their openness. So, I'm basically from the minute they enter the studio, I try whenever possible to have them in front of me.
Debbie: You are able to solicit multiple emotions at once from your subjects.
Albert: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Debbie: I know that when you were shooting Rene Zellweger, you asked her to concentrate on two different emotions, on being both angry and also in love. I'm wondering, how do you get somebody to be able to do that?
Albert: Well, sometimes you get a good actress, of course, this is where actors are, of course, invaluable. I remember doing a TV commercial with Charlize Theron and I explained to her, it was a huge set I was working on with neon lights in the street, with rain pouring down. It was inside an L.A. studio and it was torrential rain and she ran across the street and she's got just her hand bag on top of her head. You kind of see there is a man with her, opening the door for her and closing the door. You don't kind of see the guy, but you know he's there. It was for jewelry, an Italian company.
I remember saying to her... She said what do you want me to do? I said, imagine you just spent the weekend with this man and you're madly in love with him, but you're not going to see him for a month. So, you spent the weekend with him, but you're not going to see him for a month. I said, you get into the car and you realize this is the moment that he's going to disappear from you. You don't see him. At that point in the rain running down the side of the car, she runs over to the car she gets in, she's slightly flustered and she puts her hand on the window, and he puts his hand on the window, from the other side. So, the shot was fairly classic in a way, but she puts her hand up first and she looks up [inaudible 00:30:16] and then his hand comes up and touches her fingers through the glass.
I remember explaining that and she said, I got it. So, I only explained it once. Sometimes you want to expand on it a little bit but she said, No. I got it. Don't worry about it, I got it. So, I thought, well we'll see if you really have got it. I'll always remember that she did it first take was perfect, I was going to cry when the guy was and she was like. Then, just at the end she gave a little smile, almost as to say thank you or something. So, the communication with people and how you handle them is really important.
With Rene Zellweger, when I was doing stuff on Cold, I think it was the move Cold Mountain, I was working with her on. I said to her, imagine you're in a restaurant and you have an 8:30 appointment with your boyfriend and 8:30 arrives, and he's not there. Quarter to nine arrives. So, by five to nine you're furious, but you're also worried. Why is he not here? So, you have a panic that he's not there, but you have anger. So, when he comes through that door, you're thank God he's here, but you're also furious. Where was he at 8:30?
Sometimes you can work with a good actress and you can pull that out of a good actress. You can really work with her where she is angry, but she's just so happy to see him that, that's maybe 60 percent of her emotion that he didn't, that he wasn't hurt in a car crash or something. Now she's... the 40 percent is where the hell are you? Why are you late sort of thing. Sometimes you can pull different things. It doesn't take a lot of planning, you just have to have a plan. You have to have a plan. That's what's important and that's preparation.
Debbie: What do you think the audience sees when they see that Rene Zellweger photograph?
Albert: I'm not so sure. It's just the way that I like working and I hope that they manage to see some weight in the picture because I did that. I did another type movie poster on Kate Blanchett for the movie Veronica Guerin, the Irish activist, who was assassinated.
Debbie: I read that you really like her face.
Albert: Of course, I like her face because she's a great actress. I like her face but she's a great actress. I mean, there's just, she's just simply a great actress. I mean, she's just... I said to her, I'm just wondering is there anyway, there are obviously times in the movie where your life is good and positive and so on, but you must know in the end there is a great danger in what you're doing and of course she knew it was dangerous. The real Veronica Guerin new it was dangerous and then she was assassinated. I said, it would be very good if you can somehow play on this idea that your hopeful about things. That you feel that you're a good journalist, a good writer and that you're doing the correct thing in life but boy are you worried about your own safety.
If you ever find that shot, the Veronica Guerin poster, have a look at that and she does it beautifully. So, sometimes people see all of that. To me sometimes, what's important is that I actually go through that procedure. That I go through that procedure in my head and that I'm trying to deliver something for myself and a client. I'm trying to work. So, I'm not just there saying, just be there. You know, give me a little smile or something. I'm trying to give them situation, trying to pull something from them.
Debbie: Not everyone is as accommodating, I understand Chuck Barry was quite rude.
Albert: Well, one of the real big disappointments for me was Chuck Barry because I was a gigantic fan from when I was very young of Chuck Barry. He was just basically a real jerk, what can I say? He's gone now, so it's not good to speak ill of the dead but boy he was just so rude and nasty. The more I poured on niceness to quell that fire, I was trying to put his anger out with niceness and friendship...
Debbie: Kill him with kindness kind of thing?
Albert: And so, it just was almost going down hill. It was even getting worse. So, that was a big disappointment for me. He was actually the worst of all the people I've photographed. I think we have a library of about 5,000 recognizable names of celebrities and he's definitely at the bottom of the list unfortunately.
Albert: Not his music, not his music.
Debbie: I know but why? It makes you wonder why be that way?
Albert: I think he was bitter and I think that bitterness got into him that he felt that a lot of people, like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles etc, etc, etc, were able to go on and make millions of dollars. Meanwhile, he was always struggling to make a dime, sort of thing. He was a difficult character. He was bitter, is really the word. So, when he felt that he could be nasty to someone, that he felt was in some sort of power, like I had. I was photographing him, that he just decided to be nasty.
I remember his nastiness at the airport when I went to pick him up. He insisted that I pick him up at the airport and I went out there in a limo to pick him up and then he took the limo and said you can get a taxi. So, I went out there in a limo to pick him up, right? When he was being rude to me, it was funny because this really pushy guy came over to him and said, You're Chuck Barry and he said I am. He said, I love your music and he said, can you sign my boarding pass? And Chuck Barry said certainly. No problem and where are you from?
Are you vising New Orleans for long? What's your favorite Chuck Barry song? He was like going on like this with a stranger. Meanwhile, I come out there to get him, to photograph him and he just treated me very badly, but I heard that from a lot of people. There was another group called Sha-Na-Na and there's a guy in it called Bowser and he went on to produce a lot of concerts. He was producing the Chuck Barry concert in New Orleans and he, Chuck Barry with Bowser was atrocious. He was worst with even Bowser than he was with me. So, it was a sad thing because I wanted him to be great and he is great. He just wasn't great to me.
Debbie: Today at the Adobe Max conference you shared a story about Mick Jagger and I hate to ask you to be redundant but for those that are listening to this episode, that might not of had the opportunity to hear it, would you share that story?
Albert: Sure. So, I was doing this series for Rolling Stone and I was doing the heroes of Rock and Roll and I did a whole ton of them and Mick Jagger was one of them. In fact, they ended up using one of my shots for the cover and I had gone to Graceland and photographed Elvis Presley's gold lame suit. THat's what they actually used for the cover, Elvis's gold Lame suit and it was called the Heroes of Rock and Roll. It was their 25th anniversary issue, I think.
It was nice for me. I photographed Mick several times, so I knew him. I went out there and I just had this idea of photographing him in the front of a Corvette, where there's a leopard in the passenger seat and he's driving like he's the driver and he's driving a leopard around. It was just a surreal idea, surreal kind of put together. So, when we got the leopard there, it turned out the leopard was dangerous. So, Mick was nervous with the leopard and I was nervous too because I could tell the that leopard was still wild.
Debbie: Ready to pounce?
Albert: It was wild. The leopard was well behaved with the trainer, but the minute the trainer was ten yards away, then he was not. So, what we had to do was invisible before Photoshop. Now a days you shoot the leopard, shoot Mick Jagger and put them together later. Which would have been possible but of course I liked the fact that it was real. So, I said, I'm going to build a little black partition between the leopard and Mick Jagger with a piece of plexiglass that I'd cut down. While we were building all this, I got this idea. Why don't I do this double exposure portrait of you, with the leopard and he said fine because we were just waiting.
I went ahead and photographed a portrait of the leopard first and I drew the eyes, the nose, and the mouth and the ears of the leopard on the view finder of the camera. Then, I shot the roll of film rewound it and then fitted in and I was very careful with exposure because somebody said online, it's not a double exposure. That's impossible and so on because we don't see Jagger's ear, but I knew if I did the exposure the right way, that part of the whole, and the way I lit Jagger that part of it would fall away into black. Of course, the black was replaced by the spots of the leopard. So, of course it was a double exposure. So, it worked. A lot of photographers said, it's an impossible shot but I knew how to do that. That's another technical thing.
Debbie: Technical, yeah.
Albert: You see where technical can creep in? So, I went ahead did the leopard first. Did the drawing and then I fitted Jagger in and I actually had to move back a little bit too, from the format of the leopard to make him a little bit smaller, so he would fit into the leopard's head. I then did 12 frames of the leopard and 12 frames of Jagger. I thought, well, it's never going to work and really I was just playing for time. I took the role of film and dropped it in the bag and I almost thought it was a waste of time processing it. It's never gonna work. So, of course, it came out and strangely enough out of 12 frames, four of them were a perfect match. So, it was almost a kind of a miracle that it worked.
I kind of told that story today to let people know that sometimes I go on a lot about preparation but that shot wasn't prepared. Sometimes, preparation, preparation, preparation and you know Albert you're going on about preparation but you didn't prepare that shot. No, I didn't but because in my head of all the preparation that I wanted to do in possible a second or third shot that I wanted to do. Your brain is working at a speed that differs. When you turn to something spontaneous that you haven't planned, your brain is working quick enough to pick up something that you might be able to pull off. Even though, it's a long shot and in the end it actually worked perfectly and of course he loved that shot.
Debbie: Well, its one of the most iconic shots ever taken of him but I also think there's something really interesting about the notion of preparation and opportunity. That's when I think luck happens. That's when I think something magic happens. When you've prepared enough and something happens...
Albert: You're lucky enough... if you remember I told you the story of Alfred Hitchcock with the goose.
Debbie: Yes. Share that again because if they...
Albert: So, that photo graph of Hitchcock with the goose, initially the magazine, the reason he's holding a goose is that he was a gourmet chef and he was going to give the recipe for his Christmas goose to the magazine. If you look closely at that shot, you'll see there's Christmas decorations around the goose's neck. So, which I brought along with me, I was doing the shot in July or something. It was hard to find Christmas decorations but not in L.A.. I said to them, if he's holding a plate with a cooked goose, which is what they wanted, I think that the cooked goose on the plate with him with a bow tie is going to look like a waiter.
I said that's not really the right mood. That's not very Hitchcock. I said, I'm sure he'll pull it off with his expression. He was good at that. He was like an actor. I said but isn't it better, in addition to the plate that we have him with his hands around the goose's neck. Like he strangled the goose, you know. I thought, well, they'll never go for that and then I got a call back from the art director saying, the editor in chief loves it and you don't have to do the plate. So, it meant I could spend more time on the goose shot and that was a big relief, that I didn't have to do plan A and plan B. I just had to do plan A. I think and I was a starting out photographer then.
Debbie: Starting out? Albert, that was your first ...
Albert: That was the first famous person I've photographed.
Debbie: Yes, but that was 1973. Harper's Bazaar. Ruth Ansel was the art director.
Albert: That is correct, and Bea Feitler.
Albert: The two art directors, and Ruth was the person I was communicating with. Ruth was a great art director.
Albert: Great, really ...
Debbie: But that might make sense to some people, "Of course, he could get his way. That was when he was famous." This was before you were well-known. How did they even find you? How did Ruth and Bea find you?
Albert: I think that they just didn't want to fly a photographer out from New York, and then the West Coast editor said she knew of a photographer, she'd seen some work that I'd done for the LA Times' color supplement and she liked what I had done and she called me up and she said, "I'm the West Coast editor of Harper's Bazaar design lab, so thank you very much." I thought it was just ... That was it. But in fact, she recommended me for that job and then Bea Feitler called me up and that's where that came from, you know.
Debbie: You have photographed way, way, way more subjects than just celebrities. You did a remarkable series on Las Vegas where you featured a professional dominatrix. You shot her for three 14 hours straight in a Budget Suites hotel, and emerged with an incredible photo of a leg in a high hill, atop a stove. Discussing that photo. You've said that you've been asked, "Did you plan to do that in the shoot?" And your response was, "No, I was in an environment that allowed it to happen. When you see something like that, you have to latch onto it right away." Was that something that happened ... Did you know in the moment when you see something that that's what is right? Or do you ultimately discover that after, when you look at all the film?
Albert: I think in a project like that, you're not doing ... You're not advertising a bottle of water, you're not advertising a car. Nobody's saying, "Make sure you see my Cartier watch. Make sure that I see the earrings." You're free falling. I didn't have to shoot that shoe. I had a bunch of shoes there. I said, "Change the shoe. Put a boot on." You're in a free fall of creativity. You can do anything.
And when I was in that room, I had planned in that room to do several shots. Now, did I plan, since I'm always speaking about planning and preparation, did I plan that shot ... And a lot of times you get sometimes young photographers who are saying, "But how did you know how to put the foot on the stove?" And sometimes questions like that I just cannot answer. I saw it and it came into my head. Maybe it was by that time that I'd had been a photographer for 30 odd years, probably, that before those 30 years, I was trained as a conceptual thinking in graphic design, okay? Maybe.
I was trained as a film director. I came on a director's ticket from film school, so therefore you're involved in creative communication, which is what a director does essentially. He should be doing. These things all came together at that moment, and therefore I just saw it. Sometimes these things pop into my head and they're just fortunate. I don't know how or why they pop in, but I would imagine it's accumulative knowledge.
I was speaking earlier about the Beatles, and when they arrived in' 63, everybody said, "Why are they so good, these guys? How are they so good? I've never heard of them before and then suddenly in 1963, they were The Beatles," and then when you see the ontology of The Beatles, you realize that you see a picture of them playing in early 1959, and you go '59, '60, '61, '62, and then in '63 years, it's four and a half years. You go, "What were they doing for four and a half years?" They were slogging away. They were playing gig after gig, after gig, after gig. Therefore, sometimes when you get to the point they were obviously geniuses, so there is no question at all about that.
That, of course, plays into the whole mix. It's one of the ingredients, the magic dust that goes into the making of that cake that was The Beatles. But the slog is part of it unfortunately.
Debbie: You started shooting bedpans, right? Some of your early work.
Albert: I was doing hospital appliances. I was doing ... I remember back in England just before I came to America, I actually got a job from a rental company that rented chairs for parties and they said, "We can deliver these chairs and tables and things for parties, tent, we can deliver them anywhere." They booked a studio for me to shoot. I said, "Why are we doing it in a studio? Why don't, for example, there's a flat sand beach, you know, a couple of hours from London.Why don't we take all this stuff down there and I'll shoot on a beach? Since you deliver this stuff anywhere, why not a beach?"
And they all looked at each other, the executive. They said, "Oh, we love that idea. That's great." I said, "Why don't we do it in a beach and maybe in a forest or next to a stream so I can do some landscape work, but there's your chair and you'll drop it anywhere, you know?" Because that was their main thing. We'll bring the chairs, the tables, and everything you need for a wedding or a party, we'll bring it to you. So I photographed all of these things in a natural environment.
Even back then, I was trying to conceptualize and trying to think about things and put something together that was a little bit different, but I was using what I was trained to do as a graphic designer is to try and conceptualize.
Debbie: One of your most recent projects is the shooting of the 2019 Pirelli calendar.
Debbie: Which you've described as, one of the greatest commissions a photographer can get. The Pirelli calendar has always been more than just a series of beautiful photographs. It also provides a snapshot of contemporary society and times, and for this project you sought to approach it in a different way than other photographers have. Saying, "Exploring the women with the sense of inquiry to create a situation important for 2019." Can you tell us a little bit more about your take and the final product?
Albert: I mean, the Pirelli calendar was famous for taking a bunch of models down at the beach and taking their tops off.
Debbie: Right, cheesecake.
Albert: Because it was essentially a pinup calendar. For me, in the present climate, seemed wrong to do that. In fact, the New York Times when they interviewed me, they had the headline and they basically said "Albert Watson treats women now as subjects, not objects." Which I thought was fair enough, and I thought, "Well, I was trying to do that." I didn't feel the pressure of, say, the Me Too movement not to ... a nude woman. But it was a difficult problem because essentially, men ... The idea of the Pirelli calendar, was a mechanic and a garage calendar, and you'd pinned up on the wall beautiful women, so they're pinups.
It was hard for me, which I could have gone in that direction. I've certainly got enough work to prove that I could go in that direction, and I just came up with a different concept and I wasn't ... The thing with the Me Too movement, which I think is a great movement. I think it's completely valid, but in fact, my way of dealing with women sometimes if I wanted to photograph of a woman nude, I just asked her and if she says no, ended the discussion. There is no more discussion. I never ever, ever ask a woman that twice.
I never say, "Oh, can you think about it? Can you ..." It simply leaves the discussion. That Me Too, which is much more to do with harassment than anything else. It's not to do with, say, taking a photo of a nude woman. I certainly have plenty of women that are very happy to be photographed nude by me, so it's not that I have to worry about that. And as I said, I asked people, I said, "This is what I'm doing. Are you all right with that? And if you're not, I understand it." And I never try and persuade them or do anything like that.
Debbie: Talk about the concept for the Pirelli calendar.
Albert: The concept, I came up with the idea of almost like they were moving stills. I shot everything widescreen, what's called 16:9 format. I basically had the four women play different characters, so I got Misty Copeland who's a world famous, amazing, outrageously amazing dancer, because I've seen her dance at Lincoln Center. I cast her as a dancer. Okay, sure. That's fairly obvious in a way, but I didn't want her to play herself. I gave her, basically, a boyfriend or someone she knew and another dancer. The scenario for them was two dancers living in Miami, because we shot it in Miami, and it was two dancers living in Miami and they were trying to make it.
He basically, we said, danced at a local hotel in a Cuban dance thing, which we showed a little bit off, but to make ends meet, I had her dance in a strip club and, of course, she was never ... I was never going to have her strip, but I was gonna have her pole dancing. I personally love the idea of Misty Copeland pole dancing when she's a classic ...
Albert: Ballerina. She actually loved the idea, and like anything, there was some journalists said, "Oh, you forced her." I said, "I didn't force anybody." I said, "You don't know Misty Copeland. Misty Copeland, she doesn't want to do something, she's not going to do it. That's the end of it. She's a strong, strong, strong person." Anyway, it was a movie about her in Miami trying to make it as a dancer with dreams of going to, maybe, Paris to dance or Milan to dance or something like that.
Then, we did Laetitia Casta, who used to be a model and is now only doing movies. I cast her as an artist painter, and she has a studio also in Miami and her boyfriend was Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian dancer who's an outrageous dancer. I mean, really ridiculous. I mean, he's kind of as good a dancer as Misty is, you know. I'm happy that we didn't use Sergei with Misty because it would've been too strong. And we did use a strong dancer with Misty, but not as famous as, say, Sergei is. Sergei and Laetitia worked out beautifully, and they were living in this beat up loft in Miami and she was a painter, and I photographed them together. I did portraits. They kind of have a pet parrot. In part of the time, they live in [inaudible 00:56:06], just like the one we're in right now.
Debbie: And was this a story that you constructed on your own?
Albert: We just constructed it as an idea. That was Leticia, that was woman number two. Then, we did Julia Garner from Ozark, and I always wanted to use her because I thought she was great in Ozark, the Netflix series, and I cast her without a boyfriend, but totally dedicated to photography and she wanted to become an art photographer who was a botanical photographer. She loved photographing plants, and she also did some nude photography and it's actually the only nude, basically, almost in the whole calendar that there's a shot of her in a tropical garden photographing another woman, who's posing for her.
Apart from that shot, the other nine shots of her are Julia Garner working and thinking about her work and so on. Each character has 10 pages, so the calendar has 40 pages in it. The final one that's Julia Garner playing the photographer, and she's also dreaming. The name of the calendar is really Dreaming because everybody's trying to make it, trying to do something, trying to be successful, thinking about their future, and they're dreaming.
The final one was Gigi Hadid. I didn't cast Gigi Hadid really as a character, but I saw her more like a Paris Hilton who just happened to have inherited $300 million, so she did have concerns in her life, but it was more like, what event would she go to next? What charity ball would she go to? Where was the next boyfriend coming from? Etc, etc. She was an heiress. She played an heiress, and her best friend was the designer Alexander Wang, and he played her confidante, almost her personal psychiatrist, and was a close friend of hers.
We shot it all at the penthouse at the Carlisle Hotel in New York. Three of the women are in Miami and one was in New York, with views of Central Park, and it's much darker in its look because it was New York winter time sort of thing, wintery days anyway. That was the four women. Each, as I said, of the four women, get 10 pages. So it makes a 40-page calendar, and the calendar comes with a really beautiful matte black aluminum frame, and as the months go by, you divide the year into 40, that's how many we have. It's not quite one for a week, but let's say a week and a quarter, and each ... The way that it's set up within the box, it comes in a box, because I didn't want to do a spiral, and you actually put the image in a frame. It's much more like a gallery museum approach to the project.
Debbie: And you have a big gallery show coming up in Toronto, I believe.
Albert: In Toronto with all new work, nothing to do with Pirelli. I have a show coming up on November the 8th, at the Izzy Gallery in Toronto, and I'm very excited about that because it's basically all new, unseen work.
Debbie: Where did you take the work? What is the [crosstalk 00:59:35].
Albert: I always had in mind to do this project after I finished the Vegas project. I had this idea of doing a series of nudes with women, and I had gone to the Island of Skye in Scotland for six weeks, and I did a landscape project there with a full crew, so I was there for six weeks, and we shot 12 hours every single day. Rain, shine, it didn't matter.
We actually took the last afternoon off, and I took everybody out for dinner. I photographed some landscapes that I wanted to incorporate into the nudes. It was a real kind of Photoshop project with kind of massive layered files that were like 30 and 40 gigabyte files, that we built up, and because of the layering and the richness of the images, the prints are beautiful.
Since printing is such a huge part of what I do, I was always ... When I first started photography, I was obsessed by printing in a dark room. Now, with new printing technology, as I said, I'm working with Photoshop people, but the end product, the print, is very important to me. I've always been an obsessive printer. We print everything in-house.
Debbie: Albert, my last question is about a quote I read wherein you talked about your future. Discussing the craft of photography in aging, you said, "I think it's different from, say, music, where you think of all the great songs that Paul McCartney is writing and he hadn't written anything as good as that 1960s material. He hasn't written one song that's as good as Yesterday, and they always say that mathematicians do their best work when they're in their 20s. Everything Einstein did after the age of 28 was just a variation of that. But with photographers, you're relying sometimes on techniques that you've learned and then later on in life you're using those techniques to make pictures, and that's what transforms them sometimes. That's what makes them richer, because you have that experience."
That's a thrilling prospect of what you have in store us. I'm assuming that you will never retire.
Albert: Photographers are lucky or unlucky because people are always saying, "Will you ever retire?" And of course, you just don't retire. You're just, "What's happening next Monday? What's happening next Friday? When's the next project up? Okay." We have exhibitions coming up in Venice, then we have an exhibition coming up in Kyoto in Japan. Earlier this year, we were in the largest contemporary photography museum in China. We had a big show there. We went to China for that.
You just keep on trucking along. I mean, photographers just keep on trucking, and I think that you like to fantasize a photographer is like a wine that the longer you leave it in the bottle in the cool cellar, it gets better. It doesn't mean to say that, maybe a picture I did 40 years ago is not as good as I do now, because I think some of the work I did back then in the 80s, I still like it. I don't look back in and say, "That's awful."
I like the new work particularly, and I'm glad I did the old work, but I'm glad I'm not doing that work now. I'm afraid the analogy we're going up a ladder is always that onwards and upwards, you know. You always want to get up that ladder and see what you can do.
Debbie: It's lucky for us that you have yet to peak.
Albert: Yeah, I'm doing my best.
Debbie: Thank you, Albert. Albert Watson. Thank you so much for joining me today for this very special live episode of Design Matters here at the Adobe MAX Conference in Los Angeles, California.
Albert: Yay, Adobe.
Debbie: This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.