Scottish photographer Albert Watson has spent the past 50 years shooting the stars. A master of the celebrity portrait, he has created some of the most iconic shots of the pop culture zeitgeist, capturing
and Prince at the peaks of their careers.
is also a renowned fashion photographer, having shot over 100 covers for Vogue, capturing
throughout the 1990s. Now, Watson, who is 79, is the focus of a sprawling retrospective on view at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, which runs until Oct. 17. “Albert Watson: The Light Behind the Lens” showcases 50 of his most renowned photographs from the past 40 years. He also released a book on June 8 called Albert Watson: Creating Photographs, which offers smart tips for photographers today.
Watson got his start in his hometown of Edinburgh, where he studied graphic design and film, then turned to photography after moving to Los Angeles in 1970. Watson speaks from his home in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood about
Jobs, surrealism, and what makes a show-stopping magazine cover.
PENTA: Your new book Creating Photographs helps people take better photographs. Why did you decide to write the book?
Albert Watson: I did a few MasterClass workshops and found it interesting that I was teaching basic photography. They wanted to know how I did this photo or that photo, my philosophy is in taking a picture. It’s my approach and how I move forward in taking pictures. So it’s educational.
What led you to celebrity portraits?
My wife got a teaching job in Los Angeles and I was her dependent, we had two kids. In a few months, I was working as a photographer. Back in L.A. in the 1970s, to be successful, you would do magazine covers, fashion, portraits, insurance ads, catalogues, and car photos—a bit of everything. I did that from 1970 until 1974, when I started shooting in L.A. for New York magazines, then opened a studio in New York and traveled back and forth. By this time, I was doing more fashion.
What was it like shooting David Bowie?
In 1998, 20 years after I moved to New York City, Bowie called me up to do a shoot for a magazine. I had a few ideas, he brought props and we did the shoot. It was kind of emphasizing portraiture that is influenced by surrealism.
Who is your favorite surrealist artist?
I like Man Ray,
and a lot of
ideas, but not so much his drawings. I like the Dadaists, too. When I did my first book Cyclops, it’s something I’ve borrowed from and adapted into my work. “Let’s give this a surrealistic touch” is an approach I take in some of my shoots.
How did you get such an iconic shot of Alfred Hitchcock?
That was 1973 in Los Angeles for the Christmas issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
was showing off his talents as a gourmet chef and shared a goose recipe with the magazine. I did a shoot to illustrate this story. This photo was taken at his Universal Studios office. He had a conference room, where this was shot with simple lighting. This shoot helped me believe in myself, it inspired me. As I like to say: “Inspiration is a little bit like wind in your sails. It helps you move forward, and it can give you a different perspective.”
How do you know when you have a good portrait? Is there a recipe?
It comes down to just experience. In the past, you could do 100 shots to get a portrait. Now, it’s only 30 or 40 shots. One photo I took of
was used for the cover of his book, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, and the main image for when he died, his memoriam. I did that shoot in only 25 photos.
What was it like photographing Steve Jobs in 2006?
He was due to arrive at 10 a.m. and I knew he was going to be right on time. He was that kind of guy. At 9:55 a.m., his PR manager came down and said to me: “I just want to let you know that Steve hates photographers.” He just wanted to let me know. I was sad about that but there was nothing I could do about it. I was there to photograph him. I said to Steve Jobs when he arrived: “I know I have you for an hour, but I think I can do this in half an hour.” He was so happy to get that half hour back. “That’s great,” he said, “I’m so busy.”
Did he loosen up?
Yes, from that point on, he was really nice to me. When I showed him the Polaroid, he looked at it and said: “Wow, that’s one of the best photos that has ever been taken of me.” I thought he was just being nice. Years later, [Apple CEO]
called the studio asking for the shot I took of Steve Jobs. He said they “need it immediately.” I sent the shot in. That night, my phone went off, and Steve Jobs died that day, they used that shot as the memorial shot back in 2011.
Who is your all-time favorite muse, your favorite person to shoot?
Jack Nicholson. I’ve photographed him a lot of times, we got on very well. He is always fun, always good to do it, always happy to see me. He loves the whole experience of being photographed and has always been appreciative of my enthusiasm.
When you shoot celebrities, do you always try to reveal something true about who they are?
I often say to younger photographers, “Your best weapon in your own arsenal is your own personality.” It’s not the camera, it’s how you are with that person. If you’re photographing Steve Jobs or
you’re doing great research beforehand. When you walk in to do that shoot, you really want to have done your research; know where they were born, how they got started and their work. That enables you to get close to the person. People respect that when they see you’ve done your homework. That’s what makes them open up and makes for a great shot.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.