Master photographer Albert Watson discusses his brilliant art and craft—and what it was like to shoot everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Mick Jagger to Steve Jobs. Recorded live at Adobe MAX 2018 in Los Angeles.

Wheat Field

Design Matters Live: Albert Watson

PHOTOGRAPHER

2018

PHOTOGRAPHY / PRINTMAKING / GRAPHIC DESIGN / STEVE JOBS / PIRELLI / PHOTOSHOP / KILL BILL / RENEE ZELLWEGER / CHUCK BERRY / MICK JAGGER / ALFRED HITCHCOCK / RUTH ANSEL / BEA FEITLER / HARPER'S BAZAAR / LAS VEGAS / THE BEATLES / EDINBURGH / ROYAL COLLEGE OF ART / ADOBE MAX

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.

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“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.”

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“At the beginning of my career, I was often shooting hospital supplies, not celebrities. Bedpans are not easy to do because of the reflections.”

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“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.”

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“The technical aspect should be 5% and then 95% should be creativity.”

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Are you a fashion photographer? Are you a ‘this’ photographer, a ‘that’ photographer? In the end, I’m a photographer.”

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“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.’”

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“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.”

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“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.”

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“The soul and the essence and the power of the picture has to be in the taking.”

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“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.”

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“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.”

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“The photographer’s best weapon is not his lighting, not the cameras. It’s communication skills.”

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“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.”

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“A good photo can reveal the inner self.”

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“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.”

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“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?”

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“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.”

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“Digital can turn someone who wasn’t a photographer into a photographer but it can’t turn a photographer into a great one.”

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“[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.”

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“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.”

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“When I get behind the camera, time disappears. I enter a state of euphoria.”

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“I’m critical every day of what I do. You can always be better.”

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“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.”

 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman