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Issue 54 - From Spain to Speyside

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


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From Spain to Speyside

With the launch of the second Masters of Photography collection, sponsored by The Macallan, Roddy Martine talks to Albert Watson, the New York - based Scot behind the images

It is the classic Scot conquers the World headline, the life of Midlothian-born Albert Watson whose portraits of Hollywood superstars and travel photographs have achieved global fame. Today, with more than 250 covers for the magazine Vogue, not to mention 40 for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, he works out of a studio in Manhattan and was recently nominated one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time.

Although born blind in one eye, Watson studied graphic design at the Duncan of Jordanston College of Art and Design in Dundee before heading to London for a film and television course at the Royal College of Art, with photography a part of the curriculum.

That, he says, was almost 44 years to the day, and when his wife Elizabeth landed a teaching job in Los Angeles, he accompanied her as her dependant, taking photographs on a casual basis. This led to his being introduced to an art director at the cosmetics company Max Factor, and thereafter his distinctive style was spotted by fashion magazines such as GQ, Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar.

“I’d never been trained as a professional photographer,” he reflects. “It was just a case of learning on the job which, of course, can be very dangerous, especially in those days when you were so reliant on film processing.” His big opportunity, and the one which he still recalls as his greatest moment, came in 1973 when he was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to produce a portrait of the film director Alfred Hitchcock.

“I’d never photographed anybody famous before, and I was very lucky it was him,” he concedes with just a tinge of emotion.

Being the flamboyant character that he was, Hitchcock loved to be photographed but must have sensed that Watson was nervous. “Dear boy, you’re Scottish,” he said, picking up on Albert’s accent.

“He then offered me a cup of tea and some shortbread biscuits. I thought that was amazing. Here I was drinking a cup of tea and eating shortbread with the greatest film director in the world.

Albert was entranced, and when the pictures came out they were not only critically acclaimed but effectively launched his photographic career. Today, his portfolio of iconic portraits, alternating in black and white and colour, includes Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Johnny Depp, President Clinton and Her Majesty the Queen.

“Bit if you wanted to be a photographer back in the 1970s, you had to turn your hand to virtually everything,” he says.

By 1974, he had the largest studio in Los Angeles, and the same year opened a second studio in New York. In 1975, he won a Grammy Award for the cover of the Mason Profitt album Come and Gone and the following year was commissioned for the first time by Vogue magazine. It was a pressured but immensely stimulating existence, shooting commercial catalogues during the day and working on his personal projects at night. Inevitably, he found himself on the road continually and, reinstating his early training, directed more than 600 television commercials.

There followed photography for literally hundreds of advertising campaigns, clients such as Gap, Levi’s, Revlon and Chanel. Among the Hollywood movie posters to his credit are ones for Kill Bill, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Da Vinci Code. In 2007, a largeformat Watson print of the fashion model Kate Moss taken ten years earlier, sold for $108,000, five time the low pre-sale estimate.

Among many accolades, Watson has received the Centenary Medal, a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Photographic Society.

There have been solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, Italy; the KunsHausWien in Vienna, Austria; the City Art Centre, Edinburgh; the FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium, and the NRM Forum in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 1995, he was awarded a PhD from the University of Dundee, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Scottish Fashion Awards Hall of Fame.

And then there are the books, notably UFO: Unified Fashion Objectives (Harry Abrahams), 1010, and Strip Search (PQ Blackwell), 2010. To his immense satisfaction, they are increasingly becoming collector’s items.

The voice is transatlantic, but the Scottish lilt remains. Did he find that having a Scots accent was an asset for working in the USA?

He reflects for a moment. “In a way I suppose it does open doors,” he admits. “But America is a funny place and it is all about what are you selling?

And what can you do for me? You have to be selfconfident.

You have to be committed. People in America respect you if you are a workaholic – it’s the American way of life.” Well into his sixth decade, he says he finds the French attitude to early retirement relatively incomprehensible and cites a recent report in the National Geographic magazine on longevity in the Causcasus south of Russia. “Nobody could work out why the Abkasia villagers were living for so long. The conclusion, of course, was that they all kept themselves busy. There was even a woman of 104 still shelling peas!

“In the end if you want to die young, give up working. As for me, I’m up at 6.30am every day because I love what I do.” With his mother and members of his family still living in Scotland, Albert often returns to visit them, but remains ambivalent about returning to live there.

“I do miss Scotland,” he admits. “ But the thing about being born a Scot is that when you are brought up in Scotland, you start thinking that you have to get out,” he says. “Possibly less so now than when I was growing up there, but for me it had a lot to do with my ambitions and expectations and the knowledge that I needed to escape in order to get what I wanted out of life.” Then a few years ago he came back with an American group who were so incredibly enthusiastic about everything they saw that he was astonished by them. “It drove me crazy at the time, but I think it was then that I began to develop a different mentality about the place.

“My feeling now, of course, is that Scotland is insanely beautiful and charismatic, and I HAVE BEEN EVERYWHERE,” he emphasises with a laugh. “In Scotland, the scenery changes every four miles, and sometimes every two miles. Travel to the West Coast, and Mull, Iona and Skye are fabulous.

Take the Fort William to Mallaig Road, or go across the Forth Bridge to Fife, or travel up to Elgin, go to The Macallan Distillery on Speyside.

His enthusiasm knows no bounds. “The Orkney Islands are amazing with those great cliffs that drop straight into the Atlantic Ocean. Breathtaking.” He also finds the weather patterns sensational but not easy to photograph. Working for The Macallan was not nearly as straightforward as he had expected. “There’d be crystal clear days, but it was difficult to get pictures with weight and power in them. I much preferred working in the morning with the mist and the wind.

“You get rain and mist, shafts of light, and blue sky, all in one day. Wind makes things move and come to life so that everything looks so much more interesting, especially when you are photographing water.” His passion for the subject is infectious. “There’s definitely something about Scotland, “ he confides with a touch of defiance, and raves about a forest he came across where the trees were covered in six inches of moss. “The whole place felt ancient, straight out of Lord of the Rings.” When The Macallan first approached him for the Masters of Photography collection, the brief was for a half an hour long documentary film relating to the distillery’s manufacturing process, which, given that he felt that it had been done before, Albert thought sounded excruciatingly boring. “I thought there had to be a better way,” was his response.

And so he persuaded his client to think in terms of a movable storyline which in essence became that of a young couple who are on holiday in Spain and discover a forest from where they follow a tree to a sawmill which makes barrels for sherry.

When the sherry has matured and been removed, the empty casks travel to Scotland where they are filled with the distiller’s whisky and left to “sleep”. In the course of the action, Albert’s images encompass the human side, the trees of the forest, the sawmill, the cooperage, Scotland, and The Macallan Distillery with its iconic product, hence the exhibition title, A Journey.

Although landscape and the drama of the seasons are fundamental to his craft, Albert says he always prefers to include people in his pictures.

“Straight photographs of distilleries and the production processes involved can be deadly,” he insists. “The human angle is essential.” For The Journey he has created a hundred separate images, the best of 72 being chosen, with 36 of the very best processed as very high end platinum prints. The remaining 36 have been made into pigment prints to be pinned on the wall.

The result, as those who have already seen the exhibition will confirm, is inspirational.

“It’s important not to fall into the photography trap,” Albert says.

“People get sucked into taking photographs because they love the equipment more than the image making. What they have to understand is that it is always the human eye that matters.” He goes on to talk about his having shared his iPhone images with some students.

“If you come across a red leaf on a pavement, it’s not how fabulous your equipment is, it’s recognising the potential of the subject and seizing the moment.” Seizing the moment has been Albert’s driving force from the moment he left design school, an instantly recognisable component of the images he features in A Journey.

Inspired by his work for The Macallan, he is even now further contemplating an illustrated book on Scotland, “something that really captures everything that I feel about it,” he says.