Direct vision: Photographer Albert Watson captured at work

Albert Watson with a camera  on Skye Albert Watson on Skye

Photographer Albert Watson doesn't know what it would be like to have binocular vision. Blind in one eye from birth, he looks on the world as the camera does, through just one lens.

What the 71-year-old Scot looks for in an image, is "power and memorability". Those characteristics have become his trademark in a 40-year career, in which he has worked for Vogue, Rolling Stone and on high-profile advertising campaigns, photographing everything from the crags of Clint Eastwood's cheekbones to the pitted rock of a standing stone on Orkney

Albert Watson's career

Alfred Hitchcock. Photograph by Albert Watson
  • Born 1942 in Edinburgh, the son of a boxer and a PE teacher.
  • Studied graphic design at Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee, and later film and television at the Royal College of Art, London, where he began to study photography.
  • Moved to Los Angeles in 1970, where his wife Elizabeth was employed as a teacher, and began taking hobby photos.
  • A test session for Max Factor resulted in the purchase of two images, and the attention of magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, who commissioned him to shoot Alfred Hitchcock for their 1973 Christmas edition. Watson got him to hold up a plucked goose, as if he was strangling it, and the resulting hilariously ghoulish black and white images kick-started his long career.

"I have a simple way of looking at the work, I think," he says, speaking from his studio in New York. "I originally studied to be a graphic designer, and you can see that connection across the body of work.

That directness would sometimes cause problems. Working on fashion shots for Vogue, for instance, they would complain that the pictures were "too strong".

"I always associate that with being good, iconically powerful, graphically etched, but I'd hear 'Does every shot really have to be this massive?'"

The BBC programme What Do Artists Do All Day? followed him for a recent shoot on the Isle of Skye. He had chosen to visit in October on purpose - "crazy weather and no midgies" - and got what he wanted - four seasons all in one day, as he travelled around the island on the lookout for visions of intense beauty

When the views he finds don't quite match up to his mind's eye, he is perfectly prepared to make the magic happen, using smoke machines to create fog and, perhaps less successfully, fireworks to add supernatural mystery.

He is also, he says "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 colour for a sunflower, he was working emotionally with his paints. Artists use what tools they have to convey the ideas they need to convey."

Quairaing, Skye. Photograph by Albert Watson Quairaing, Skye. Photograph by Albert Watson

It's all experimentation in search of the shot that will go back to New York City and be transformed into the piece of art that will transfix his audience. "I'm right in the landscape, making the pictures happen, yes, but what the programme can't get across is that I'm going to go home and work for three months solidly on those same pictures."

Perhaps unusually for a photographer of his stature, he still makes his own prints.

"I love it, I don't want to pass that work off. A lot of people can't stand the darkroom, but I go in there with my cup of coffee and wow, I love those smells. There is a huge misconception with photographers, that the work is done in a moment. We don't just click and then send the film to the chemist", he laughs, telling the story of the time he was working on 'a huge job' and his father asked him 'Did your snaps come out, son?'

It was around 14 years ago that Watson reached what he calls "the split in the road", Until then he had earned just 5% of his income from print sales. Editorial and advertising campaigns - for The Sopranos and Kill Bill amongst others - provided the other 95%.

He was much in demand, not least because of his tremendous energy.

"I just think every shot should be fabulous," he says, recalling a representative of luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue who told Watson that he liked working with him because the last shot of the day is just as important as the first shot. "And I said 'Of course it is, you're not paying me any less for it."

Sunset, photograph by Albert Watson Sunset, photograph by Albert Watson
Moroccan Building, photograph by Albert Watson Moroccan Building, photograph by Albert Watson
Naomi Campbell, photograph by Albert Watson Naomi Campbell, photograph by Albert Watson
Clint Eastwood, photograph by Albert Watson Clint Eastwood, photograph by Albert Watson
Sebastian in Issey Miyake, photograph by Albert Watson Sebastian in Issey Miyake, photograph by Albert Watson

This took its toll, though, on his more artistic work. "People would order a print from me but with me shooting every day there just was not the time for me to devote to it. And three months later I'd get a call saying: 'Where's my picture?'."

Now, with his son dealing with museums and galleries and blocking off his father's beloved darkroom time, Watson generates 95% of his incomings from sales of his own work.

"Your best skill as a photographer," he says, "is not how you prepare the lighting or the set up, it's how you communicate with people. It's having good control over the subject, seducing them into a certain mood. I've studied a great deal, had a very good education in my craft, but a photographer's best weapon is always going to be their own persona."

Albert Watson on Skye Albert Watson on Skye

For portraits, Watson shoots with a 4x5 camera through a viewfinder, so that his head is always above the machinery of the shot, maintaining contact with whoever is being photographed, be it Queen Elizabeth II or Bill Clinton.

That connection, that shared humanity is everything, and it can outlast the onslaught of celebrity.

"Fame affects people, it's hard for it not to, but the effects are not always permanent," he says.

"I worked with Sharon Stone very early on, and then she hit it big and I was to shoot her again. To me, she was exactly the same, friendly and chatty, But when I was leaving, a crew member caught me and said he'd seen her more animated with me for half an hour than he had seen in 10 weeks.

"But you see that's what happens in my job, sometimes when you've meet somebody early on, it's that earlier self you get to photograph. Even if it is just for a moment."

Follow Albert Watson's day on Skye in What Do Artists Do All Day? on BBC Four, 11pm, Sunday 30 March or via iPlayer.

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