It's Albert Watson's World; We Just Live In It

It's Albert Watson's World; We Just Live In It On Tuesday, November 2nd, the SPD Speakeasy will feature a conversation with photo editor Laurie Kratochvil and photographer Albert Watson about Albert's latest books: Strip Search, a 10-year personal project shooting the life and lives of Las Vegas, and UFO: Albert Watson, a 40-year retrospective of Albert's work in fashion and celebrity portraiture.

We asked Greg Pond, who collaborated with Albert for many years as photography director of Details and Fortune, to share his thoughts on Strip Search and Watson in general.

Greg Pond: The great Scottish photographer Albert Watson once told me a story about the beginning of his career in the early 1970s. Having recently arrived in Los Angeles, Albert and his wife, Elizabeth, were broke, unknown, and trying to realize their American dream. An art director friend who worked on the Max Factor advertising account gave Albert a test shoot--his first job as a photographer. The AD loved the work and said he'd pay Albert for two pictures.

When the check arrived, Albert and Liz thought there had been some sort of mistake...

(Above): Fun City, Las Vegas, 2001, from Strip Search

artwork_images_423787643_620518_albert-watson.jpgBreaunna, Budget Suites, Las Vegas, 2000, from Strip Search

GOD.jpgThe God Sign, Route 15, Las Vegas, 2001, from Strip Search

....Whatever the amount was (something tiny by today's standards), they thought it was way too much. So they stayed up all night sweating it out and the next morning they decided to give the money back. Albert called the AD and said, "Ahh...about the think there's been a mistake." The AD interrupted Albert and said, "I know, I'm sorry. I feel awful about it. I promise next time to pay you more."

Success found Watson quickly. But the mid-1970s he was already a highly sought-after editorial and advertising photographer. His bold fashion pictures and cinematically-lit portraits were regularly being published in Vogue and Rolling Stone alongside images by star photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and Annie Liebovitz.

Watson shoots less for magazines now than he once did, concentrating more on producing books and exhibiting the pictures he's made over his long career. And what an incredible career he's had! He has photographed more than 100 covers for Vogue, 40 for Rolling Stone, and countless others for magazines including Harper's Bazaar, Details and Vibe.

He's photographed everyone from Tupac Shakur, Kate Moss and Alfred Hitchcock, to the British royal family and inmates at Louisiana State Prison. In addition to the hundreds of magazine fashion stories, movie posters, ad campaigns and commercials he has shot and directed, Watson has also published a couple beautiful books: The magnificent Cyclops, designed by David Carson, and the sublime Maroc, designed by Giovanni Russo, are both collector's items.

PQ Blackwell will release Watson's sexy, scary, brilliant new book Strip Search this fall. A two-volume edition of 400 images, its subject is Las Vegas. This is a Las Vegas that I wish really existed, but in fact, lives only in the extraordinary mind and vision of Albert Watson.

Like so much of Watson's work, the pictures in Strip Search are dark, edgy, disciplined and stylized. His Las Vegas is a place where women wearing latex Batmen suits sit in $16 motel rooms. Everything seems to be lit by pink and green neon, and silicone runs through the veins of showgirls instead of blood. In Strip Search, Vegas is a bizarre place where the hyper blue pools at the water park vibrate instead of flow, and highway billboards twinkle under unnaturally glowing skies. Watson is a movie director at heart and the pictures in his book are cinematic. Lit, produced and composed immaculately, they're the most stylish film stills you'll ever see.

Part travelogue, part stylized documentary, Strip Search can be added to the list of influential photography books by masters such as Stephen Shore (Uncommon Places), Jan Staller (On Planet Earth), Joel Sternfeld (American Prospects) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia (Philip-Lorca diCorcia) -- artists who have spent their careers bringing the physical and psychological America into focus.

Yet, Strip Search stands alone, not only because of its ambitious attempt to cover so much ground in so many ways -- portraits, still lifes, ineriors, landscapes -- but also because it is the first book of its kind by an important photographer to focus exclusively on Las Vegas. Perhaps other photographers have thought the subject too much of a cliche to be taken seriously. In Strip Search, Vegas represents a dream more than a reality. As such, it's an ideal subject for a photographer who has spent his career creating worlds of fantasy.

Albert's magazine pictures have always been as thoughtfully conceived as the images in Strip Search. As the photography director at Details and Fortune, I've had the privilege of working with Albert for more than 20 years. In looking at the images in his new book, countless memories of working with him rushed back at me: his strict attention to every detail, no matter how small; his ability to command a set, and direct a subject; his love of story telling; his absolute determination to get the picture exactly, perfectly right; his conviction that a Mac can't make a bad picture good.

In many ways Albert is the last of a breed -- the master working photographer who revolutionized editorial and advertising photography while also succeeding brilliantly as an artist. He is a product of a world that is almost gone now -- a time when photographers could become heroes by making heroic images.

Born with one blind eye, Albert's photographs are more crisply focused than those of his many imitators. It's a testament to Albert's remarkable talent that after all these years he can still take modern pictures that make people stop and look. And look again.

Watson's neon-lit Las Vegas is the latest stop on a long, amazing journey that has taken him from Scotland to Los Angeles to New York to Morocco and to pretty much every other place on the planet with an airport or a train station. Wherever he goes next, there is no doubt that the pictures he makes there will be as modern and exciting as any we have ever seen.

Albert Watson Speakeasy ticket info here.

Related Stories:
Cat Got Your Tongue?
Why We Love Albert Watson, Pt. 3
Why We Love Albert Watson, Pt. 2
Why We Love Albert Watson, Pt. 1

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