Albert Watson - Mick Jagr

Albert Watson – Mick Jagr

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Albert Watson, born in Scotland, is the author of eight books, including his first monograph titled Cyclops, a reference to the fact that the artist was born with only one functioning eye. The recipient of a 1975 Grammy Award for the photography on the cover of Mason Profitt’s album, “Come and Gone,” Watson’s career in photography goes beyond music, to include fashion, advertising editorial, movie posters, still life, landscape, portraiture, and photo documentary projects. The recipient of three ANDY Awards and the Lucie Award for Advertising Photography, Watson has shot over 250 covers for Vogue, directed more than 600 TV commercials, and exhibited his work around the globe.

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Watson discussed his work, Mick Jagger, Los Angeles, California, 1992Michael Jackson, New York City, 1999; and LL Cool J, 1992, selected for publication in Who Shot Rock & Roll by Gail Buckland (Knopf, October 2009, $40).

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I think it is really fascinating that Gail Buckland has decided to look at rock photography as a subject that is worthy of contemplation not just for our enjoyment but as an art form. What role do you think the image plays in communicating music and its energy?

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Albert Watson: I think very often it gives you a visual connection. Nowadays it is magazines; in the past it would be album covers, which were 12 x 12 inches; then it became CDs so they became a few inches by a few inches; and then they all disappeared as an art form. So very often albums were a big kind of transmitter of the image of the person. If you think about all the Beatles albums you have this very close visual connection to the music. When you listen to the music you have an image of the person and their performance.

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How did you come to get into photographing musicians?

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I actually photograph a lot of different things. I have a great love for photography but I never really settled down into one genre. In a lot of the work that I did there was this driving force of loving photography and therefore I had no hesitations that if I felt like photographing landscapes to photograph landscapes. If I felt like doing still life work, then I enjoy doing still life work. If there are beautiful women I photograph beautiful women.

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I got the chance to do a celebrity portrait and it turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock. It was quite shocking in a way, but I enjoyed that. I enjoy celebrity but I could never do what Annie Leibovitz does because her concentration is for the most part celebrity. She is a celebrity photojournalist, a very good one. I was for example very happy to do an entire book on Morocco, which were just local people with no celebrities apart from the king. I have moved to a lot of different genres in photography.

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How do I get to rock musicians? It was a natural progression of photographing celebrity. They form a chunk of the celebrity group along with actors. I have done a lot of movie posters as well as musicians.

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Do you have a personal connection with the people you photograph? When I am look at the work that Gail had chosen: LL Cool J, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson, the intensity of the image leads me as the viewer to believe there is something more…

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The answer to that is no, because I would have the same connection with Mick Jagger as I would have with a porter in a market in the middle of the mountains of Morocco. I am giving the same attention, the same respect and the same love doing the portrait to both Mick Jagger and the porter or a plumber, it doesn’t make any difference in that way.

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There is obviously more stress associated with a celebrity. The stress level will always be higher than with the porter from the mountains. Obviously someone like Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson is a lot more familiar with the process, while a man on the street is not. In the end the connection thing between the photographer and the subject is the key thing whether it is the Queen of England, the President of the United States or a blues singer, or Mick Jagger or somebody who is just walking down the street. If you are doing a real portrait, you want to connect with that person. There are just different ways to approach it but the connection should be the same.

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As you talk about connections, the image I was most struck by was the Michael Jackson, in part because you really created his energy in still photo and also, when I started to really look at it, I thought it was possibly one of the most flattering images I had ever seen of him because there was nothing of his strangeness in it. You went completely past that and you saw the artist…

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Yes, and strangely enough none of that was retouched. It would have been a big retouching job because there are just simply hundreds of images of him there. In the end he was another person I had to connect with, because Michael is actually very shy. I think in his nature and in his DNA he is actually a very introverted and shy person. And you ask yourself, how can somebody that shy and that introverted be that explosive? There are a lot of actors that are very shy, yet they have no trouble going out onto a stage every night and exploding on a stage as an actor. I think Michael was a little bit like that. A lot of these people have good sense of looking at you. They look at you and they say, “Ok, this guy knows what he is doing.” I think the organizational thing is part of the connection.

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Let’s go back to what you said about how you shoot so many different genres of photography and how the love of photography brought you to all these different ways of looking at the world. What I think is interesting about what Gail is doing with the book, a lot of the attention is to sort of allow people to look at rock photography as equal to other forms of photography but it hasn’t received its due. I want to ask you, because you work in all these different genres, do you see a difference?

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Very often there is journey that a photograph takes. Sometimes the fine art photographers out there, they wake up in the morning and their idea is to create an image that will immediately go from their head, through a camera, onto a print, onto a wall. That is what the intention is. It is a piece of fine art, so concept of it is that it is created for a wall.

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Very often photographers say that rock photography is made for an album cover, a CD cover, Internet usage, magazine covers, magazine interior, t-shirt usage and so on. In a lot of rock photography a photograph can begin its journey as a magazine shot or a CD cover, or a CD interior. The Michael Jackson was done for the inside as a fold out. A photograph can look fantastically good in a magazine the photographer will say, because everybody loves this shot, I will put it in my next book, a hardcover coffee table book. A book opens and closes.

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When you have an apartment, or a house or a gallery or a museum, essentially it goes up on the wall and it doesn’t go away, it stays there. It may only stay there for a week or a month or for a year or two or it may be sold and go on somebody else’s wall. Consequently, this journey from that image stops whether or not it holds the wall or not.

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Because of my training I might have had some advantage over some photographers because essentially I was trained heavily in art college in modern photography. If you look at lot of my work, I was trained as a graphic designer, I was trained in art, painting, drawing, and then eventually I went to film school. But if you look at all the work that I do it really comes down to either a cinematic story or to graphic design. Sometimes it is a combination of the two. I would say, that every so often my work looks better on the wall than it does in a magazine. Because of the different functions of all the different shots, a photograph makes it all the way through the journey by chance.

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A shot of Mick Jagger will hold up for this exhibition, but will it also hold up for an exhibition that is not rock photography? That is the real test. The question is: Is it art or not?

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Albert Watson - Michael Jackson

Albert Watson – Michael Jackson

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