"Something happened when I first got hold of a camera,” Albert Watson tells me. “My wife gave me a camera for my 21st and the minute I got it in my hand that was it. It was the right thing for me. I became obsessed with photography.”
That was more than 50 years ago. Now, in the middle of his eighth decade on this planet, that obsession persists.
Albert Watson is a photographer in the same way Lionel Messi is a footballer, a one-of-a-kind photographer who has shot hundreds of Vogue covers, turned his lens on every celebrity worth the name, crafted TV ads and movie posters by the dozen (probably a conservative estimate) and lent his eye (he only has the one) for texture and detail to magazine or advertising commissions as well as personal projects.
Editors and ad execs love him for his technical prowess and the graphic punch of his imagery. And for the fact that in his 75th year he’s still on his game. He is wide-angled in his range. His images are a catalogue of familiar faces, landscape and sometimes skin (a print of his shot of a naked Kate Moss on a beach in Marrakech on her 18th birthday sold for more than $100,000 in 2007). They are also a testament to the care and craft he brings to his subjects.
The last time I saw him was on Skye in 2013 when he had travelled over to photograph the Scottish landscape for a personal project he financed himself in the company of his wife Elizabeth and a team of assistants. Today he’s in his studio in New York, working away because he doesn’t know how not to.
August, 10 o’clock, a Friday morning. It is 78 degrees outside (fahrenheit, not centigrade). It got up as high as 90 degrees on Monday. That was rough, he says. But today is beautiful. No humidity. There’s even a slight breeze.
Watson has been at his desk for a while when I call. There are shows of his work running in different parts of the world and he wants to be on top of all that. Then there are the shows in the planning too. Oh, and fashion and publishing in Paris and Milan are coming back from their summer holidays, so they’ll be on the phone soon looking to commission him.
It has been that way for decades now, but changes are afoot. “It’s different from what I’ve done in the past,” Watson says, the Scottish twang still evident even though he’s been in America since the 1970s. “We’ve shifted from a gigantic amount of shooting and a very small involvement with galleries and museums. Now it’s the other way around.
“A lot of the shooting is very carefully chosen, whereas in the past people phoned up and asked: ‘Are you available in three weeks?’ Or: ‘Can you go out to LA to do a movie poster?’”
What does it take for him to take on a job like that now? “When somebody brings an interesting project.” Like the one Swedish lighting company Profoto approached him with not so very long ago.  “A lot of the time we try to sidestep a lot of the advertising. But in this case they came to us and said: ‘We’d like you to do a shot for us, but you’d have complete control over what the shot should be.’”
Watson contacted the ballet dancer Sergei Polunin and set up a shoot that used the Profoto strobing equipment to capture a stop-motion effect. “We chose the person, we chose where we were going to do it, we chose how we were going to do it. And the images were beautiful. That’s what you call a win, win, win situation.”
To get a sense of Watson’s oeuvre over the last five decades you could do worse than cast your eye over his new book Kaos. That’s if you can afford it. Or even open
it – it weighs more than 14kg. “You almost need two people to lift the damn thing,” Watson admits. “It is a monster.”
His publisher Taschen has a history of producing these limited-edition volumes for the luxury market. In the past they’ve produced books on photographers Helmut Newton and Annie Leibowitz. Now it’s Watson’s turn.
“I’m very proud of it,” he admits. “I’m proud that a Scottish photographer pulled that off. I think there’s a lot of stuff in that book. To go from the landscapes in Skye to nudes to celebrities to Kill Bill movie posters, I think it’s quite an achievement. There is some legacy in that.”
There’s a life in there too, Albert. “Oh yes, for sure.”
What follows, then, are some life lessons framed by a lifetime of images.

THERE’S AN ADVANTAGE IN BEING SCOTTISH
“As far as the Scottish thing is concerned, I think there’s a tradition of discipline and hard work and nose to the grindstone. I think all of that is in there.”
YOUR STYLE CAN START EARLY
“I think my style developed from my time up in Dundee at the Duncan of Jordanstone, being taught as a graphic designer and then one day a week photography.
“I’ve come across one or two old portfolio pieces from that time. There was a very nice poster that I did for the repertory theatre there. I had a photograph of a child and I pasted it on to six individual children’s building blocks and then rearranged the bricks following the correct image, but slightly ajar and slightly disturbing. If you look at it now you could almost put that into the Taschen book from 1965. You would see that it connects.”
YOU WILL GET NOWHERE ON YOUR OWN
“I’m not a hairdresser. I’m not a makeup artist. I’m not a fashion editor. I’m interested in working with people who are quicker and smarter than me because you learn from them.”
BOREDOM CAN BE INSPIRATIONAL
“Lavazza came to me years ago to do a calendar. I said: ‘What do you want me to do?’
“They said: ‘Well, we’re thinking of doing shots of girls sitting in a cafe just outdoors in Manhattan with a coffee cup.’
“I said: ‘Sure, we can do get some pretty girls with pretty dresses and sit them down with a book or a newspaper or an iPad or something but it seems a little boring. How about if we get a prop guy to make a coffee cup that is 12ft high out of fibreglass and a saucer that’s 8ft across and an 8ft-high coffee spoon and a 3ft-high sugar lump and basically I shoot nudes of these girls who are tiny next to these massive objects so you make the statement of the importance of the spoon, sugar, saucer and cup itself? We treat the models almost like little fairies or elves.’
“I thought: ‘They’ll never go for this.’ And they came back and said: ‘We think it’s a great idea.’
“The very fact they asked me to do something boring pushed me into something that wasn’t.”
WHEN IT COMES DOWN TO IT WE ALL HAVE A TOUCH OF VANITY
“I photographed an Italian senator, the late Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel prize winner and a scientist. She was a joy to photograph. She had a great nose. I said: ‘You have a great profile. Could I photograph you
in profile?’
“She said: ‘You may but I want to make sure that you retouch my hearing aid out.’
“Now here was somebody who was 100 years old, who was still working two days a week in her laboratory and working three days a week at the senate and a Nobel prize winner. But still there is some vanity there.”
IT’S NOT THE QUALITY OF THE EQUIPMENT THAT MATTERS, IT’S
THE PERSON USING IT

“Your best weapon is not lighting or your camera or even a concept. It’s your own personality. You’ve got to use it and – I’ll use a bad word here – manipulate people to get where you want them to be.”
REMEMBER, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE CONCEPT
“If you’re photographing Tutankhamun’s glove it’s not about the photograph of the glove. I could say to you: ‘There’s the glove on the table, go ahead and take the picture.’ Essentially, your picture would not really be that different from mine. The polish and finish on mine would be better but basically the picture would be the same.
“So, it’s not about the photography. It’s about the concept. It’s about the fact I spent two and a half years getting into the Cairo Museum to photograph that glove.

“And when I did one of the space gloves the fabulous thing about it is you’ve got 3500 years between two gloves and guess what? They’re the same. Four fingers and a thumb.”

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WORKING WITH CELEBRITIES MEANS DOING YOUR HOMEWORK

“I think celebrity is always a challenge. Your blood pressure goes up a bit. But we’re always prepared. “When I photographed Al Pacino we found out what his favourite coffee was. We didn’t have an espresso machine so we got one. We got his special brand of Sicilian coffee. We knew he liked it with lemon so we had lemon there when he came. “I said: ‘Can I get you something? How would you like a Sicilian coffee with a slice of lemon?’ And he said: ‘That sounds good. You must have done some research.’ “That’s celebrity right there. A little bit more preparation. When your average person comes in to be photographed you prepare a nice lunch. When you have a celebrity come in you find out what their dietary needs are.”

NEVER BE INTIMIDATED

“I’m prepared. I have done the maximum I can to make them comfortable – the music they’re listening to, the temperature in the studio. I have a passion to do a good job and if that’s not good enough then – excuse my French – f*** it.”

HeraldScotland:

Kaos by Albert Watson, Philippe Garner and Reuel Golden is published by Taschen, priced £1150

Albert Watson on The Quiraing, Skye, 2013 (below): ‘I think there’s a Gothic Romanticism in a lot of images,’ says Watson. ‘Not them all. You look at Steve Jobs. Is that Gothic? Well, could be. There can be a romance. Some of those images in Skye I find texturally romantic and sometimes quite Gothic and almost like a Scottish Victorian painting or something.’

HeraldScotland:

© Albert Watson, 2017

Albert Watson on The God Sign, Route 15, Las Vegas, 2001 (below). ‘I was driving through the desert,’ recalls Watson. ‘Outside of Las Vegas there was a huge neon billboard. It was the middle of the day. You could just see the image on the neon because it was in sunlight. ‘It was just after 9/11 and the neon billboard just said “God” with an American flag behind it, then another sign said “bless”, then another “America”. Three words that came up one after the other. Now, that is just a piece of observation on my part. When I saw it I stopped the car, I pulled over, found out where the north, south, east, west was, and where the sun was setting. ‘This was about two o’clock in the afternoon. I came back at about 6.30 in the evening when the sun was beginning to go down and as the light dropped I knew I could get a very good hit on the neon screen. And hopefully ‘God bless America’ was still playing – which it was. ‘Now that’s years of experience of knowing when to spot something like that, knowing when to come back to get it at the right time, knowing the right lenses to choose and how to iconically shoot an image like that.’

HeraldScotland:

© Albert Watson, 2017

Steve Jobs, Apple HQ Cupertino, California.

‘The PR guy says: “Steve hates photographers,”’ recalls Watson. ‘This was about five to 10 and he was due to arrive at 10 o’clock. ‘Steve Jobs walked in and he wasn’t like a tech guy. Bill Gates is what you would expect. Bill Gates is a goofy, nice guy, right? Steve Jobs was charismatic and you just felt this guy was as smart as anybody. ‘I thought: “How can I make him feel better about doing this?” And I said to him: “I have you for an hour, right?” He said: “You do.” I said: “Well, I think I can get us finished in about 35 minutes.” And he said: “That’s great, I’m so busy.” And that put him on my side. ‘When he said: “What do you want me to do?” I had something ready that was well thought out. I said: “Imagine you are across a table from a bunch of people who disagree with you, but you know you’re right.” And he said: “That’s easy. I do that every day.” ‘It was a very simple idea, not brilliant you might say, but in the end it turned out to be very good. You have nothing else to look at but inside his face. And a lot of the time I’m working on that.’

HeraldScotland:

© Albert Watson, 2017