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Daily Mail (22/Apr/2006) - Of frame and fortune

(c) Daily Mail (22/Apr/2006) - Of frame and fortune


How one of the world's leading celebrity snappers went from Scotland to the heights of Hollywood

Ask Albert Watson how many Vogue magazine covers he has shot, and it is all a little hazy. After 250, it seems, you lose count. Ask which celebrity he enjoys photographing most, and there is no easy answer.

Jack Nicholson is a joy. Uma Thurman is wonderful. Quentin Tarantino is wonderfully mad. Johnny Depp is amazing. Sean Connery? What a star.

But inquire about Watson's experience as a wedding photographer and everything comes into sharp focus. He has done only two weddings and both were nightmares.

The first was in the early 1970s when, penniless, he agreed to take pictures at his landlord's wedding in return for a rent-free month in Los Angeles.

'By the time he got back from his honeymoon, the marriage was over,' says the 63-year-old Scot. 'I took him the contacts when he got home and he didn't even want to see them.' Then there was wedding number two, more than a decade later. That one ended in divorce, too, and Watson claims it turned his fiery-red beard pure white. It was Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson's wedding in 1986 and the Queen was proving rather difficult to control.

'I had set the tripod very high for a group shot and at one point, when I was organising everybody, I caught sight of the Queen climbing up the ladder to look through the camera,' Watson recalls.

'That probably aged me more than any other job. I was so under pressure.

Normally I'd have ordered the person down but this was the Queen.'

Twenty years later, Watson is by far Scotland's most successful photographer.

Barely a week goes by without a magazine somewhere in the world bearing one of his striking images on the front cover.

Hh is Mick Jagger's favourite photographer. Uma Thurman's, too. And, were legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock still alive, he would no doubt attest to Watson's mastery of the frozen image. His 1973 picture of a mournful Hitchcock clutching a freshly plucked Thanksgiving dinner goose has become a photographic icon.

Now in his fourth decade as one of the world's most in-demand photographers, Watson is at last to be recognised by his own country. Next month, he will fly from his home in New York to Scotland to be inducted into the inaugural Scottish Fashion Awards Hall of Fame.

In July, his first exhibition in his native Edinburgh opens for business, spanning three floors and featuring a bewildering array of rock stars, screen sirens, supermodels, world leaders and King Tutankhamun's glove.

It's not bad for a boy born blind in one eye in 1942. Never once during his school days in Edinburgh and Penicuik did Watson dream he would make his considerable fortune by pressing his one good eye to a camera lens.

Even when he went to study at Dundee's Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at 17, his heart was set on being a graphic designer: 'My first connection with photography was when I took it as one of my courses and it just reached out and grabbed me, and I became very committed to it.' Not that there was much glamour in the job in those days. Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell would come much later. Watson recalls: 'My first series of pictures was of the Salvation Army band in Dundee. I would photograph literally anything and everything.' He moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art's film school and, after three years, was a qualified director.

He is now a veteran of more than 600 television commercials but it was the still image that really spoke to him.

'I was struggling during those three years at RCA to make ends meet, so I did quite a lot of photography. I'd photograph shop windows at night, places like Harrods and Selfridges, because an American company wanted references as to what was going on in London, what the fashions were.' By his mid 20s, Watson was married with two children and earning very little for his considerable photographic gifts.

'Then my wife Elizabeth was offered a teaching job in California and I went with her as her dependent.

'I was very much a struggling photographer with a standard portfolio. I had just turned 28 and things were not looking particularly bright. Then I became successful very quickly.

IHAD one connection over there and I suppose it was a pretty good one Max Factor. I did a test for them, just to show I could shoot beauty and fashion pictures, and from that they actually bought five images to go worldwide.'

The pay cheque was $1,500 per shot in those days the equivalent of an average American annual salary: 'It was like winning the lottery. That pretty much made me.' Then came an even more challenging assignment, making the ageing, multichinned Alfred Hitchcock look photogenic in a magazine spread.

'He was pretty much the first famous person I photographed,' says Watson.

'The reason Alfred was holding the goose is simply because it was for an article about cooking.

'Not a lot of people know this, but Alfred was actually a grand chef. He absolutely loved cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and he had his own recipe for a Christmas goose dish.

'The headline was "Alfred Hitchcock Cooks His Goose" and, on the opposite page, there he is holding a goose if you look closely, you can see Christmas decorations around its neck. Today, that's still one of my favourite pictures, because it was a real turning point for me.' Within a few years, the roll

call of celebrity subjects began to read like a Who's Who of Hollywood: Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson with Watson, it is almost easier to list the stars he has not photographed.

So who are the difficult stars to with? 'Well, Rock Hudson wasn't easy. Some of the people you would least expect are actually very, very nervous about having their picture taken. Rock Hudson absolutely hated it because he didn't think he looked good in a still image.

'Joaquim Phoenix, who is an absolutely lovely guy, was exactly the same, very nervous. Then there's people like Jack Nicholson, who just loves it and is so funny the whole way through. He makes things easy for the photographer and works with you. He knows that, if he contributes to the shot, it will go more smoothly and be over more quickly.' Yes, but of all the thousands of fragile and supercharged celebrity egos he has come across, who really got his goat? 'There's only one person I've ever had a real problem with and that's Chuck Berry,' says Watson, who knew the legendary rocker was going to be trouble because Rolling Stone Keith Richards had told him he would be.

'I knew all about his reputation,' said Watson. 'I knew that he'd once laid Keith Richards out. But he was just not nice and I don't know what his problem was.

'My feeling is that, if you do everything right, you are prepared and organised and know what you are doing and you do everything possible and go over-the-top to make things perfect, and that person is still a pain in the neck, then you shoot it fast and get out of there. That was in the early 1990s. Never again.' Mick Jagger was less troublesome. Watson morphed the rock star's face into a leopard's in one of his most celebrated shots. He photographed David Bowie in a dentist's chair in a meat market.

Clint Eastwood's craggy features became an iconographic study worthy of Mount Rushmore. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, simply asked Watson to make him look like Clint Eastwood.

Watson, whose accent is halfway between Midlothian and Manhattan, does not mean to sound blasE about photographing the stars, although he claims it can get a little samey.

SO what about all those magazine covers Vogue, Time, Rolling Stone?

Actually, he says, it's a little like being a plumber: 'I've no more right to be satisfied with what I do than a plumber has to be satisfied with what he does, but it is a competitive world and it's a good thing that somebody from Scotland is doing what I do.' Yet few people in Scotland know he does it. Multimillionaire he may be, but his name still leaves blank faces. The lack of recognition in his native land clearly rankles slightly.

'Years ago, somebody described me as the world's greatest little- known photographer, and that really has been like a millstone around my neck,' he says. 'It was said very early on in my career and yet it's trotted out all the time. The only person, the only photographer who is famous in his own country for his work is David Bailey.' Ask Albert Watson about his favourite photograph and he will dismiss Bowie, Jagger, Eastwood, Nicholson, Pacino even Hitchcock.

'I think my best shot is of a dominatrix in Las Vegas. Just as I was about to photograph her, she said: "Can I go and get a Coke?"

'Just as she went over to the fridge and opened the door, there was something there in that moment somebody dressed like her, wearing a dominatrix outfit, getting a Coke from the refrigerator and being perfectly lit by the fridge light. That was special.' Now, more than 30 years after Watson left these shores as a struggling snapper, he is returning in triumph.

A spokesman for the Scottish Fashion Awards said yesterday: 'There is no one more fitting than Albert Watson to celebrate the influence of Scottish fashion talents around the world.

'His photographs stand out so clearly against the world of today's images.

The Scottish Fashion Awards are a celebration of all things fashion and there is no better way to celebrate this than to honour a man who is so accomplished in his field.

'From his countless Vogue covers to his iconic celebrity portraits and international advertising campaigns, he is quite simply unique and we are thrilled that he will be joining us in person. With the talent on show at these awards, one might hope it would herald a move away from Rule Britannia and a wakeup call for Cool Caledonia.'