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Recording the journey

Our man meets photographic legend Albert Watson to discuss his latest project with the Macallan
At the risk of sounding a trifle contrived, it was a blending of talents just waiting to happen: the long overdue partnership between The Macallan Single Malt and Albert Watson, recently nominated as one of the twenty most influential photographers of all time.

Licensed in 1824, The Macallan Distillery on Speyside has, by combining the quality of its product with a string of clever marketing initiatives, created one of the world's most popular and prestigious malts. In 2008, the company launched the first of its sponsored Masters of Photography series, the inaugural limited collection being created by the British photographer Rankin.

When Albert Watson was approached to create the sequel, he was invited to come up with an angle that was entirely new and different, and the exhibition Masters of Photography: A Journey which has opened at the London premises of the international auctioneers Phillips de Pury, with similar launches in Russia, Spain, New York and Asia, is the result.

The initial brief, however, was to create the components of a half an hour long documentary film relating to The Macallan’s manufacturing process, which, given that he felt that it had been done before, Albert thought sounded excruciatingly boring. “I thought there had to be a better way,” was his response.

And so he persuaded his client to think in terms of a movable storyline which in essence became that of a young couple who are on holiday in Spain and discover a forest from where they follow a tree to a sawmill which makes barrels for sherry.

When the sherry has matured and been removed, the empty Sherry casks travel to Scotland where they are filled with the distiller’s whisky and left to “sleep”. In the course of the action, Albert’s images encompass the human side, the trees of the forest, the sawmill, the cooperage, Scotland, and The Macallan Distillery with its iconic product, hence the exhibition title, A Journey.

Although landscape and the drama of the seasons are fundamental to his craft, Albert says he always prefers to include people in his pictures. “Straight photographs of distilleries and the production processes involved can be deadly,” he insists. “The human angle is essential.”

For The Journey he created a 100 separate images, the best of 72 being chosen, with 36 of the very best processed as very high end platinum prints. The remaining 36 were made into pigment prints to be pinned on the wall.

The result, as anyone who has seen them can confirm, is inspirational.

Despite his having been domiciled in the United States for more than 40 years, Albert Watson sees himself as being far better placed than most to understand the potential of his brief. The voice is transatlantic, but the Scottish lilt remains.

“The thing about being born a Scot is that when you are brought up in Scotland, you start thinking that you have to get out,” he says. “Possibly less so now than when I was growing up there, but for me it had a lot to do with my ambitions and expectations and the knowledge that I needed to escape in order to get what I wanted out of life.”

Then a few years ago he came back to Scotland with an American group who were so incredibly enthusiastic about everything they saw that he was astonished by them. “It drove me crazy at the time, but I think it was probably then that I started to develop a different mentality about the place.

“My feeling now, of course, is that Scotland is insanely beautiful and charismatic, and I have been EVERYWHERE,” he emphasises with a laugh. “In Scotland, the scenery changes every four miles, and sometimes every two miles. Travel to the West Coast, and Mull, Iona and Skye are fabulous. Take the Fort William to Mallaig Road, or go across the Forth Bridge to Fife, or travel up to Elgin to go to The Macallan Distillery on Speyside.

His enthusiasm knows no bounds. “The Orkney Islands are also amazing with those great cliffs that drop straight into the Atlantic Ocean. I find them breathtaking.”

He also finds the weather patterns sensational, but not at all easy to photograph. “Working for The Macallan was not nearly as straightforward as I had expected. There’d be crystal clear days, but I found it incredibly difficult to get pictures with the weight and power in them that I wanted.”

He adds that he much preferred working in the morning with the mist and the wind. “You get rain and mist, shafts of light, and blue sky, all in one day. Wind makes things move and come to life so that everything looks so much more interesting, especially when you are photographing water.”

His passion for the subject is infectious. “There’s definitely something about Scotland, “ he confides defiantly, and goes on to rave about a forest he came across where the trees were covered in six inches of moss. “The whole place felt ancient, straight out of Lord of the Rings.”

Born in the Midlothian town of Penicuik, Albert Watson studied graphic design at the Duncan of Jordanston College of Art and Design in Dundee before heading south to London for a film and television course at the Royal College of Art, with photography a part of the curriculum.

That, he says, was almost 44 years to the day, and when his wife Elizabeth landed a teaching job in Los Angeles, he accompanied her as her dependant and taking photographs on a casual basis. This led to his being introduced to an art director at the cosmetics company Max Factor led to his first commission, and not long afterwards his distinctive style was spotted by fashion magazines such as GQ, Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar.

“I’d never been trained as a professional photographer,” Albert reflects. “It was a case of learning on the job which, of course, can be very dangerous, especially in those days when you had to rely so much on the way film was processed.

His big opportunity, and the one which to this day he recalls as pivotal, came in 1973 when he was contracted by Harpers Bazaar to photograph film director Alfred Hitchcock.

“I’d never photographed anybody famous, and I was very so lucky it was him,” he concedes with just a tinge of emotion.
Being the flamboyant character he was, Hitchcock loved to be photographed but must have sensed that Watson was nervous. “Dear boy, you’re Scottish,” he said, picking up on Albert’s accent.

“He offered me a cup of tea and some shortbread biscuits. I thought that was amazing. Here I was drinking a cup of tea and eating shortbread with the greatest film director in the world.”

Albert was totally won over and when the photographs appeared they were not only critically acclaimed but effectively launched his photographic career. Today, his portfolio of portraits, alternating in black and white and colour, includes Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Johnny Depp, President Clinton and Her Majesty the Queen. With more than 250 covers for Vogue magazine, not to mention 40 for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, he now works from a studio in Manhattan and among many accolades has been awarded the Centenary Medal, a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Photographic Society.

“In you were a photographer back in the 1970s, you had to be prepared to turn your hand to virtually everything,” he reflects. “By 1974, I had the largest studio in Los Angeles and that same year I opened a second studio in New York.”

In 1975, he won a Grammy Award for the cover of the Mason Profitt album Come and Gone, and the following year was commissioned for the first time by Vogue. It was a pressured but stimulating life, shooting commercial catalogues during the day and working on his personal projects at night. He found himself on the road continually and reverting to his early training, directed more than 600 television commercials.

There followed photography for literally hundreds of advertising campaigns with clients such as Gap, Levi’s, Revlon and Chanel. Among the Hollywood movie posters to his credit are ones for Kill Bill, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Da Vinci Code.

There have been solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, Italy; the KunsHausWien in Vienna, Austria; the City Art Centre, Edinburgh; the FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium, and the NRM Forum in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 1995, he received a PhD from the University of Dundee, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Scottish Fashion Awards Hall of Fame. In 2007, a large-format Watson print of a photograph of the fashion model Kate Moss taken 10 years earlier sold for $108,000, five times the low pre-sale estimate.

And then there are the books, notably UFO: Unified Fashion Objectives (Harry Abrams), 2010, and Strip Search (PQ Blackwell), 2010. To his satisfaction, these are increasingly becoming collector’s items.

But for Albert, creativity is instinctive and he warns against what he calls the photography trap. “A lot of people get sucked into photography because they love the equipment more than the image making.”

Seizing the moment has been Albert’s driving force from the moment he left design school, and it is instantly recognisable component of the images he features in A Journey. Inspired by his work for The Macallan, he is contemplating an illustrated book on Scotland, “Something that really captures everything that I feel about it,” he says.