Albert Watson - Photographs New York Saturday, November 14, 2009 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York

  • Literature

    Crump, Albert Watson, p. 87; Schirmer/Mosel, Albert Watson: The Vienna Album, n.p.; Sony, Frozen: A Retrospective by Albert Watson, pl. 83

  • Catalogue Essay

    “You have many subjects…They must feel confident with you—like you’re holding them tightly in front of you with an invisible hand.” Albert Watson, Photo district News, June 2004
    To label Albert Watson a photographer is reductive. In fact, assigning a label of any sort would be futile, for Watson, as reflected by the immense body of work spanning over three decades, eludes categorization. His images, at once comfortingly familiar and seductively foreign, eschew formulaic interpretations but without compromising the unique, idiosyncratic mark of their creator. By occupying the sliver of space between categories, they are permitted to ubiquitously pertain to several realms with ease and élan. His landscapes are often as emotive as his portraits; his nudes can be as structural as his architectural details; his megastar celebrities may appear as approachable as an intimate friend.
    Watson’s career began as a film student with an interest in graphic design in London during the 1960’s. The move from film and design to photography, however, did not limit Watson’s predilection for the narrative or the fondness for lines. In his first celebrity shoot—Alfred Hitchcock for Harper Bazaar, 1975, gone are the director's iconic if at times clichéd silhouette, together with the stern three-quarter profile and the chiaroscuro close-up. The challenge for Watson, was not to refute Hitchcock’s more familiar images as much as to explore a formerly obfuscated aspect within his sitter’s personality, thereby allowing the subject to inhabit a new position. Of the famous shoot Watson has noted:
    “He was somebody I was very nervous around, and he almost took control of the shoot and directed me to photograph him. The way that he enjoyed the whole experience and was in control of it while I corrected things from my end—it was a great learning experience.” (PDN, June 2004)
    The Hitchcock shot was the first in what became a roughly twenty-century dedication to celebrity culture, where iconic stars, from Christy Turlington to Mike Tyson, were portrayed in a manner that was anomalous from the norm without appearing rebellious of the public’s expectation. The portraits are as much about the rapport between the photographer and subject as they are about the sitters. In Michael Jackson, New York, 1998, for example, viewers see the pop icon refracted again and again within a grid that captures his vitality and versatility. While Jackson’s face is hardly visible, this piece could undoubtedly be considered one of his strongest portraits, and a testament to the thrilling spectacle that Watson was fortunate to behold, record and share with the public. It is in such type of work that Mark Seliger has noted:
    “His portraits are impenetrable, they capture the strength of his subjects and are a lesson in form and design.” (Seliger, PDN, 2009)
    In his arguably most iconic image, Kate Moss, Marrakech, Morocco, the model is devoid of the heavy styling or accentuation of the model's then-widely discussed waifish look. The elegance and simplicity of Moss’s body, combined with the soft and pensive gaze that she holds, speak of the fondness that grew between Watson and Moss, gently highlighting a side of Moss’s personality of which the public was likely unaware. Watson was disinterested in following the visual trajectory of Moss’s portrayal by the media and opted for a more solemn, intimate and affectionate depiction that is as unique of his eye as it is of the model. It is not surprising, therefore, that Moss herself has singled out the image as one of her favorite photographs of herself.
    The versatility in Watson’s work can also be seen in his images of famous paraphernalia. From Elvis’ gold lame suit to Tutankhamun’s glove, Watson wishes to draw attention to the people whose body once slipped into those articles: “When people see these, it is not the photographs they should admire but the artifacts themselves.” (Usborne, The Independent Magazine, p. 28.) In Alan Shepard’s Lunar Suit, Apollo 14, NASA, the suit appears in almost monumental proportions, confidently dominating the frame. The upright position alludes to its erstwhile inhabitation by Shepard, yet the absence of a head and hands defies the viewers’ expectation of seeing a body fill out and humanize the suit. The image becomes a meditation on life, grandeur and legacy, not merely a documentarian representation of an artifact.
    The duality in Watson’s oeuvre also emerges in Monkey with Gun, New York City. Monkeys are a recurring subject in Watson’s photographs for their playfulness and unpredictability. Their allure to Watson likely stems from their inhabiting a dual reality: part animal and part human. Therefore, the combination of a primate and a weapon speaks of a primal instinct to defend as much as it warns against the moral and physical perils of a gun’s attainability. However, there is no remnant of the admonishing tone commonly found in anti-gun advocates or the zealous tone that often typifies pro-gun advocates. As in many of Watson’s works, the image does not neatly fit into one category versus another, instead acting as a personal commentary weighing on two equally valid vantage points.
    At the turn of the century, Watson focus began to shift away from celebrity culture and more towards the lesser known. In his Shot in Vegas series from 2001, Watson implemented the same understated approach of simplicity in form and complexity in reading. In lieu of presenting the common Vegas scenes of illustrious hotel lobbies, alluring exotic dancers, and sparkling casino strip, Watson presented a series of images that were every bit as personal and subversive, not unlike his work of celebrity portraits. In 15 North, Exit 25, Las Vegas, Watson’s eye turned towards the beauty of the sky at dusk, the only reminder that the scene was Vegas is a small but noticeable series of illuminated billboards that appear to puncture the serenity of the sky. Similarly, in Jellyfish Tank, Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, Watson turned his camera away from the easy baits of grandiose architecture, monumental frescoes or cutting edge installations and instead focused on a fish tank. The nearly abstract image could perhaps count as one of the most unconventional depictions of a Vegas hotel lobby in recent memory.
    The freedom to engage with the city in any way is best exemplified in his images of Breauanna, a Vegas dominatrix and stripper. In Breauanna, Las Vegas Hilton, and Breauanna in Cat Mask, Las Vegas Hilton we see her either laying on her back with her hands submissively tucked behind her back, and sitting crooked-legged on the floor, respectively. In both images her facial expression does not speak of seduction as much as vulnerability and introspection. She is more vulnerable than she is sensual, and despite her full nudity, viewers become more drawn to Breauanna’s mental state above all (Crump, Albert Watson, pl. 104.)
    Watson continues to work tirelessly, exhibiting no signs of slowing down. Yet, regardless of the role that he chooses to adopt: photographer, designer, commentator, photojournalist, documentarian, or friend, it is that of the explorer that Watson appears to discuss most readily:
    “But I’m also still learning, and I think we always are. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s true. You’re always still exploring things.”
    The powers of having an invisible hand, it appears, are likewise understated.


Kate Moss, Marrakech, Morocco

Archival pigment print, printed later.
30 x 24 in. (76.2 x 61 cm) overall.
Signed, titled, dated and annotated 'AP' in ink on the reverse of the aluminum flush-mount.  One from an edition of 25 plus artist's proofs.

$10,000 - 15,000 

Sold for $32,500


14 Nov 2009
New York