Albert Watson's UFO

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 21, 2010

I received a copy of Albert Watson's new book, UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives) yesterday and am awed by the incredibly beautiful production; the binding (ribbed white cloth with blind and infilled embossing plus a sleek black slipcase); its size (almost large enough to be a coffee table; and the incredible scope of his perspective, starting with images made in 1971.

There are portraits of celebrities, from Uma Thurman to Sean Penn to Philip Johnson to 50 Cent. Fashion spreads are juxtaposed with reportage, and with surreal set pieces in an architectural scale that makes the term table-top seem quaint. What makes this book so fascinating to page through is the focus on Watson's work for European publications, in which editorial direction is so much less influenced by market trends. The result is a 40-year retrospective, of photography of such imagination and power as to oftentimes seem from another sphere. With respect for a master, I offer extracts from the Introduction by editor Gail Buckland, and from Albert Watson's Afterword.

Watson mastered his tools - light, camera, film - a long time ago and not having to worry about technique allows him to focus on how the picture "should look." The technical and the creative are inseparable, " linked in my brain," he asserts. He is in control. He owns the image. He makes photographs with authority. An authority similar to a painter whose single strong line on the canvas commands the viewer to exclaim, "Yes." Albert Watson is the photographer of "Yes." "Yes" is the universal response to beauty.
-- Gail Buckland, from the Introduction.

Left to right: Kate Moss, German Vogue, Morocco, 1993. Vivienne Westwood Shoe, New York City, 1993; Sean Penn, Details, Malibu, 1995. From UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives) by Albert Watson, pubished by PQ Blackwell.

In the beginning my fashion photography had a great spontaneous, naive joy to it. Towards the end of the seventies, that stopped as I became better technically. Some of the flaws that pop up stopped happening. I gained something in the quality of the images and my ability to achieve my intentions. But I also lost this spontaneity. But this isn't really my focus. It is just that I realized how frustrating it is if you can't achieve the picture you see in your mind. You need to be able to light things under any given circumstance - whether a hi-tech studio set-up, table top, or a celebrity portrait. Whatever, you need to learn and be able to handle it and get a good result. I locked down some of these abilities in the first ten years and that started to really influence the kind of work I produced....

In UFO I have attempted to avoid making the book chronological and being overly faithful to the older material We have a a lot of discussion, arguments here in the studio over some of that work and whether it should be included....But in the early eighties the graphic design element in me reared its head and my images became stronger. However, stronger, heavier images are not necessarily always good in fashion, where they want some lightness....

My move to taking heavier pictures, something with more substance, may have made me less popular with some of the fashion clients. But in the long term it turned out to be a good decision because a lot of these pictures stand up now. I might have done the wrong thing in terms of the fashion industry. But on the other hand I took photographs that will hopefully  last a bit longer....

The selection of images in this book represents what is working now. We date everything accurately, so it is interesting to juxtapose something from 1978 with 2004, and so on. To not do so would be to miss an opportunity to examine how these images work for us today. The contrasts add something especially when you find strange connections between images that are thirty years apart.
-- Albert Watson, from the Afterword

UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives) by Albert Watson is set for a November 2010 release from PQ Blackwell, in association with Abrams. An exhibition of his work, including selections from UFO,  opens tonight at Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, 537 West 24th Street, NY, NY. 212.627.0006. There will also be a book signing.