Photographers' agendas in their pictures

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    Ian McNab

    Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, New York City, 1989  © Albert Watson

    (Click picture to view large on black)

    To mark the publication of ‘Albert Watson: Kaos’ – a limited edition volume of Albert Watson’s best-known photographs – today’s Guardian has a gallery of his celebrity portraits.

    I’m somehow never sure about Watson. It goes without saying that, as a photographer, he’s a master craftsman, and a master printer to boot; and in that regard, he’s akin to Edward Weston, Irving Penn, Ansel Adams and several other renowned photographer-printmakers. Of course, Watson is perhaps not the original thinker that Weston or Penn were, nor the technical inventor and creative force that Adams was. But you can’t deny that he is a superb technician.

    Yet I somehow don’t warm to his photographs. His work always seems to have an agenda, as if it’s making some point. He’s always ‘there’ in his pictures, if you know what I mean. But then, most photographers are present in their pictures in this way: they have an agenda; they’re up to something. (There are one or two of photography’s ‘Greats’ who are not so persistently present in their photographs, whose pictures don’t seem always to have an ulterior motive; but that’s a discussion for another time.)

    Weston’s and Adams’s pictures always have an agenda, are out to make a point: about Modernist aesthetics and how photography can be art without being Pictorialist – a battle that raged around the turn of the 20th century and well into its early decades, and that they were great warriors in. But with Weston and Adams and Penn and their like, the agenda they’re pushing is mostly about a particular view of photography or art or both. With Watson, in contrast, I’m always left with a niggling sense that his agenda, what he’s up to in the pictures, is about showing how good a photographer Watson is.

    Perhaps this is a bit unkind, as most of the photographs by Watson that I’m familiar with are his commercial work, and I guess there’s always a sense in which a professional photographer’s commercial work is going to have the ancillary purpose of advertising his or her skills to potential future clients. For whatever reason, I certainly get the feeling that Watson’s pictures are adverts for his abilities as a photographer and printer.

    Am I being unfair, and misinterpreting the agenda behind the pictures because he is such a technical virtuoso? Ultimately, you have to make your own mind up about it. You can look at more of Watson’s photographs on his website.


    Kate Moss, Sun and Henna, Marrakech, 1993  © Albert Watson

    (Click picture to view large on black)


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