There are very few mediums that have the ability to stop us in our tracks quite like photography. An entire narrative fossilized in one electrifying moment, a photograph is a small sliver of humanity preserved and laid bare, a visceral flash of feeling (recognition, empathy, curiosity) that both grounds and uproots us, bringing into focus the strange and wondrous terrain around us and within us. Photography communicates without saying a word. It lands with a powerful bodily impact that stays with you long after you look away.
Over the past decade, Stockholm’s Fotografiska has emerged as a leading light in the photography world and a trailblazing champion of a rare breed of progressive and provocative photography. The impressive waterfront venue founded by Jan and Per Broman houses a dynamic variety of immersive exhibitions, events, workshops, artist talks and lectures, as well as an award winning restaurant and bookstore. Since its opening, Fotografiska has featured a number of legendary photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, David LaChapelle and Helmut Newton, yet they also strive to promote a consciously curated roster of emerging and unique talent. Their purpose is simple: to challenge pre-conceived perceptions, to lean into the bold and bizarre, and “to use the power of photography to unite, spread awareness, and create a positive impact in society,” and ultimately to “inspire a more conscious world.”
As they prepare to open two new locations in London and New York in Spring 2019, Fotografiska is reflecting on their revolutionary journey with the release of a book chronicling the groundbreaking photography they’ve showcased over the past eight years, aptly titled “The Eye.” An in-depth celebration of the sensitive eye and penchant for the provocative that has catapulted Fotografiska to the forefront of the photography world, the vibrant art book features 250 carefully selected images from 83 of the most innovative and celebrated photographers in the world. The images range from documentary and abstract to landscape, portraiture, fashion, and wildlife, illustrating the wide-ranging scope of Fotografiska’s past exhibitions while celebrating the evolution of and myriad variations within the art form itself. Quotes and anecdotes accompany the photographs, adding a layer of depth to the already evocative work. True to the venue’s form, the book throws out the rule book, taking you on an visual journey that is equal parts breathtaking, disturbing, and awakening. The blend of up and coming photographers with iconic household names makes for a beautiful and challenging art book that is both timeless and modern, harnessing an electric current of absurdity that feels refreshingly rare.
Albert Watson, the celebrated Scottish photographer who is internationally recognized for his instantly iconic celebrity portraits and striking art photography, has had an illustrious relationship with Fotografiska since its inception, which he discusses in the introduction he wrote for “The Eye.” We chatted with the veteran photographer about the evolution of Fotografiska, the power of preparation, and why you should always leave room for surprises, both in photography and in life.
“The secret of photography is hidden in its communicative power. It can show every aspect of the human condition. It can show a mountain, it can show a bird. It can show the face of a laughing baby. It freezes time.” – Albert Watson
Live FAST: Hi Albert! Thank you for chatting with us. Tell us a little about your relationship with Fotografiska. How has it evolved over the years?
Albert Watson: Years ago, Jan [Broman], who is the driving force behind Fotografiska, called me and said he was going to open this unusual photography museum in Stockholm. He said he wanted to turn it into a venue where people can visit and have a meal, or go to the bookshop, or set up community-based photography projects. For example, they have a small studio in the basement, and one time when I was there, they had 20 mothers with children getting a photography lesson on how to take pictures of babies. Jan has built it up beyond a photography museum. It runs from workshops all the way to beautiful exhibitions with high-end and well-known participants. He’s really done an amazing job. Now he’s in the process of setting up Fotografiska’s all over. They have one opening very soon in London and also one in New York. They’re a real driving force for photography, and it all started with Jan. I’ve done everything from gallery shows to workshops there.
LF: It sounds like it’s really immersive and community oriented. You’ve had a legendary career and taken some truly iconic photos. Have you developed any sort of creative process or philosophy throughout your career?
AW: Of course, it’s more complex than riding a bicycle but once you begin to ride a bicycle you don’t think too much about it. In fact, a better analogy is actually driving a car. When you first get in a car it seems impossible. You think, ‘I can’t do this. I’m going to crash. I’ll forget to change gears. I’ll forget to look in my mirror…’ But then as time goes on, you get better and better and you get to a certain point where, yes, you concentrate if you’re a good driver, but at the same time you get really comfortable. And I think photography is a little bit like that. You get comfortable. That isn’t to say there aren’t things that can happen in the same way something could happen in a car – even if you’re a good driver, there are other people driving and surprising things can happen. The same is true of photography: you can plan a job perfectly down to the last detail but something can always happen. You can go to Hawaii to shoot swimsuits on a beach in the summer and have torrential rain every day. If the sky is black with rain, it’s hard when the expectation is swimsuits on a sunny beach. So you must always be prepared for surprising things coming from left field.
After awhile you do get into an operational mode where you build up knowledge as the years go by, but if you’re smart about it you don’t get too caught up. Hold onto the knowledge as you come across along the way, but make sure that there is always room for a surprise.
LF: You’ve taken many portraits of celebrities and people in powerful positions in society. Do you have any tips for harnessing someone’s energy in order to create an interesting portrait?
AW: The thing that absolutely has to be taken care of before shooting is organization and preparation. You have to have a plan and be totally buttoned up and organized. You should have some flexibility in the lighting, but aside from that you should be buttoned up in what you’re going to do and what you’re going to say to the person. You should do your research. If you’re photographing a celebrity, you should know what their current projects are or what their last project was. If it’s a movie star, you should have seen their films. I photographed Al Pacino and I made sure we had his favorite coffee. Things like flowers in the dressing room or offering them sparkling or flat water – they’re built around the comfort of the subject. It seems very obvious, but a lot of photographers don’t do it.
LF: You’ve had a great deal of success commercially, yet you’ve also completed quite a few personal projects and published books that have been impactful to other photographers. How do you balance your commercial work with personal or passion projects?
AW: I am a little bit lucky, because I speak to photographers all the time who have nervous breakdowns when they have to do something commercial and I was never like that. If someone comes and asks you to photograph a cup and saucer, I never had a problem because it kind of tricked my creative side into trying to make a cup and saucer interesting. I did quite an iconic shot a long time ago of a cup and saucer. The people just wanted photos of the cup and saucer and at the end of the shoot, I had my assistant put on lipstick and I did a shot of the lipstick on the edge of the white porcelain cup. I thought they’d never use it because I had stained the inside of this pristine cup, but it gave it a little personality and the people loved it. It didn’t take long for me to do that, maybe an additional five minutes, but it let the people know that I was thinking about the project and not just doing what they asked. Sometimes I find with commercial projects, it’s easier for me to go a hundred miles an hour to satisfy their drawing or idea and get it out of the way so they have it. After you give them what they asked for, then give them another layer. Add something to it.
LF: Kind of like injecting creativity into a commercial landscape.
AW: I don’t have a problem with balancing creativity and commercial things. I went to a remote island off of Scotland and spent six weeks there photographing landscapes and nobody was saying, ‘You have to photograph this mountain or that hill or this piece of grass.’ You’re completely free to stop the car at any point and photograph anything you want. There’s tremendous creative freedom when you do something like that. You’re completely in control of it. I find that doing commercial work can actually help you with your personal work. It can sometimes make you sharper, quicker.
LF: Do you have any advice for photographers just starting out?
AW: Preparation. If I challenged a photographer and said, ‘Your assignment is to photograph me tomorrow. How are you going to prepare?’ A lot of photographers would unfortunately say, ‘Well, I made sure my cameras are good and made sure my batteries are working and I tested my lights. I made sure I have all my flashes and lenses ready.’ Good, but that’s all technical preparation. That is absolutely essential and important, but I would view that as only 10% of the preparation you should be doing. The reason I would only give it 10% is because it’s a given that the camera equipment should be prepared. The rest of the time should be creative preparation: what is the lighting going to do? How am I going to make this different? What can I find out about this guy to make the picture more interesting?
I’m not saying the technical isn’t important – if you don’t have a camera you’re not taking a picture. It’s just that for the majority of photographers, preparation is equipment, and there’s so much more.
LF: You have such a diverse and wide-ranging portfolio. Do you have a favorite subject to photograph?
AW: If I’m photographing landscapes for six weeks, I’m desperate to photograph a human being and if I’m photographing fashion models for a month, I’m very happy to get to shoot a still life.
LF: It’s all about balance.
AW: It’s all about changing. I’ve always enjoyed moving around. There’s always a danger of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none, you know?