Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Photography

Albert Watson, “A Few Portraits”
Through June 17 at 401 Projects
401 West St. btwn. Charles and W. 10th St.
Wednesday-Sunday 12-6pm
(212-633-6202; 401projects.com)

Albert Watson’s omnivorous lens

By Aileen Torres

Courtesy Albert Watson/401 Projects
Breaunna, one of Watson’s eclectic portraits on view at 401 Projects through this Saturday.
Though his name may not be as familiar as Richard Avedon’s or Irving Penn’s, Scottish-born photographer Albert Watson is highly renowned in his industry, particularly for his work in fashion. Named one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time by Photo District News magazine, the West Village resident now has his first solo show in New York at 401 Projects, a new gallery space and community center for photographers just a few blocks from Watson’s own studio.

The exhibit, titled “A Few Portraits,” starts off with a wall of Polaroids that is arguably the most fascinating part of the show. The shots – outtakes that Watson has accumulated over the years of models and celebrities such as Helena Christensen, Monica Bellucci, and Keanu Reeves – makes for a very glamorous bulletin board. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see true craftsmanship that harmonizes spontaneity, brilliance and elegance.

There are also over a dozen 8 x 6-foot photos in the show. Among them is one of Watson’s most recognizable images, Mike Tyson in the Catskills (1986), which features the back of the pugilist’s head and shoulders. The black-and-white photo is infused with a heightened sense of awareness that illuminates every bead of sweat from Tyson’s pores. It might just get you to rethink how you see the man.

Sharing the room with Tyson’s image is a portrait of Mick Jagger, shot in Los Angeles in 1992. Watson had superimposed the visage of a leopard onto the rock star’s face – a very clever technique making for a somewhat elusive image. Standing in front of the large photo, it’s difficult to discern Jagger’s features. But from farther away, they’re unmistakable.

Celebrities and models aren’t Watson’s only subjects. “My favorite thing is to do everything,” the artist said, his Scottish accent still present in his energetic voice. He’s shot all sorts of people, still lifes, landscapes – even jellyfish that will appear in his new book, “Shot In Vegas,” scheduled tentatively for publication in November.

Among the images in the book that appear at 401 are two of the dominatrix Breaunna. There’s a shot of her in a masked catsuit at the Las Vegas Hilton and a Technicolor shot of her standing in the desert.

“There’s a lot of dominatrices in the book,” said Watson. “This was one of the first ones we found. She was a real chameleon. I photographed her when she was dressed like Bettie Page and she had a leopard-skin jumpsuit on with high heel boots and Bettie Page haircut. Next night, I saw her again. This time I didn’t recognize her. She came up to me, and she said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ She had pulled her eyes completely Asian. She was wearing a Suzie Wong-type dress, and she had this platinum wig on. I couldn’t recognize her. She said, ‘Remember, I had that leopard jumpsuit on?’ The minute she said that, I saw who it was. But she didn’t look like anything she did last night. She was like a Barbie [doll].”

The book on Vegas, a massive project that will be about 800 pages long, isn’t intended to be emblematic of the city. That’s why it’s now called “Shot in Vegas,” as opposed to the original title, “Las Vegas.” Watson wasn’t interested in photographing people gambling. Instead, he shot everything else. “People, still lifes, landscapes, architecture. Whatever was there, I shot. Cracks in the pavement. I’d go to a car junkyard and shoot old cars.”

It might sound like a haphazard project, but with Watson behind the camera, it’s bound to be visionary. For him, everything, no matter how far-flung seeming, is connected.

“The interesting thing was, if you spent a couple of days doing jellyfish [for the book], and then you came to photograph Jack Nicholson [for another project], the jellyfish had an effect on how you would see Jack Nicholson. And Jack Nicholson had an effect on the way you would see cars. So, everything interacted.”

There are no limits to what Watson will try as a photographer. He never set out to shoot particular subjects, use a certain color palette, or a handful of technical tricks. Rather, his curiosity is omnivorous, and he shoots whatever he likes in the way that he sees fit, relying on his training in graphic design and filmmaking and his intuition to see him through.

“A Few Portraits” will run at 401 through June 17. It will then move to Scotland and, later, Belgium to join larger shows of Watson’s work.

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