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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 8 DECEMBER 2010 — There are just some things about which you should never get cute with a male, regardless of his age or how cute he might be. As any man who has ever been around women and baby boys has had to explain, no matter how small the fellow in question might be, the adjective little never modifies the noun penis. Which is to say, when it comes to things concerning sex or even the potential for sex, men like it big.

Because the photography of luxury fashion is commercial photography in which mostly young and gorgeous people look fantastic in clothing most of us can only afford when past our prime, it depends on the inherent sexiness of youth to sell beautiful things to those for whom untamed Eros may be a memory or something that is perhaps graciously heading that way.

Albert Watson: Joel West + Denise Gilpin, Little Italy story
Vogue Homme
, New York City, 1995
© Albert Watson, UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives

That all may help to explain not only why the Scottish-born photographer Albert Watson has made so many entertainingly erotic images in his work as a fashion photographer, but also why he had decided to take the best of his fashion work since the 1970s and make from it one really big book, UFO (Abrams, 406 pages, 11 in. x 14 in.).  Fashion people need to stay thin, of course, and one of the obvious benefits of Watson’s large new book is that, given its heft and the famously slim physiques of fashionistas, devotees can stay trim simply by picking it up. This reviewer’s assistant, a nimble and vigorous German woman, benched her own weight just by carrying it to him in the publicist’s FedEx box.

Harry N. Abrams, the co-publisher, is highly regarded for its books of fine-art photography; the fact that it has put out Watson’s book can be seen as a signal that he is someone to take seriously as an artist.  (We’ll give him that even if it turns out that PQ Blackwell, the New Zealand co-publisher, or Watson himself covered the production costs.)  Because the root cause of fashion photography is, however, the need to sell something, delivering up fashion pictures (especially erotically charged ones) as art has been hard going for publishers and for galleries since photography first began to get broad attention as a medium of fine art.  Representational visual art is supposed to be, after all, about finding emotional truth in things that can be seen.  That is conceptually a long way from trying to get enough women interested in buying a dress to make it a profit center for one’s fall / winter line, which is the reason that a photograph of a model wearing the dress would have been commissioned in the first instance.

Albert Watson: Sandrine Ho, Italian Vogue, Valentino, Paris, 1988
© Albert Watson, UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives)

To help overcome that, the fashion photographs chosen by Watson for his book are more about style, theme and mood than individual items of clothing  —  but even that is very much true to a long-standing trend: you don’t sell the brand by the individual items that make up any season’s collection; you sell it by bringing people to the aspirational world that the brand represents and letting them dream about buying into it until they literally do.  Fantasize an affluent Anglo-Saxon life, from a home on the range to a stately home, and you arrive at Ralph Lauren; meditate over gracious Italian living in muted tones punctuated with elements of thrill and daring and you inhabit the Italy of Giorgio Armani.

As to Watson’s contribution to all that: the book features elegant twin black and white portraits, both called Charlotte, Prada, St Paul de Vence.  In the first, a young woman, presumably Charlotte, sits on a stool, her sandaled feet on a rustic window sill, staring through closed windows at a garden scene, her face mirrored on one of the panes.  In the second, Charlotte sits outdoors on a chair, staring ahead, a misty light streaming through the trees.  Do such photos tell us something about Charlotte, something about us, or about what Prada would like us to think about whenever we see its trademark?  The answer is surely the third choice; had Prada not paid for the photographs, we would not have the pleasure of seeing them. We can never quite get away from the fact that it’s really all about the fashion business in the end.

Albert Watson: Scarlett Johansson, Interview, New York City, 2005
© Albert Watson, UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives)

Watson splices celebrity portraiture into his mix, and we can look at that either or perhaps both of two ways: (a) celebrities, even when photographed in their public persona, will sometimes offer us a chance to see into their true personalities in their portraits, or (b) celebrities, like clothing lines, are brands sold to the public with the help of participating media.  When it comes to his famously beautiful women, Watson has the good sense to start with them naked or nearly so; that goes a long way toward making us put aside our reservations over the foregoing dilemma.  A full-page portrait of Catherine Zeta-Jones in the shower proves that she looks just as seductive wet as she does dry, and a nude of Pamela Anderson, apparently done as editorial work for Details, shows, from its 1998 date, that she had a tattoo running down to the small of her back well before getting tramp stamped was cool.  If there is such a genre as the celebrity nude (and because the club of member subjects includes Madame Sarkozy, there probably should be), one of the best is Watson’s black and white of Lauren Hutton, done in 1976 for American Vogue.  Made a year after Helmut Newton’s Untitled, France, 1975, which it was perhaps intended to reference, it works the same motif in a different way. In both photographs, a woman is caught walking, wearing a loose wrap that has slipped away to reveal her buttocks.  While Newton's image shows a faceless woman in black ascending a grand staircase in an aura of aloof eroticism, Watson’s Hutton is in white, cheerily facing the camera, walking outdoors on muscular legs as if to meet up with friends to pose for Manet’s Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe.  It is that simple, but a fundamental difference in approach that keeps little of what Watson shows in UFO from spinning into New Kitsch smugness, as did much of Newton’s work and the images of so many photographers who followed his lead.

Albert Watson: Sean Penn, Details, Malibu, 1995
© Albert Watson, UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives)

In the short introduction to the book by Gail Buckland, we learn a remarkable fact about Watson: he was born with vision in only one eye.  Cameras are also monocular, and Watson’s handicap may have proven a backhanded gift of nature: the lack of stereoscopic vision and depth perception means that Watson has spent his life seeing in a way similar to the manner in which a camera sees; as everyone who has tried as much as a snapshot with a mobile phone quickly finds out, cameras do see things in their own way, and part of both the craft and art of photography is to learn what cameras and their recording media can and cannot capture and how their limitations affect your interpretation of the scenes you capture.

If nothing else, Watson has proven in his new book that, among fashion photographers and celebrity portraitists, he is a master both of the medium and of its message. How consequential any of that will ultimately prove in the expansion of photography as an art form is a question of debate, but Watson has shown that, if you want to join the discussion of what fashion photography and celebrity portraiture can or should be, you could probably do no better than to begin that dialogue with what he has been producing these past decades.

UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives)
By Albert Watson; Introduction by Gail Buckland
Hardcover: 408 pages
Illustrations: 350
Size: 11 inches x 14 inches
Abrams Books (November 2010)
ISBN: 0-8109-9696-0
EAN: 9780810996960

A critic on fine art photography for Culturekiosque, Alan Behr last wrote on the exhibition Lee Friedlander: America By Car at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  A show of Mr. Behr's own documentary photography, Naked at the Ball, will be on view at Leica Gallery, New York in March 2011. 

Headline photo above: Albert Watson: Italian Vogue, New York City, 1994
© Albert Watson, UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives)

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