CARPI, Italy — The latest exhibition dedicated to works by Albert Watson helps emphasize how a strong relationship between a fashion brand and a talented photographer can develop into a superior artistic production. “Albert Watson, Fashion, Portraits and Landscapes,” running Saturday to June 17, displays around 100 images from the Blumarine archives at the medieval Palazzo Pio here, a one-hour drive from Bologna, and home to the label created and designed by Anna Molinari.
Watson helped define Blumarine’s romantic and feminine identity through 12 advertising campaigns in the Eighties and Nineties for the brand. The striking photos of models ranging from Carré Otis and Naomi Campbell to Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Nadja Auermann, who were juxtaposed against views of Scotland, London, Naples or New Mexico, vividly stand out on the walls of the frescoed and vaulted castle.
“I realize now but I didn’t back then, that in the end I was more a photographer of fashion as opposed to a fashion photographer. I was doing a photo shoot that contained fashion,” said Watson during a preview of the exhibition on Thursday. “I was always interested in the second, third or fourth layer, in lights and shadows, clothes and a woman in an environment, a piece of Las Vegas, London or New Mexico or Naples. I would try to never forget to show a detail, maybe two buttons, the texture, so that it was not just a beauty shot. I want to communicate the clothing but also the woman, so that it’s a photo and not a fashion picture.”
Blumarine allowed Watson the creative freedom that is key to his work, he said, but the photographer was always mindful of the goal of the photos, which “would make no sense if you don’t see the clothes. All photography is interested in communication — a war photograph must show the war; if you are photographing in Paris, there has to be some feeling of Paris, some flavor, although you don’t necessarily have to show the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.”
Molinari emphasized the timeless quality of the photos and Watson’s skill in playing with shadows and lights in a cinematic way. “He loves nature, he perfectly and exactly combined his love for nature, the subject he was photographing, the clothes and the colors, making the images modern,” she mused. “These are artistic photos but they perfectly reflect the brand.”
Blumarine, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, has also worked with Tim Walker, Mark Seliger, Helmut Newton, Juergen Teller, Craig McDean and Pamela Hanson. Molinari lamented how big-name photographers today “are less flexible and won’t work with companies that are not huge brands.” Beautiful photos, she claimed, are still a way to communicate a message, even if less on magazines today, and more on social media and online. “It’s changed, but only in part as people still want to see beautiful photography.”
Watson said he never had any restrictions from Molinari and her daughter Rossella Tarabini, who is no longer active in the company, compared with “99 percent of clients. [Molinari and Tarabini] acted as wind at your back to move forward, and in fashion you don’t normally get this kind of freedom. I could use an old rusted car, and they would be understanding the significance of an old, beat-up car, and they gave me the freedom to choose to shoot anywhere in the planet.”
This helped make Blumarine a global company, he said. All of the black-and-white prints were printed by Watson in the dark room because “I love printing,” he said. “There was no Photoshop and no retouching, these are raw images. It was very different from what happens today — after you take the picture, there is an additional layer of flexibility and power.” However, Watson does not wave digital technology away. “A model may come to the shoot with a cold sore on her lip, and I think it’s fine to take that away — it’s temporary, a week later, that sore may not be there, but this is different from completely restructuring.” He said there was one photo in particular that had always bothered him so much, with one strand of hair falling on the face of the model, that he had to remove it.
With more than 100 Vogue covers, and around 40 for Rolling Stone from the mid Seventies, Watson has photographed the likes of Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Alfred Hitchcock, Steve Jobs, Nicole Kidman and Uma Thurman wielding a sword for the famous poster of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” He clearly wonders about the subjects that are hits on social media now, which he described as “a phenomenon,” including Kim Kardashian, who is “famous for being famous. I heard her say so herself. Today, it’s about immediacy, you get the information and then move on. I am not saying it’s good or bad. I prefer Italian food to Chinese food but that doesn’t make the latter bad.”
Asked to comment on the sexual harassment claims that have recently been made against some of his peers by models, he said he was always too “obsessed by the work,” which scarcely left any time for interaction with the subjects of his photos. Watson said his MO has always been very straightforward and that there have always been only three issues that demanded phone calls to the agencies ahead of time to avoid problems and streamline the work: nudity, lingerie or fur shoots. “For me, it was never tricky. I would ask in advance, so it was up to the agencies [to do their work and talk to the models].” As for the reputation that has been dogging some photographers, he said: “I heard stories, but that’s what they were for me, stories.”
Watson was scheduled to leave for Miami the following day for a shoot, but was asked by the Italian clients to stay mum about the details. He said he is “always interested in whatever the next job is. It doesn’t matter — it can be photographing paper cups, the sensibility is always the same. I begin to analyze the cup, and see what I can do to make it more interesting.”
To illustrate the point, he quickly yet carefully showed how he transformed a straightforward photo of a white cup taken with his phone into a black-and-white, more artistic image.
The exhibition is curated by Luca Panaro, conceived and produced by the city of Carpi.