The city behind the mask

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What's Albert Watson doing in a Las Vegas bedroom with a dominatrix? It's just another day at work for the acclaimed photographer...

ALBERT Watson's finger gently traces the near-lifesized naked shoulderline of the girl in the print on the gallery wall. The white skin is so clearly defined it seems he is touching the real thing and not an image through glass. It comes as a shock when he says this extraordinary quality was achieved from the tiny negative of a 35mm camera, but then the veteran Scottish photographer is a technical perfectionist for whom such clarity is an everyday expectation.

Watson is in London to open his new solo gallery exhibition, just a dozen colour-saturated prints from his Shot in Vegas series, subtitled Miss Beehayving after the stage name of the young dominatrix who features in most of them. After 40 years in America he hasn't lost his Scottish accent, and retains an insatiable curiosity about the culture of his adopted country. He wanted to introduce a different slant on the nation's gambling capital, he says, "but if I'd called it 'Las Vegas' as I'd originally planned, it could have been too obvious, like a National Geographic shoot. By calling it 'Shot in Vegas' I was able to make it more oblique."

Unsure as to what would capture his imagination, he talked at length to the city's gamblers and sex workers. When he met Miss Beehayving – whose real name is Breaunna – he was intrigued. "She had never modelled before but had natural charisma in front of the camera," he says. Her instinctive ability, he says, "to move and turn the right way for the camera", plus her creamy-skinned beauty, made her the ideal subject.

Though carefully planned, the pictures have a spontaneous quality. "I wanted them to be more iconic than straightforward reportage," says Watson. "They mostly came about through following her daily routine, but we've added to that. Where she is sitting on the side of the bed – she was painting her toenails and I've photographed umpteen models doing that. So I asked her to sit and pause – it tells more of a story."

Likewise when, in full dominatrix kit, she went to get a drink from the fridge, "I realised that was the perfect back view shot". The final print is suffused with greenish light from the fridge interior, reflecting off Breaunna's skintight PVC stockings. Other images are blushed with red from the neon motel signs outside. These are strong colours but, says Watson: "We only accentuated with filters what was there – it's heightened reality, not photographic licence."

The pictures were shot over a period of two years, on everything from the 8x10 lens one might expect for such sizeable blow-ups to that 35mm camera Watson used in the tiny space of a motel bathroom where he photographed Breaunna virtually naked, gazing into the mirror with her make-up bottles laid out before her. Here his legendary eye for detail came into play. "I realised when we were printing that the tops of the taps and two bottles appear in the bottom of the mirror and I agonised over taking them out," he says. "But, when the picture is hung at the right height they add to the reality."

Watson's specialist prints are done by his technical staff onsite under his direction, on special aluminium that helps accent their flat clarity and depth of colour. He also leaves in blemishes others might remove. "Imperfections make the picture far more sexy," he says. "Those stretch marks help you imagine the weight of her breasts, and add to the character. It's why blank-canvas models have so little sex appeal." It is also perhaps a factor in the demand for Watson's pictures – the biggest prints fetch between 5,000 and 8,000.

His interest in technical precision has proved a success in his portraiture, too. "We get everything set up, checked and rechecked so it's only ten minutes for the person," he says. "Busy people like Jack Nicholson love that, and really act it out in the time."

He currently spends about half his time making TV commercials with his Cyclops company – so named because he has only one eye. However, at 65, he is looking forward to directing his first feature films with a producer friend who has worked with Francis Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

As a young, married man – he and his wife Elizabeth met at primary school in Edinburgh and have been together for 47 years – he worked as a lab technician but eventually switched to art school. Leaving Scotland for America on a travelling scholarship in 1966 was no hardship. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1970 and success came quickly – by 1974 he had studios both there and in New York, where he eventually settled. But now, he says, more than ever, he feels drawn to his native land: "I've realised it's outrageous, grand, romantic, Gothic and charismatic. I'm always seeing extraordinary images there – last time it was two kids with electric carrot hair and freckles." He visits family here often and takes any excuse, including his exhibition at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival.

"I doubt I'd get Elizabeth out of New York but I'd like to live here now," he says. "Most of all I'd like to make a book of my view of Scotland – again, some of the obvious things and some much less so. So if anyone would like to help fund it, I'd love to hear from them."

&#149 Albert Watson: Miss Beehayving is at Hamiltons Gallery, London, until 15 March.