Eye for an image

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ALBERT WATSON'S father always hoped his son would get a proper job. "He thought that what I did was women's work," says one of the most celebrated and highly paid photographers in the world.

Fussing with my sleeve, adjusting the hang of my jacket, Watson demonstrates what his late father, Albert, thought of his brilliant career ("footering about with women's clothes is not a job for a man!"). This is exactly what he would do if he were preparing to photograph me - which is highly unlikely, since the Penicuik-born Watson is not only a fabled fashion photographer, up there with Richard Avedon and David Bailey, he's also a star portraitist and a master of still-life.

The 63-year-old's dazzling achievements are being recognised at the inaugural Scottish Fashion Awards next weekend at Stirling Castle and with a major exhibition - astonishingly, his first in Scotland - which opens in Edinburgh in July. Albert Watson: Frozen will include 200 of his iconic photographs, cover three floors at the City Art Centre and will finally answer the vexed "Albert who?" question. Despite being a legend in Europe and the US, where he now lives in New York, in his homeland Albert Watson is perhaps the least-known great photographer in the world.

Watson's work is instantly familiar, even if his name does not ring as many bells as, say, Annie Leibowitz, Mario Testino, or even fellow Scot Harry Benson (whose oeuvre, coincidentally, is being exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this summer).

A Watson photograph, be it of Kate Moss's nubile naked body or King Tutankhamen's linen glove, always bears his hallmark, the stamp of what the photographer calls "stainless-steel quality and precision, world-class, polished, high-end". He may be that rarity, a celebrity photographer who has never forfeited his own anonymity, but Watson's images are immediately recognisable from magazine covers (Time, Rolling Stone, almost 300 for Vogue alone), advertising campaigns (Elizabeth Hurley for Este Lauder), television commercials (he has just made his 600th), and rock videos (Al Green, Sade, Morrissey). He did the movie posters for The Hours, Memoirs of a Geisha and Kill Bill. Recently, he completed those for The Da Vinci Code, which meant hanging around for Tom Hanks for nine hours ("due to his filming schedule; it wasn't him playing the superstar"), to get just six minutes for the shots.

He has photographed Orkney's standing stones, Chairman Mao's limo, the first monkey in space, death-row convicts in Louisiana, a dominatrix in Las Vegas, the astronauts of Apollo 14 and Elvis Presley's gold lam suit.

As well as every supermodel of the past two decades, he has captured the monumental, chiselled masculinity of Clint Eastwood, looking like a carving on Mount Rushmore; the cocky charisma of Jack Nicholson wreathed in cigar smoke; the insolent arrogance of Mick Jagger morphing into a leopard; the creamy blonde glamour of Sharon Stone; and - a masterpiece - the menacing back view of Mike Tyson's threateningly beautiful head, his huge neck pearled with sweat. "I knew him from the age of 15, when he was on the way up and he would have done anything I asked of him. Later in life, he would be nasty and rude to 15 people around him, then he'd say, 'Mr Watson, how have you been?' and put his arm around me. He was always sweet with me," discloses Watson, who adds that he never fails to get the picture he wants.

He doesn't know why, but he has this knack of depicting his subject's soul, whether it's a "respectful and explosively energetic" Michael Jackson dancing for 90 minutes non-stop before eight mirrors ("an odd but really rather wonderful human being") for an album cover, or Naomi Campbell silhouetted like a Nubian sculpture. Campbell, by the way, has never been anything but sweetness and light on a Watson shoot. "But I've seen and heard her lose it with others - and it was not pleasant."

Watson took the official wedding "snaps" of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson (he loved her flaming hair and natural beauty) and is the only photographer Martin Scorsese ever uses. "Not because I'm the best, but because I'm the fastest," he demurs in his New York-via-Edinburgh accent.

When shooting stars he is quick on the draw and charm personified. Diana Ross came to his studio with attitude, but cradled his face in her hands to kiss him before she left. Rapper Tupac Shakur spookily let Watson photograph him holding a gun in 1991, five years before he was murdered in a drive-by shooting. And Johnny Depp remains the most beautiful being - male or female - he has ever photographed. "The perfect combo: beauty and charisma. Even his feet look good."

He says he has liked everyone he has ever photographed - with the exception of rock'n'roller Chuck Berry, of whom he shot only four frames because he was such a pain in the neck. "He was a nightmare. I'd been his number-one fan - still am of his music - but I wouldn't go near him again with a bargepole. He was nasty. Totally bitter and sour - and I was very nice to him, because I'm nice to everybody. He even refused to sign my Polaroid."

The controversial artist Jeff Koons, though, was endlessly accommodating. "He arrived in a suit and tie and I thought, 'Erm, tricky,' because he has a clownish face and is quite mad-looking, really. Then, when I was ready, he lifted up the corner of his tie and licked it like it was an ice-cream. It looked strangely naughty, a bit like a dirty postcard. Four, five sheets of film, we were done.

"Joaquin Phoenix, however, couldn't even scratch his cheekbone until I showed him how. Fabulous-looking, very nice, but for some strange reason he was terrified of having his picture taken. He had to be given the perfect scenario. I ended up directing him, acting it out myself, he was so nervous.

"With Jack Nicholson, now, he walks in oozing charisma and sexual energy. He once blew smoke rings for me. 'Can you do it a few more times?' I asked. 'All day!' he replied."

Despite all this glitz and glamour, Watson's father remained singularly unimpressed. His mother Gladys, a former hairdresser who is still living in Penicuik, on the other hand, is inordinately proud of her only son (he has two younger sisters). He has enjoyed spending time with her in between organising the Edinburgh exhibition and jetting around the world to shoot an album cover for the Black Eyed Peas and portraits of the rapper Buster Rhymes in New York and the young actress Dakota Fanning in Melbourne. All this, on top of organising the post-Edinburgh tour of Frozen to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Tokyo and New York.

Surely Watson's father, who loved drawing and who took art classes with Gladys when he retired, would have delighted in the forthcoming exhibition? "I guess so," drawls Watson.

Watson senior was an unemotional Englishman, confides his son. A Geordie who was the Royal Navy's boxing champion in 1951, who became a professional boxer, then a PE teacher, he was popular with all who knew him for his easy-going ways. He was, however, tough on the young Albert, who at 17 was told that he was on his own and that it was now up to him to leave home and make his own way in life.

His father died eight years ago, at the age of 81, but not before he had seen his boy become a multimillionaire, the owner of an entire block of prime Manhattan real estate in the ultra-trendy Meatpacking district, and a house in Marrakech.

DRESSED in chic boho style, with a silvery beard, a trademark knitted black beret tipped back on his balding head, and a scarlet-and-navy Yohji Yamamoto scarf wound around his neck, Watson looks like a rather grizzled beatnik. He is intense, talks up a storm, and is sparing with his smiles.

We meet at Edinburgh's City Art Centre, where he is taking precise measurements of the wall space before the installation of his exhibition.

It's what you would expect from a man who calls himself a perfectionist. When I'd met him previously, in his studio in New York, he was immersed in the intricate process of retouching an image on which he had discovered a flaw, the size of a pin-head and barely visible to the naked eye.

His studio is actually more of an empire - 26,000 square feet, hidden behind a nondescript glass door. Step inside, though, and it's like entering the Tardis. There's a swish reception area, suites of offices, studios, dressing-rooms for the models, a unique archive in which nine million negatives and prints are stored, darkrooms, and labs with rows of computers. His wife Elizabeth and younger son Aaron, who is 40, work there with him, the former casting his photo-shoots and organising his diary, the latter taking care of print sales.

The teetotal Watson has avoided the drugs scene so rife in the fashion industry. He is saddened by Kate Moss's involvement, since he has known her since she was a schoolgirl, when she was "lovely as a flower". "I never wanted anything to do with drugs and I wish she hadn't. Sure, she's still lovely, although I haven't photographed her lately, but she's silly to have got caught up in all that nonsense. Life's too short," he says.

An obsessively tidy man, he clears up after Elizabeth cooks. They have employed a maid for years but Watson has been known to wash the dinner dishes for her because he likes the place to look nice when she arrives each morning. The couple live over the shop, so to speak, in a fantastically furnished apartment. There's a scarlet dining-room, with distressed metal walls, a Chinese emperor's daybed for lounging about on, and a fabulous collection of primitive art and antiques.

He and Elizabeth also run a business producing television commercials and films, Cyclops Productions, which makes trailers for shows such as The Shield, and Octopus Inc, an advertising agency handling various big-name brands. In all, they employ more than 40 people.

Over several cups of tea, Watson flicks through a lavish coffee-table book - The Vienna Album, which accompanied his recent exhibition in Austria. It features some of his fashion images, celebrity portraits and an epic photo essay he shot in Las Vegas, all of them striking for the clarity and concentration of his singular vision.

And it is a singular vision: Watson is blind in his right eye. He was born with sight in only his left eye, hence the company name Cyclops (which is also the title of a book published in 1994 celebrating more than 20 years of his work). Nowadays, he wears little round metal-framed glasses, despite having 20/20 vision in his good eye. His optician insists that he protect it from such hazards as falling lighting equipment or slivers of broken glass, so he wears them 18 hours a day. "With one eye you have a problem: you don't have a back-up."

His impaired vision has nothing to do with his extraordinary achievements, he insists. His studies in fine art, film and graphic design, first at Duncan of Jordanstone, then at the Royal College of Art, account for his success. That and his driving passion for work. "We've devoted our lives to a solid Protestant work-ethic, although I've always believed implicitly in what I do. If you live in America, where the streets really have been paved with gold for me, you must subscribe to their system by being aggressive. You don't get everything I've achieved without sheer bloody hard work and brute force," he says.

None of it would have happened had he not met and married Elizabeth 45 years ago. They met at the Rudolf Steiner School in Edinburgh when they were four years old. There's an school photograph of them sitting together. She has turned her back because she didn't want to be next to him. It's the first image visitors to the Edinburgh exhibition will see. "He's sitting next to the teacher - for a reason," she reveals. "Albert was very disruptive in class. Very silly."

Watson was a little more extrovert back then. "Much more so than I am now," he agrees. "She was already quite sophisticated. You can see the woman she would become."

Elizabeth's parents died and she was raised in the south of England by her grandmother. Meanwhile, Watson went to Lasswade High, Bonnyrigg. Elizabeth returned to Scotland in 1955 and the couple met again, when they were 16, at a dance on April 25, 1959, a date engraved on Albert's heart.

It cost two shillings and sixpence to get in to the Greenhill Club. Neither recognised the other, but they began dating immediately - because he had never seen anyone so beautiful ("In my beehive and stiletto heels!" laughs Elizabeth), an opinion he holds fast to this day. She liked him because he was a terrific dancer.

On their first date they went to an Acker Bilk concert at the Usher Hall. Subsequently, they dated by talking for five hours over one hot chocolate in the old Chocolate House in Princes Street. When he met Elizabeth's grandmother, she asked which school he had gone to and he said the Rudolf Steiner. The teenagers looked at each other and said, "Do you remember Mrs Mackintosh?" She was their class teacher. Elizabeth claims she was "horrified" when she realised who he was.

They married when they were 18, and a year later their first son, Norman, was born. By the time they were 21 they had Aaron as well, and they were broke. Elizabeth taught and, after working at Duncans chocolate factory, Watson got into Dundee art college. Elizabeth gave him an old camera, telling him "to get out of the house and do something". He became "an overnight fanatic". They moved to London, where he studied for three years at the RCA. "Elizabeth was totally supportive and always the breadwinner, although it was her emotional and moral support that really counted," he says.

In 1970 they moved again, this time to Los Angeles, where Elizabeth had got herself a teaching job. Watson got an interview with an LA agency that had the Max Factor account. They booked a model, "and that was it!"

By 1971 he had his own studio. When Elizabeth's contract ran out, she started working with him, casting shoots, a job she still does. Does she mind that he hangs out with models so often? "I've spent the last 40 years photographing the most beautiful women in the world, from Sharon Stone to Sophia Loren, as well as virtually every supermodel for zillions of magazine covers, but Elizabeth has always been the one for me. A lot of models are pretty thick anyway. I don't find beautiful women who are not clever attractive, so that takes the majority off the map.

"I've photographed brilliant women too. Sharon Stone is very smart. And, of course, Cate Blanchett is highly intelligent. Her face is interesting. It's not the most beautiful in the world, although to me it's beautiful precisely because it is not perfect. Behind that face you know there's a brain. I like my pictures to go beyond beauty."

Recently he shot Blanchett with Judi Dench for the film Notes on a Scandal. "I love Judi Dench. What a giggler!" he exclaims.

"One actress who maybe comes across as a bimbo is Jennifer Lopez, but I've really enjoyed photographing her. She's bright. I liked her because she's determined. She has the ambition I've always had. Always working it. Perfection!

Watson has donated part of his valuable archive to the Scottish National Photography Centre, due to open in Edinburgh in 2008. "I want to show Scotland how vast my body of work is, to show that somebody from a wee village like Penicuik went to places like Russia, Las Vegas, China and Africa, and made their mark. I've done so much stuff! My stuff's all over the planet.

"If there was an Olympic games for photographers in terms of who has done the most stuff, I'd probably get the gold medal. I hasten to add, though, I'm not claiming it's the best stuff."

Well, Albert, we'll be the judge of that.

• Albert Watson: Frozen is at the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh, July 29 to October 22