Ever have musicians uneasily coexisted with the photographer. After the Second World War, jazz relaxed, spread its wings and began to reinvent itself. The formality of Big Band gave way to something lovely and intimate which gave voice to a new generation, and its heart was in California. Perhaps its purest expression was found in the muted trumpets of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. Bill Evans the pianist gave it chords. It swirled like a silk dress around the legs of a pretty girl. Cool jazz was a stripped back, elegant thing and William Claxton captured its creators with photographs of haunting beauty and style.
Much of this remembrance is taken from information on William Claxton's website, often verbatim: I do not steal. I would honor his memory. All images are copyrighted 2006 William Claxton.
William Claxton shot a big old 4x5 Speed Graphic, an antique even by the standards of the day. "When I worked, " he says, "holding that big, clunky camera up to shoot with flash bulbs and dangling extension cords, friends would laugh at me and remark that I looked like a crime photographer: a young, tall and skinny WeeGee."
"Most of the jazz photography before me showed sweaty musicians with shiny faces in dark, smoky little bars," he says. "That was jazz to most people. But being on the West Coast, I wanted to bring out the fact that musicians here were living in such a health conscious environment. So I purposely put them on the beach or in the mountains or on the road in their convertibles."
illiam Claxton came of age at the advent of the Long Play record. The LP provided more real estate for both the photographer and musician to stretch out and create an atmosphere. Increased fidelity gave rise to subtler and richer performances: it was now possible to play quietly. Pacific Jazz records under Dick Bock would give Claxton the freedom to take the musicians off the stage, into their own worlds and give us images of the artists as they were.
It was all very new then, and as the 1950s and 60s unfolded and later exploded, strange and beautiful things emerged. Claxton's early photographs of Chet Baker would be reprised in the 1980s in the endlessly derivate Calvin Klein advertisements. The languorous male models in t-shirts, stretched out artfully were unctuous homage to Claxton's patient and subtle originals.
For Claxton was educated as a psychologist. He knew jazz and Hollywood as well as anyone of the era ever did. Hollywood is a chimera, endlessly self-referential, but behind the cameras and between the takes, it's mostly just ordinary people doing extraordinary things in film and recording studios. Unlike the pushy public relations photographers, Claxton would befriend these people and earn their trust. When they were finished blowing, collapsed back into their folding chairs, then Claxton's camera would begin clicking.
Oh, Claxton could do formalist work, and did. He could even emulate his casual work formally. In 1992 he encountered a grown-up jazz baby in Diana Ross, who asked him to shoot her as she rehearsed some standards for the TV special "Diana Ross Sings Jazz and Blues: Stolen Moments." Ross wanted to look like a real jazz artist. There she stands in the studio - made up to look natural, dressed up to look dressed down.
Claxton especially befriended Chet Baker and Steve McQueen and would do several books on them.
Other shots are just as indelible: Shorty Rogers grinning in his children's treehouse; Pete Jolly cornered by pianos in a warehouse; Jackie Cain and Roy Kral in the recording studio; the smartest, hippest young couple in jazz; Dinah Washington mugging outrageously during her "Bitter Earth Revue" at Ciro's in Hollywood.
Since Claxton started documenting the jazz life, musicians have found various ways to welcome him into their fraternity. In 1956 Shorty Rogers wrote and recorded "Clickin' with Clax"; Al Cohn followed suit that year with " Sound Claxton!" Then in 1990, a young Canadian sax player named Dan St. Marseille called Claxton to ask if he would photograph him for his first CD. He added that he had very little money and probably couldn't afford him. "I met with him and heard him play," says Claxton. "He was so sincere and such a good musician that I agreed to shoot his picture for just the cost of my materials. We agreed that sometime when he was rich and famous he would hire me and pay my normal fees." This investment in time and effort did indeed payoff. Dan composed a tune for Claxton. He called it "Claxography".
John Thurber, writing his obit in the LA Times says:
Claxton called photography "jazz for the eyes" and tried to capture the often dynamic tension between the artist, the instrument and the music.
"For the photographer, the camera is like a jazz musician's ax. It's the tool that you would like to be able to ignore, but you have to have it to convey your thoughts and whatever you want to express through it," Claxton told jazz writer Don Heckman some years ago.
Almost as much as the recordings themselves, the photographs reach into the essence of making music.
"That's where jazz and photography have always come together for me," Claxton told Heckman. "They're alike in their improvisation and their spontaneousness. They happen at the same moment that you're hearing something and you're seeing something, and you record it and it's frozen forever."
Toward the end of the 1950s, he started moving into fashion work. He married Moffitt, who was the muse of fashion designer Rudi Gernreich. In the early 1960s, they created the photographs of the topless bathing suit designed by Gernreich with Moffitt as the model.
"That was a big family decision," Claxton told Heckman. "Whew. Was I going to let my wife show her breasts in public? We hassled about it for a long time. Finally, we decided to employ nepotism. Only I could photograph it, we would have control of the pictures and Peggy would never model the suit in public. And it worked out OK. The pictures were tasteful, I thought, Peggy looked great, and it was historically a breakthrough for women, that they could feel free enough to show the beauty of their breasts."
Claxton also directed the film "Basic-Black," which is viewed by many as the first fashion video and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
While taking assignments for Life magazine, he photographed Sinatra at a recording session at Capitol Records, Barbra Streisand in New York, and McQueen. All were notoriously tough assignments, stars distrustful of the media and reluctant to be photographed. But he gained their trust and developed a friendship with McQueen through their common love of sports cars, race cars and motorcycles.
We look back into history to find a few pioneers and a host of imitators. Stephen Jay Gould says evolution is not a gradual thing, but a series of explosions. Most of the rays of those explosions end badly, but a few survive to become the new paradigms.
Perspective in art had been known since antiquity. It probably began with the Greek stage flats, skenographia. Democritus describes it philosophically, Euclid gives us the mathematics. Some of the murals at Pompeii show us perspective was pretty well understood, but it wouldn't be until Giotto that perspective became common practice in painting. In the intervening centuries, paintings portrayed the important things by merely painting them larger. These were rude representations of saints and kings, cities and battles, portrayed on flat backgrounds if any was provided at all. And all were carefully lettered: nothing was left to the imagination.
William Claxton took the heroes off the stage and created images of staggering power and beauty. Those who knew Chet Baker knew of his two careers first as a pretty boy, then after heroin consumed them and literally beat his face to a pulp, (pay no attention to Chet's own self-excusing accounts of these things) he would learn to play with dentures and regain some acclaim. William Claxton documented Chet Baker, in no small measure created the pretty boy sex symbol. But Clax captured Baker's haunted, gaunt and hollow second self as well, as he captured that inner genius in so many others. Clax was loved and trusted by some of Hollywood and jazz's most secretive people.
Clax was of a time, but he left behind a solid body of work over five decades of steady effort. The power of his images gave us much of what we now identify with jazz, the 50's 60's and early 70's, the evanescent loveliness of an era of style and grace he did so much to create. Clax was a consummate photographer but his camera was not his true instrument. His great gift was the art of perspective, from the Latin perspicere, to see through something, a certain transparency. Clax moved in this transparency, becoming part of the landscape and world in which many lovely and famous people moved. The sincerity of his vision, his respect and love for his subjects was returned by the actors and musicians he photographed, and no man may have a better legacy. For it little matters that we love, for love may be in vain. What matters is that we are loved, that our love is returned. He captured his world, and in that capturing, he gave us something good and true and lasting.
If you are intrigued, I urge one and all to consider the purchase of Jazz Seen or Photographic Memory though all his books are nonpareil. His documentary of New Orleans in 1960 is a subtle triumph of its type.