Claxography

On October 14th the photographic community mourned as William Claxton passed away from complications caused by congestive heart failure one day short of his 81st birthday. William Claxton was by trade a photographer, but to those who met him he was so much more than that. Claxton saw his subjects for what they were and not who they were. In a time when Jazz artists were portrayed as always in dark, smoke filled bars Claxton would frequently take his subjects outside into the light as they walked the beaches or drove in their convertibles.

His subjects which included the whose who of musicians like Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, and Frank Sinatra. The rest of Hollywood soon came calling for his style of portraiture as he created enduring images of movie stars like Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlene Dietrich. Mr. Claxton often said he succeeded in celebrity photography by promising not to portray subjects in a negative way or capitalizing on any of their weakness.

During a break in a recording session with Ray Charles in 1962, Mr. Claxton led Charles from instrument to instrument so he could feel them, the equivalent for the sightless singer of seeing them for the first time. Charles was thrilled, and Mr. Claxton captured images of Ray that perhaps no other photographer would have captured. His compassion and understanding of Charles’s blindness allowed Ray to simply be Ray, and not Ray Charles the musician.

By the time he started photographing musician’s full time he searched for ways to define them as people, not just as performers. He wanted to capture the innate drama in their lives, the fun, the anxiety, and their eternal youthfulness. This was near the dawn of the LP, when record covers held vast artistic potential; while scouting for ideas, Claxton created his style. “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.”

Claxton had done such a fine job capturing the true essence of his subjects that soon they began in a way to document him. 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. Years later Dan composed a tune for Claxton that he called it “Claxography”.

Through his career Claxton worked with a variety of celebrities from both the film and music industries. His way of seeing his subjects for who they were generated some of the more open and honest images you will find. Just as they opened up to him, he would at times open up to them. What some would view as a photographer and a subject, others saw as just William and Steve. There friendship began one day when Claxton met with McQueen and before they began taking pictures they spent the majority of the portrait time by comparing their sports cars (McQueen’s Ferrari and his Porsche) in the studio parking lot. He then let McQueen play with his camera and focus on him so McQueen could sense the joy of taking pictures; similar to the joy they both spoke of in driving their cars. This event was the beginning of what later became a book based on years of images taken during the course of their friendship.

In an age of paparazzi and TMZ, celebrities are under constant surveillance and scrutiny and more often then not they have to live up to how they are perceived 24/7. The photographic style of William Claxton has helped define a generation of musicians, actors, but also any photographer who has followed his work. Although he is now gone, his images will carry on and continue to inspire the photographers of tomorrow with the images of yesterday.

William Claxton

William Claxton

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