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William Claxton, 80; Photographer

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Bill Schenley

Oct 13, 2008, 12:20:54 PM10/13/08
William Claxton Dies at 80; Photographer Helped Make Chet Baker Famous


FROM: The Los Angeles Times ~
By Jon Thurber, Staff Writer

William Claxton, the master photographer whose images
of Chet Baker helped fuel the jazz trumpeter's stardom
in the 1950s and whose fashion photographs of his wife
modeling a topless swim suit were groundbreaking years
later, has died. He was 80.

Claxton died from complications of congestive heart
failure Saturday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
in Los Angeles, his wife, actress and model Peggy
Moffitt Claxton, told The Times.

In a career spanning more than a half century, Claxton
also became well known for his work with celebrities
including Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, who
became a close personal friend; but he gained his
foremost public recognition for his photographs of
jazz performers including Charlie Parker, Dizzy
Gillespie, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, Thelonious
Monk and Stan Getz. But it was his photographs of
Baker that helped teach him the true meaning of the
word photogenic.

"I was up all night developing when the face appeared
in the developing tray," Claxton told the Irish Times
in 2005. "A tough demeanor and a good physique but
an angelic face with pale white skin and, the craziest
thing, one tooth missing -- he'd been in a fight.
I thought, my God, that's Chet Baker."

Claxton observed that over the years he had taken
photographs of some ordinary-looking guys whose
faces would just pop out on film. He said that's what
Baker had.

His 1951 photograph of Baker started a relationship that
continued for the next five or six years as he chronicled
Baker's rise to fame as one of the most visible jazz
performers of the decade.

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."

Born in Pasadena on Oct. 12, 1927, Claxton grew up
in an upper middle-class family in La Cañada Flintridge.
His mother was a musician and his older brother played
piano; Claxton said he tried the keyboard but had no
patience for it. He started collecting records, especially
jazz, at an early age. At 2 years old, he was taking the
bus to downtown Los Angeles to hear jazz greats,
including Ellington, at the Orpheum Theatre.

Years later, he would go to jazz clubs and shoot
photographs of up-and-coming musicians just for fun
and to listen to the music. An incident that he
recounted in the introduction to his book "Jazz:
William Claxton" speaks of a more innocent time
between celebrities and photographers.

Claxton recalled taking his old 4-by-5 Speed Graphic
to photograph the legendary saxophonist Parker at the
Tiffany Club on 7th Street in downtown L.A. He hung
out with Parker until the place closed and then took him
and some of his young fans to his parents' home in
La Cañada Flintridge, where he improvised a studio in
his bedroom and posed Parker with his fans in a formal
portrait. He said that he had never seen Bird, whose life
was cut short by drug problems, look happier.

Claxton started at UCLA but gave up college when
Richard Bock, who was starting Pacific Jazz Records,
hired him as a photographer. He created a vast array of
memorable album covers for the label.

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

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.

His work is collected in an array of spectacular books,
including "Jazz: William Claxton," "Young Chet,"
"Claxography," "Steve McQueen" and "Jazzlife."

Claxton is survived by his wife of 49 years; his son
Christopher; sister Colleen Lewis of Eagle Rock; and
several nieces and nephews.

A memorial gathering is being planned.
William Claxton Photographs:

Chet Baker

Chet Baker w/girlfriend

Art Pepper

Philly Joe Jones

Bob Dylan

Joni Mitchell

Peggy Moffitt (his wife)

Steve McQueen w/Peggy Moffitt

Steve McQueen

John Coltrane

Photos from Jazz Life

Unknown (Iconic Claxton photo)

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