LOS ANGELES — “I’d rather be on the other side of the camera,” William Claxton moans while he is photographed. But with the show of his iconic images of Steve McQueen, which opened at the Fahey/Klein gallery in Hollywood over the weekend, it’s the master photographer’s turn in the limelight.
“I’m more photogenic than I was when I was younger,” says the 70-something Claxton, known as much for his photographs of McQueen and Chet Baker as for his enduring marriage to Sixties supermodel Peggy Moffat. “I’m acceptable, now, to myself,” he sighs.
A few months ago, Claxton suffered a stroke, but with incredible effort and a lot of physical therapy, he’s walking and driving, and, as he says, “I’m back to my bad old self.” He’s even been shooting again and will put out a book called “Photographic Memory,” full of anecdotes from his shoots come October.
Though McQueen came on rough times later in life, Claxton’s photos of the actor before he turned to drugs capture the lion at his height. “Unfortunately, he wound up like Chet Baker,” Claxton sighs. “Jay Sebring the hairdresser turned Steve on to cocaine and it brought out the worst in him.”
The McQueen photos, all black and whites shot in the Sixties, feature the brooding tough in expected stances — behind black sunglasses, on motorcycles, in sweaty T-shirts — and in some atypical ones: smiling with a child riding on his back and posing with a cocktail beside Moffat.
Claxton and McQueen first met on the set of “Love With a Proper Stranger.” “I put out my hand to Steve McQueen, but he didn’t shake it,” says Claxton. “He just looked at me with steely blue eyes. He was catlike. Later on, I realized that because of his early life, he was sizing everyone up as a possible enemy.”
McQueen had never known his father and had an alcoholic mother. He was busted as a teenager for hustling on the streets and wound up in jail. The tough-guy image was not an act, but Claxton bonded with the actor over sports cars and motorcycles, and by teaching him that photography required just as much skill as acting.
“He was so competitive that that made him want to learn photography,” Claxton says. “I’m fascinated by people who are very intelligent, but aren’t sophisticated or educated. He was fantastically streetwise, but also very guarded. And sensitive. He always needed to be one jump ahead of everybody.”
But according to Claxton, his good looks were not something McQueen was smug about. “He never thought he was good-looking,” Claxton laughs. “I don’t think he saw himself as an alpha male icon of masculinity. I think he was more about, ‘What can I accomplish?’ and ‘How can I beat everybody?’”