LOS ANGELES — Photographer William Claxton, who immortalized icons such as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and actor Steve McQueen in simple but honest portraits, died Saturday of complications from congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center here. He was 80.
Born in Pasadena, Calif., Claxton began his career taking pictures of Baker, singer Dinah Washington and other musicians performing in Los Angeles clubs and setting tracks in recording studios, where he developed his signature style of using natural light to illuminate his subjects.
This story first appeared in the October 14, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“His photographic style was very much like the style of his jazz musicians,” said David Fahey, who represented Claxton at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. “His photography was improvisational, hip, immediate and quite spontaneous.”
Claxton befriended McQueen, who shared his love of fast cars. The actor gave Claxton unusual access, which resulted in a picture of McQueen driving a convertible on Mulholland Drive as Claxton stood on the car’s passenger seat.
Claxton had already made a name for himself when he married model Peggy Moffitt in 1959. Rudi Gernreich attended their wedding, and soon after the Austrian-born designer collaborated with the couple for a series of memorable fashion spreads. In what became a symbol of Sixties’ sexual liberation, Claxton photographed a water-soaked Moffitt Claxton in a topless swimsuit by Gernreich in the Claxtons’ living room while Moffitt Claxton stood on a bath mat. Claxton also created a short film, “Basic Black,” which is considered one of the first fashion videos and is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“His great gift was that he genuinely liked people and saw the beauty of people,” Moffitt Claxton, 71, said in an interview. “I don’t think I ever met anyone who responded to his personality and thought he wasn’t the nicest person they ever saw. He connected with people.”
The partnership between Claxton and his wife “was just a great collaboration, aside from husband and wife, two artists collaborating together,” said Cameron Silver, the owner of vintage boutique Decades Inc. in Los Angeles, a close friend of the Claxtons. “Also, it’s very special for us as Angelenos. William was an L.A. native. Peggy was an L.A. native. Rudi Gernreich immigrated to this city. This great integration of fashion and art and cultural movement came out of this city.”
Claxton influenced generations of photographers. Recalling the first time he saw Claxton’s striking photographs in the Seventies, Davis Factor said, “That work…inspired me to shoot black-and-white photography.”
Tall and lanky, Claxton cut a striking figure. He died a day before his 81st birthday. Art publishers Benedikt and Lauren Taschen hosted an 80th birthday party for him and Moffitt Claxton, whose birthday is 10 days before Claxton’s, at Dominick’s in Los Angeles. Among the guests were Silver, composer Burt Bacharach, actress Stefanie Powers, art dealer Irving Blum and Phoenix Art Museum curator Dennita Sewell.
Claxton gained a following among art collectors such as Elton John, who this year bought a photo of Moffitt Claxton donning Gernreich’s satin miniskirt suit and a geometric haircut by Vidal Sassoon. Claxton’s work also appeared in several books, including “Claxtography.”
In explaining his ability to get so close to his subjects, Claxton said in a video interview on his Web site, “They got used to me being there. Secondly, they trusted me.”
Claxton and Moffitt Claxton have a son, Christopher Claxton, who oversees his father’s archives. He is also survived by his sister, Colleen Lewis.
The family will hold a private funeral. A memorial service is planned and details will be released at a later date.