William Claxton, Photographer of Cool
Photo: Gray Friedman/ Los Angeles Times
Photojournalist William Claxton died on Sunday at age 80 due to complications from congestive heart failure. He was well known for his iconic pictures of Chet Baker and other musicians as well as celebrities like Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra.
He is one of the photojournalist I have admired for many years. He inspired me to follow the same road of photography by including jazz musicians as a worthy subject. I love this quote Claxton told jazz writer Don Heckman some years ago.
“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,”
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.”
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’s relationship with Baker began in 1951 and he continued to photograph Baker for the next 6 years in an attempt to capture the relationship between artist, instrument and music on film.