[JPL] William Claxton dies at 80; photographer helped make Chet Baker famous

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Mon Oct 13 09:24:20 EDT 2008


>From the Los Angeles Times
William Claxton dies at 80; photographer helped make Chet Baker famous
By Jon Thurber
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 13, 2008

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

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

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 breasts."

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

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.

jon.thurber at latimes.com

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