Claxton, William

American (1927-2008)

Concentrating on his native West Coast, William Claxton melded his love of jazz music and photography to create some of the most famous images of musicians this century. Fascinated by his father’s big band record collection, Claxton began sneaking into LA jazz clubs as a young boy. Armed with a Brownie box camera and dressed in a suit to avoid detection, he captured powerful images using only the lighting within the clubs. These shots were powerful enough to persuade Richard Bock of the Pacific Jazz record company to hire Claxton – as a college student – to shoot the covers for his albums – and it wasn’t long before other major labels were using him as well. A shot of Chet Baker from this period brought the burgeoning trumpeter – and the young photographer – to the public eye.

Claxton’s photographs have been called “jazz for the eyes,” largely because of the spontaneous and improvisational feel they share with the musical form. Claxton preferred to take his subjects outside, capturing them in natural light and in environments other than clubs and studios. To gain their trust while shooting them in the ocean or on top of a mountain, Claxton would “play” with his subjects. He once handed Steve McQueen his camera and allowed the movie start to shoot a few shots; on break during a recording session in 1962, Claxton led Ray Charles around the studio, allowing the blind musician to feel the different instruments for the first time. Some of Claxton’s most famous images are of his actress wife modeling a topless bathing suit. Though they caused quite a stir at the time, they are now considered groundbreaking.