Thursday, 25 June 2009


Steve McQueen in his Jaguar on Mulholland Drive

William Claxton called photography "jazz for the eyes". But jazz photographs have to be music to the ears as well. The best pictures of musicians are drenched in the sound of their subjects. Claxton's photographs…are imbued with the subjects' music style and personality. As Bill Evans hunches over the keyboard there is so little to be seen - ear, hair, neck, a glimpse of spectacles - that he shouldn't be recognisable but, like the lightest touch of his fingers on the keys, these few details are enough to identify him immediately and reveal the admonition at the heart of his technique: it takes more strength to caress the keys that to pound them.

Because he was a true improviser, Claxton's photographs look lucky and inevitable in equal measure. In a famous picture of Kenny Dorham soloing, a plane passes overhead like a note of music floating clear of the trumpet. Although they are frequently seen performing on small, cramped stages, Claxton's people are rarely crowded by the picture frame.

Continuing the musical parallels, it's tempting to characterise this light, spacious style as west coast. Claxton grew up in southern California and is probably best known for his portraits of LA-based musicians such as Art Pepper and Chet Baker. The off-the-cuff glamour that marks Claxton's pictures of Pepper and Baker served him even better when he was photographing celebrities. The trademark suggestion of a spontaneously improvised pose is like the equivalent, in a still image, of Steve McQueen's impassive idea of what constituted acting and action: doing nothing and making the idea of more look histrionic.

Claxton in a nutshell: everyday greatness and a charged sense of the ordinary in the same instant.

- Geoff Dyer, "Jazz For The Eyes", The Manchester Guardian, Wednesday 15 October 2008


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