William J. Claxton, 80; Made 'Jazz For the Eyes'

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

As the premier chronicler of West Coast jazz, photographer William Claxton took his subjects out of the shadows and into the light.

Instead of posing musicians such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins in dark, seedy-looking clubs, wreathed in cigarette smoke, he photographed them on golden beaches, riding on carousels, strolling in the Mojave Desert, emerging from the ocean cradling a trumpet.

Mr. Claxton, who worked in a style he called "jazz for the eyes," died Oct. 11 in Los Angeles of complications from congestive heart failure. He was 80.

One of his most famous images, taken in 1955, shows a shirtless Chet Baker, the trumpeter, pianist and singer, relaxing in the sunlight of Redondo Beach, Calif., with his wife, Helima, leaning against his knee.

Mr. Claxton, who loved the beach, met Baker in 1951, just as the young musician's career was rising. In a 1999 interview with The Washington Post, he recalled riding in the front seat of Baker's Cadillac as the two traveled from gig to gig along the California coast.

"We both shared a passion for American popular song, and we'd sing 'em at each other all night," Mr. Claxton said.

Mr. Claxton's main income was from taking pictures and designing album covers for Pacific Jazz Records, and his work got to be so popular in the 1950s that he began getting calls to do celebrity photos for other publications, including Life, Time, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Among his celebrity subjects were Robert Mitchum, Fred Astaire and Steve McQueen, who became a friend.

"It helped that I had a 'soft,' not 'aggressive' personality," he told The Post. "So whenever it was a difficult assignment -- Streisand, Sinatra, George C. Scott, Anita O'Day -- they'd say, 'Get Clax, he can do it.' "

A psychology major in college, he used his insights into human nature to calm the often prickly or troubled personalities who were his subjects, from Marlene Dietrich to Judy Garland. In a 1995 interview with the Irish Times, he recalled that the first thing McQueen said to him was, "I hate photographers. Stay in the background."

Mr. Claxton had no intention of staying in the background, so one day he parked his Porsche on the film-studio lot beside McQueen's Ferrari. The two admired each other's cars, and Mr. Claxton ended up having dinner in the star's dressing room and teaching McQueen how to control the camera.

The photographer shadowed the actor for the next six years, producing photographs that captured McQueen's love of auto racing. He also captured more relaxed moments, as when McQueen was holding a pastry and licking his sticky fingers while reading a film script.

Mr. Claxton won many fashion assignments in the 1960s and collaborated with his wife, model Peggy Moffitt, on images featuring the topless bathing suit designs of Rudi Gernreich.

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