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The Dream Team

Rudi Gernreich designed the clothes that Peggy Moffitt modeled and photographer William Claxton immortalized -- when he wasn't chronicling the jazz scene

September 19, 2004|MARK EDWARD HARRIS | Mark Edward Harris last wrote for the magazine on the Athens Olympics marathon route.

William Claxton is best known for five decades of photographing the greats of the jazz world. Less known is Claxton's fashion work with Rudi Gernreich, whose topless bathing suit and other designs made him one of the top fashion names of the 1960s. Gernreich was using Claxton's wife, Peggy Moffitt, extensively as a model, and Claxton became the third member of the team, picked by Gernreich to shoot his creations for magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Cosmopolitan from the mid-'60s until Gernreich's death in 1985.

Many memorable music photographs came from 1960, when Claxton, who had grown up in the San Gabriel Valley, worked with German musicologist Joachim-Ernst Berendt to photograph the music scene throughout the United States--from backwoods hillbillies to rural church choirs to marching bands in New Orleans. The initial result was "Jazz Life," published in 1961. "Clax," as he is known in the music world, continued to specialize in jazz musicians, creating photographs that put the viewer in a special seat in the recording studio or the front row of a smoke-filled jazz club.

Many of Claxton's photographs from the music, celebrity and fashion worlds are on display through Oct. 16 at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.

HOW DID THE FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY COME ABOUT?

When I met my wife Peggy Moffitt in the fall of 1958. She was a young actress and very into fashion. I realized that she should be a fashion model not an actress--she might enjoy it more, and she thought so too. I introduced her to fashion photographers here in Los Angeles, and she started working for top designers such as Gustave Tassell and Rudi Gernreich. She said I should be shooting Rudi's shots.

DO YOU APPROACH FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY DIFFERENTLY FROM CELEBRITY AND JAZZ WORK?

I liked to shoot in studios, usually, with a plain, clean background to show off the dress. I used very simple lighting coming from over my head at an angle.

HOW HAS FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY CHANGED?

Fashion pictures nowadays have more to do with mood and atmosphere and attitude, and the clothes are sort of secondary. As I say this, that's already changing back. For a long time, from the late '80s and all through the '90s, it was mostly the mood, what kind of scene was going on, lifestyles. Now it's coming back again to the style I like and the style I shot in, where the clothes were the important thing.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR STRONGEST WORK?

I feel my jazz images are my strongest work because that's where my heart and soul are. I really studied the music, loved the musicians, and hung out with them so much I think I really knew how to capture them at the right time. I still play their music all the time.

HOW DID YOUR INTEREST IN JAZZ COME ABOUT?

I studied piano but didn't have the patience for it. My older brother played piano, my mother was a musician, we always had music around the house. I collected records, especially jazz. At 12 years old, I would take a bus to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. I'd go backstage and meet people like Duke Ellington and get to know them. When I got old enough I would go to the jazz clubs and shoot pictures just for my own love of music.

HOW DID THESE EARLY VENTURES EVOLVE INTO A CAREER?

While I was in college I met Richard Bock, who was starting Pacific Jazz Records. He hired me as a photographer. I'd been studying graphic design so I started designing his albums as well. This is while I was at UCLA, majoring in psychology and minoring in art.

WERE YOU ABLE TO INCORPORATE YOUR STUDY OF PSYCHOLOGY IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY?

I did indeed. I had taken several courses which involved interview techniques, so I learned quite a bit about how to get around difficult people.

WORKING WITH A PERSON IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA IS SORT OF LIKE FISHING. IF YOU PULL TOO HARD YOU CAN BREAK THE LINE.

A lot of it is your own projection. My own personality is such that I don't threaten people who are unguarded or suspicious. When I started shooting for LIFE, I got a reputation for shooting the tough assignment people like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen. They didn't feel threatened, therefore I established a rapport pretty quickly with them. Also, I was very straight and honest with them. I didn't do anything devious and I promised I'd never let a bad photo go out on them. They liked that assurance.

WHY WAS SINATRA CONSIDERED TOUGH?

He didn't like photographers interrupting him, catching him in bad positions. I was assigned to photograph him at a recording session. I made a point of talking with him before photographing him. "Is it OK to do this?" "Is it OK to do that?" He appreciated that. He was cautious but he was friendly. I showed him pictures a few days later which he liked a lot. I ended up doing some of his record covers.

WHAT ABOUT STREISAND?

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