William Claxton: Photographic Memory
by Garrett White
Photography is a form of memory. A century ago, the French novelist Emile Zola wrote, "You cannot claim to have really seen anything until you have photographed it." He might have said, you can't claim to have really remembered anything until you've seen a photograph. A photographic image, a work of art as a record of a moment in time, is the way we remember our world. Memory, of course, is itself a work of art. And what we see in a photograph is always a mix of what we bring to it - how we feel about the subject, how we respond to what we see - and what the photographer has created out of light and movement and place.
The pattern of a life can be captured in a photograph. Not the whole ineffable life, to be sure, but something we recognize as essential. We know this instinctively, even in the memory of an image, especially of someone we love: a familiar gesture, a certain glance, a well-wrought pose, a moment, gone forever, of expressive will and human emotion. The life expressed in Photographic Memory is William Claxton's. In the early 1950s, while still in school at UCLA, Claxton began photographing musicians on the flourishing Los Angeles jazz scene. His subsequent history in jazz is well known. While still a student, he founded the record company Pacific Jazz with producer Richard Bock and went on to photograph (and often design) hundreds of album covers. His quintessential images of jazz musicians appeared in scores of magazines and have been shown in galleries and museums around the world. The body of work he created chronicles a whole trajectory of postwar American jazz, from its early years to bebop, West Coast Cool, and the flowering of free-form improvisation. When shooting in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he often photographed his subjects outside, bringing an intimacy to his images that said as much about his friendships with these artists as it did about the California light. He brought this same fresh approach to his photographs of musicians in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and other cities around the country.
Less well known is the fact that throughout his career Claxton has just as assiduously photographed people from all walks of life, both the famous - writers, actors, directors, composers, artists, and fashion designers - and the family and friends to whom he has been closest. Often there has been little distinction between the two. In a sense, he has always been a kind of neighborhood photographer, though later his neighborhood became the world. Many of the photographs shown in the gathering of pictures featured here - whether shot in a recording studio, on a Hollywood sound stage, or in the living rooms of his subjects - were taken within a few miles of Claxton's home at the top of Benedict Canyon above Beverly Hills.
A Pasadena kid who went to high school in Glendale, Claxton has been an insider in the world of L.A. art and entertainment for most of his adult life. He has always moved easily between jazz clubs, recording studios, the art scene, film sets, and the homes of the artists who became his friends. Above all, this work is about friendship. As a young man Claxton gravitated toward jazz musicians because of his precocious love of their music. That love was true enough to earn him lifelong friendships with many of those he photographed. (After a gig on Central Avenue, while still living with his parents, he brought Charlie Parker home for an early-morning dinner, as good an example as there is about how to reconcile life and art.) Later, he continued to be drawn to jazz musicians, I believe, because as a rule they don't care about pretense. For one thing, fakery interferes with the music. For another, they've most often been on the outside of polite society. As a result, they are who they are, take it or leave it. Style? It's all they've got. And if this book is first and foremost about friendship, it is next about style. Although genuinely too modest to admit it, Claxton is universally considered as gracious, funny, elegant, and stylish a man as you are likely to meet, and with enough charm and wit to have been at home in any Noel Coward play. He has always admired these qualities in others, especially in those who seem to have them effortlessly and in abundance, and it shows in the photographs - in the beauty of Gloria Swanson shopping with Claxton in an antique store, on the set with the eternally hip Steve McQueen, or in the image of a dapper Vincent Price at home with his renowned collection of art.
Although best known for his jazz photographs, Photographic Memory - a book-in-progress planned for publication in fall 2001 - reveals Claxton as a versatile artist whose subject is the human face and the human form. "The international languages of jazz and photography need no special education or sophistication to be enjoyed," he has said. "All I ask you to do is listen with your eyes." It's a request that can be applied to all of his work. And if we listen with our eyes - aware of the parallel between a photographer with his camera and a musician with his "ax" - what we see in Photographic Memory is the pattern of a life expressed, like that of any great musician, in pursuit of the truest notes.
Key to that life is the Peggy of these pages. Peggy Moffitt, Claxton's wife of more than forty years, has been a pivotal influence in his life and art. Their work together began with shooting album covers and continued with the fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, Claxton as photographer, Moffitt as model and muse to them both. Her reputation as a groundbreaking model who contributed to the crafting of the images in which she appeared does only partial justice to the depth of the lifelong collaboration between the two. The love they have brought to their art is evident here, and the memories offered in these photographs are shared between them. More often than not, as you will see, they are our memories too.
Garrett White is a writer and producer in a variety of media, from commercial and academic publications to documentary film. Since January 1999 he has served as Director of Publications for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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