Famous Photographer and Former Motor Trend Art Director William Claxton Passes
October 14, 2008
Legendary photographer and long-time Motor Trend Art Director William Claxton has died. Claxton was most famous for his work with jazz musicians and is credited with helping to launch Chet Baker to stardom in the 1950s as well as previously serving as Motor Trend's Art Director for over a decade. Claxton died of complications from congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 80 years old.
"For the photographer, the camera is like a jazz musician's ax. It's the tool that you would like to be able to ignore, but you have to have it to convey your thoughts and whatever you want to express through it," Claxton told jazz writer Don Heckman in an interview many years ago.
Claxton was born in Pasadena, California, on October 12, 1927 and became enamored with photography and jazz at a young age. He spent a great deal of time at clubs and concert halls around Southern California photographing jazz performers for fun. Claxton would eventually start college at UCLA, only to leave it when Pacific Jazz Records founder Richard Bock hired him as a photographer. In 1951, he would take a photograph of up-and-coming jazz star Chet Baker that would begin a relationship where Claxton would chronicle Baker's rise to fame over the next six years.
"I was up all night developing when the face appeared in the developing tray," Claxton told the Irish Times in 2005. "A tough demeanor and a good physique but an angelic face with pale white skin and, the craziest thing, one tooth missing -- he'd been in a fight. I thought, my God, that's Chet Baker."
Claxton would later photograph many more jazz greats, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Gets, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Later, working for Life magazine, Claxton would photograph Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand and Steve McQueen. Through their mutual love of cars, motorcycles and racing, Claxton and McQueen became close friends and Claxton would later release a book of images of McQueen titled "Steve McQueen."
Claxton is also famous for a photo shoot of his wife, Peggy Moffitt Claxton, in which she posed topless in a swimsuit by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich.
"That was a big family decision," Claxton told Heckman. "Whew. Was I going to let my wife show her breasts in public? We hassled about it for a long time. Finally, we decided to employ nepotism. Only I could photograph it, we would have control of the pictures and Peggy would never model the suit in public. And it worked out OK. The pictures were tasteful, I thought, Peggy looked great, and it was historically a breakthrough for women, that they could feel free enough to show the beauty of their breasts."
From 1977 to 1990, Claxton served as the Art Director for Motor Trend magazine. Thanks to his experience in photographing musicians and fashion, Claxton brought a fresh style of artwork and photography to Motor Trend. Claxton's photos were often much more artistic than those found in other car magazines and would feature unusual props, such as live animals. Claxton is fondly remembered for his unique approach to automotive photography and, as one staff member put it, being "a blast to work with."
Claxton is survived by his wife of 49 years, his sister Colleen Lewis, his son Christopher and many nieces and nephews. A memorial is being planned but has not yet been announced. From the entire staff here at Motor Trend, our condolences to Claxton's family. William Claxton will be missed by all of us.
Source: The Los Angeles Times