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William Claxton

Born: October 12, 1927 in Pasadena, California
Died: October 11, 2008 in Los Angeles, California

Iconic photographer

Copyright © 2008 

William Claxton once called photography "jazz for the eyes" and he was a pioneer in bringing the two artforms together. He died of congestive heart failure at 80 after a long career as a fashion and entertainment photographer whose images include some of the most iconic of the past 60 years.

Claxton's mother and older brother were musicians, but he lacked the patience for lessons, preferring instead to collect records and listen to his father's big band recordings. By the age of 12 he was attending concerts in downtown Los Angeles, sometimes attired in one of his father's suits to avoid being refused entry. His ever-present camera helped, too. One of his early photographic missions to L.A.'s jazz clubs brought him into contact with Charlie Parker, who he brought home for breakfast with his parents.

During the 1950s, Claxton worked for Pacific Jazz Records, photographing and designing album covers. Among his most-famous images was a set of brooding shots of young trumpeter Chet Baker taken in 1951. Baker became a friend, and Claxton helped popularize him with a series of photography sessions that heightened the trumpeter's image as a troubled man with movie star looks.

Claxton was popular with real actors, too, in particular Steve McQueen -- the subject of one of the photographer's books -- with whom he shared a love of fast, exotic cars. Among his other books were Jazz: William Claxton and Jazzlife, which included powerful images of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz and others. Many of his jazz portraits stand out because they took the artists outside their normal environs. Premier among these shots is his famous photo of Sonny Rollins posed as a gunfighter for the 1957 album Way Out West.

In the late '50s, Claxton turned to fashion photography. He married a model, Peggy Moffitt, and helped make both her and designer Rudi Gernreich famous when he photographed her wearing Gernreich's topless swimsuit.

During the '60s, he worked frequently for Life magazine, capturing memorable images of artists like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and McQueen.

He is survived by his wife of 49 years and their son Christopher.

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With 1 reader comment, posted November 21, 2008