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William Claxton Photographer Helped Make Chet Baker Famous


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William Claxton, the master photographer whose images of Chet Baker helped fuel the jazz trumpeter's stardom in the 1950s and whose fashion photographs of his wife modeling a topless swim suit were groundbreaking years later, has died. He was 80.

Claxton died from complications of congestive heart failure Saturday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his wife, actress and model Peggy Moffitt Claxton, told The Times.

In a career spanning more than a half century, Claxton also became well known for his work with celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, who became a close personal friend; but he gained his foremost public recognition for his photographs of jazz performers including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz. But it was his photographs of Baker that helped teach him the true meaning of the word photogenic.

I was up all night developing when the face appeared in the developing tray. 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!
William Claxton

Claxton observed that over the years he had taken photographs of some ordinary-looking guys whose faces would just pop out on film. He said that's what Baker had. His 1951 photograph of Baker started a relationship that continued for the next five or six years as he chronicled Baker's rise to fame as one of the most visible jazz performers of the decade.

Claxton called photography “jazz for the eyes" and tried to capture the often dynamic tension between the artist, the instrument and the music.

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. I didn't want to stage my pictures.

That's where jazz and photography have always come together for me. They're alike in their improvisation and their spontaneousness. They happen at the same moment that you're hearing something and you're seeing something, and you record it and it's frozen forever.
William Claxton

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