In a grimly lit video-editing bay on West 18th Street, Steven Klein is hovering above proofs of his most recent photographs of Brad Pitt—Brad in pasty makeup that makes him look like an albino, Brad in a straitjacket, Brad shirtless and in a sensuous stretch that shows off his rippling back—as flames that Klein has created for Madonna flicker on a nearby monitor. The editing bay, stocked with computer-generated-imaging hardware that’s churning through the billions of ones and zeroes that will add up to the video backdrop for Madonna’s upcoming tour, hums ominously.
“This is a CGI animation,” Klein says, pointing to a corner of one flaming screen that will debut in front of a live audience when the tour kicks off on May 24. “It’s not real. This back area is made up of, like, five different pieces assembled together.” The work—which will be projected onto massive, multistory screens at Madison Square Garden and other venues—is a dramatically expanded outgrowth of Klein’s 2003 Deitch gallery installation, titled “X-STaTIC PRO=CeSS.” That show featured twitchy images of Madonna in unlikely, revealing yogic poses, all taken in stark interiors. “These layers are going to make the whole piece,” he continues. “It’s going to be like a moving painting, in a way.”
Beyond multitasking with Pitt and Madonna, Klein is, arguably, the most influential (and busy) fashion photographer in the world right now, even while his career seems to be all about flouting the rules of fashion photography. The Pitt images, for instance, appear in a 62-page portfolio that takes up the entire feature well of the May-June issue of the Italian glossy L’Uomo Vogue—and the vast majority of them don’t have clothing credits, in defiance of fashion-magazine imperatives.
Klein has also made a career of flouting the usual rules of celebrity portraiture. The stars he shoots often seem to be more at the service of his art than their own image management. In positioning himself as a sort of post–Annie Leibovitz auteur, he’s been able to persuade stars to pose for intensely private, erotically charged—and sometimes not particularly flattering—images that he then releases into the most public and mainstream of forums.
“It’s like, maybe, you know, Brad and Madonna are two of the biggest icons in the world,” says Klein. “But I don’t connect with them because of their standing. I’ve connected with them because of their way of morphing into my pictures, and being willing to go there with me.”
“There,” in a Steven Klein image, is typically a place with a dark, foreboding aura. Sometimes the mood of his photographs is so emotionally isolating that it can seem like he conducts all his shoots in airtight bunkers buried under a desert floor somewhere. The paradox of Klein’s status as a superstar photographer of superstars—he’s created risqué, iconic images of not just Pitt and Madonna but Justin Timberlake, Ethan Hawke, Naomi Campbell, and others—is that he’s successfully selling a darker version of celebrity at a particularly idiotic, giddy juncture in pop culture, just as US Weekly is flying off newsstands and the treacly showtunery of American Idol is topping the ratings.
If Steven Klein’s photographs are often punishing takes on pop culture—and on the pop artists themselves—it may be that we all secretly wish to be punished for what we love. The fashion industry, likewise, seems eager to submit to Klein’s gentle sadism: It’s when he’s cared the least about fashion that he’s been most celebrated as a fashion photographer.
“The thing that gets frustrating about fashion,” Klein says, “is that as a photographer you always want to grab on to something that reflects what’s happening in the world, what’s in the street. You don’t want to just fabricate these dream lives of these idealistic Barbie dolls that don’t even exist anymore.”
Mindlessly glam fashion photography is a dead or dying form, and Steven Klein, the anti-fashion fashion photographer, helped strangle it.
If Bruce Weber’s hard-bodied, shiny, happy Abercrombie boys and girls set the tone for sexually charged fashion photography for much of the nineties, and Terry Richardson’s trashy, bisexual leer helped usher in the new millennium, then Steven Klein’s sexually ambiguous, quasi-commercial transgressiveness is the new fashion frisson. There’s a seedy glamour to his work, but it’s a carefully calculated seediness: never so out-there as to be alienating, and enhanced with the best lighting and sets Condé Nast money can buy.