“Steven’s edge is what distinguishes the work,” says Susan Kismaric, a photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “The way it examines the dark side, the side of things that we tend not to want to focus on. I mean, I realize that sex sells clothes, but his is a sexuality that is much more palpable and realistic.”
Kismaric is one of the curators behind MoMA’s current show “Fashioning Fiction,” which largely examines what happens when fine-art photographers like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman get assignments to shoot fashion. (The answer: fashionable fine art.) As a result of the show, there’s been a lot of talk this season about the distinctions (or lack thereof) between art and fashion photography. The collective conclusion—the boundaries have become so blurry that they’re practically meaningless—is hardly surprising.
Klein isn’t in the show, which might be for the best. He finds the “art” discourse to be beside the point. Madonna, a frequent collaborator of Klein’s, e-mails in to say that she considers him to be “an artist, not a fashion photographer,” but Klein insists, “I never consider what I do art. I never will, never will.”
Which is not to say that he has some sort of creative inferiority complex. Klein reassures me that “my whole thing is, nothing’s better, nothing’s more. Art isn’t better than fashion photography. With fashion photography and art, people have the same kind of hype about their work. But to say that it all means nothing doesn’t mean you have to take your work less seriously.”
“Great fashion photography not only understands the clothes and makes them look beautiful and of-the-moment,” says Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, “but it also brings a twist that catches the eye and captures the imagination. In the case of Steven Klein, you give him a dress, and he will give you a girl in a dress with a robot in a garden. It’s clever, conceptual, and ultimately lyrical.” Klein routinely shoots intricate tableaux for Vogue, as part of his relationship with Condé Nast/Fairchild, which also makes him a contributor for L’Uomo Vogue and W.
With his boyishly shaggy haircut, slight build, and unremarkable clothing (jeans and T-shirts, usually), Klein, 38, blends into his surroundings. In fact, if I hadn’t already met him, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of the crowd of workers assembled in a chilly, abandoned warehouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a recent Vogue shoot. A half-dozen emaciated models in nothing but Calvin Klein underwear are huddled around a heat lamp during a break, smoking cigarettes, while a team of burly lighting technicians bustles about, wielding giant umbrella-shaped flash canopies. Today’s shoot stars art promoter Yvonne Force. One of the talents she’s promoting—Swedish performance artist Tobias Bernstrup—will appear alongside her in the image, while another one of her artists, Vanessa Beecroft, will appear in spirit, her work represented by the models.
There are close to two dozen people in the dank warehouse space, and this all-day production has the feel of the most organized indie-movie shoot ever. Klein is seated next to the old-timey-looking eight-by-ten-inch-format camera, and after surveying the scene, he occasionally squeezes off a bunch of shots. But the real action on this set occurs between takes, at a folding table set up nearby. “Maybe we can build this out a bit,” Klein says quietly to his production designer, gesturing at a portion of the set as shown in a Polaroid test print. Throughout the day and into the evening, Klein spends most of his time silently staring at the images and rearranging bits and pieces of Polaroids. Watching him quietly move around the fragments to compose the ideal image brings to mind old-master underpaintings.
As the set is rearranged, Force gets her hair done up into a frightful bouffant. “Steven’s clearly the master of the photograph,” she says to me as the stylist makes the product in her hair sizzle with a curling iron. “But he’s so generous. I mean, the way he listens to everybody.”
Or the way he seems to listen. “Some people think this is an insult,” says Joe Lalli, a photographer and filmmaker who has been working as a creative consultant for Klein, “but to me it’s a compliment: Steven’s passive-aggressive. It’s like, he’ll almost look like he’s not saying much or reacting much, so people project on him. He’s almost like an empty screen.”
While Klein is able to make clothes—and women—look beautiful for Anna Wintour and other fashion editors, his work is often most vividly provocative when it features men. The Klein edge, MoMA’s Kismaric says, “is often sexual in content, or erotic—homosexual or sadomasochistic.”
Madonna calls Klein “an artist, not a fashion photographer,” but Klein says, “I never consider what I do art. I never will.”
In 1999, Klein shot the Fight Club–era Brad Pitt for a W portfolio, featuring two spreads of Pitt facedown on a concrete floor, pants pulled down to reveal almost his entire butt, in scenes that called to mind an imminent prison rape. In 2000, he shot a cover fashion feature titled “Nocturnal” for the Netherlands-based magazine Dutch that featured a male model exposing himself (shirt: Dolce & Gabbana) and then, several pages later, contemplating his own robust erection (no fashion credit).
For Arena Homme in 2001, Klein instantly transformed an ’N Sync pixie, then on the verge of a solo career, into the heartthrob he is now with porny, poolside, shirtless shots: Justin Timberlake grabbing his crotch and wielding a squirt gun with surprisingly convincing menace. He shot model Travis Fimmel in 2002 and then soccer star Fredrik Ljungberg in 2003—both for famously crotch-centric Calvin Klein ads.
And now there are Klein’s new Pitt images. One recent evening with Klein, as we’re thumbing through the L’Uomo Vogue images, I wonder aloud about the straitjacket image of Pitt. “Where does the bondage stuff come from?” I ask.
“That just happened,” Klein says. “I never really thought about . . . ” He trails off.
“Like this, you had . . . ?” I gesture at the straitjacket in the photograph. “I mean, specifically, when you bring that bondage theme into shooting Madonna or shooting Brad . . .
“The thing is, Brad—I think Brad likes to be hidden, in a way. He likes not to be, he doesn’t like to be . . . As much as he’s in front of the camera, I feel like he likes to hide. And I like to obscure people. Maybe you read it as bondage, but to me, it’s like obscuring a subject. Then people don’t get distracted by the external mask of, say, a movie star.”