A straitjacket that emancipates—the S&M subtext commenting on the celebrity’s bondage to image—is a telling motif in Klein’s work. He reexposes celebrities who have built their careers, in large part, through exhibitionism. But it’s reexposure that’s meant to be liberating—collaborative rather than compulsory. For an afternoon, or a day, or a couple of days, the burden of crass, run-of-the-mill image management is lifted. And in the end, of course, these outré collaborations do plenty to edge up the identities of stars who might otherwise grow stale in the popular imagination.
Klein’s fine-art take on fashion and celebrity and pop culture and everything else predates even his days studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in his home state. “I wanted to be a painter ever since I was, like, 12 or 13 years old. I did ceramics and pottery at the same time—and I built a darkroom in my parents’ basement but I didn’t really want to be a photographer.” (He became one, officially, in Paris, post-RISD, when he got an assignment to shoot for Dior.)
The fashion-photography thing, despite his more tactile interests, happened early. “When I was in fifth grade, I fell in love with this girl who was in sixth grade. We went out for a while. I became obsessed with her and photographed her for many years. She had a very kind of American Indian look: She used to wear her hair in a long braid, had very dark olive skin, very big scorpion eyes—dark eyes. And she had a really distinctive fashion sense. She was the first one who showed me a European Vogue or French Vogue, before I had any idea what fashion was.”
Klein, it turns out, recently tracked her down. “I said to myself, Wouldn’t it be great to photograph her again? My childhood muse—the first girl that I photographed, the girl that I was obsessed with.”
I ask where she is now.
“She still lives in Rhode Island. She’s a hairdresser. She said she would do it. But I said, ‘Can you send me pictures?’ And I never received any. I have to call her back and see what happened.”
“I put these pictures out there with only good intentions, in a neutral way. But I find that people react based on their fears and desires.”
Maybe Klein’s desire to shoot an ordinary person has something to do with his own bondage to the celebrity-industrial complex—indeed, the mechanics of what has become the Steven Klein machine. In the rented editing suite on 18th Street, he talks a bit about the increasingly elaborate nature of his shoots: “It can get impersonal. The more people you have around—walking in, interfering, distracting—it changes the relationship you have with the person you’re photographing. I still think there should be this simple idea of subject and photographer.”
But the narrative sensibility of even his stillest still photography suggests a filmic future for Klein—above and beyond his video work for Madonna. “I bet by next year,” Joe Lalli tells me, “he starts working on a movie. And it’s going to be with a big actor. He’s going to do strange dramas, a lot of atmosphere and stuff—David Cronenberg stuff.” W creative director Dennis Freedman says, “I could easily see Steven working in film. In his fashion work, his photography, he thinks cinematically; he thinks about the whole entirety of the set.”
Meanwhile, Klein continues to push his luck in print, particularly with his European commissions. For Dsquared2, the Canadian-by-way-of-Italy label, he just completed a campaign—notably running in European fashion publications but not in the U.S.—that involves, in Klein’s words, “the idea of women in power. It’s about these women tying up men in the woods, kind of stripping them down and raping them and stuff like that.”
He says this to me with a certain flatness as he shows me a series of slightly hilarious, slightly scary pictures of woodland nymphs gone nymphomaniacal. Gorgeous boys—dressed and undressed—are getting bound and gagged by similarly attired—and unattired—girls. He continues: “So I got a call from my agent saying, you know, ‘I spoke to such and such editor, and a lot of people think these ads are kind of vulgar, and you’re going to get a lot of people afraid to work with you,’ like, serious fashion people. The funny thing is, I put these pictures out there with only good intentions, in a neutral way, but I find that what happens is that people react based on their fears and desires. A lot of times with strong images, while maybe someone in the fashion business would say that’s, like, too homoerotic or whatever, you show it to a normal kid on the street, and they look at it, and they say, ‘Wow, that’s cool, man.’ ”
There’s a guilelessness to Klein’s disconnected, inchoate talk about his work that suggests that many of his recurring visuals—bondage, claustrophobic interiors, spilled blood, implied violence—emerge, unfiltered, from his subconscious. And it sort of doesn’t matter whether he wants to, or is even able to, articulate deeper meanings: His key constituencies connect with them all the same.
They connect, and if all goes as planned, they buy—new wardrobes, movies tickets, CDs—with Klein standing in the dim background, coolly fanning the flames of desire.