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.
“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.”
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.