A cut above the rest
Steven Klein is not just a glossy image-maker for the stars; his work can go straight for the jugular, finds Tim Teeman
Great, I’m meeting Steven Klein. This should be juicy. He’s one of five photographers in the National Portrait Gallery’s forthcoming Face of Fashion show alongside Mert Atlas and Marcus Piggott, Corinne Day (the originator of heroin chic back in the Nineties), Paolo Reversi, and Mario Sorrenti. Yes, there’s lots of Kate Moss, especially with her kit off.
Klein’s work stands out. With the others it’s about the clothes, the look, the sell. With Klein you’re really not looking at the threads but at the souped-up, camped-up images. If fashion photography can legitimately aspire to art, then he is operating at the apex. He pictures Madonna in black bondage pants, her back to the camera, wielding a whip in front of a horse; Justin Timberlake snarls convincingly, face bloodied, flames licking the sides of the picture; and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play out some perverse take on the idealised American family of the 1950s.
Lots to gas about, then. But Klein cancelled. Madonna wanted to see him, apparently. To be cancelled “for Madonna” simultaneously made me feel perversely proud while also reminding me of my place in life’s greater food chain. So we spoke by phone. He was in Londonto photograph “Elton and David, then I’m doing something with Naomi Campbell and then a project with Madonna again.”
The surprising thing is, even with this client list, Klein, 43, doesn’t sound arrogant. He lives in New York, but inevitably spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, as his super-casual, monotone drawl suggests. He grew up in a small town outside Boston, hating school because “there wasn’t much making art going on there”, and started taking pictures when he was 13. “I was making pots, sculpture, I loved all the visual arts; photography was the first one that woke up my eyes.” He says he was “a loser, a bad kid, I wasn’t really into anything and then someone gave me a camera and I found that this was the thing I wanted to do.”
An early inspiration was Diane Arbus, famed for her lustrous and provocative black-and-white portraits of those shunted to the fringes of society. “I loved her simplicity, her empathy for the subject. She gave everyone dignity and photographed them in their place while lifting them out of that place, too.”
As a teenager he went to life-draw-ing classes, “but I didn’t know a lot by any other artists. I wasn’t influenced by seeing too much. For my work to-day, I accept my photographs look like paintings, but I don’t reference or duplicate other paintings when I make them. The painting is in me.” He went on to study art, though, and became a painter, “but I didn’t want to be on my own so I was forced into being a photographer”.
Klein doesn’t tell celebrities what to do or what he wants. He never tells them to take their clothes off or look a certain way, he says. A celebrity will approach him, tell him that they click with his vision, and they dream up a concept together, a performance. That’s quite something: the world of truly stellar celebrity is patrolled by sharky agents who want their clients to look good. But Klein’s edginess is perhaps acceptable. It hints at a dark side to the celebs, but with such overt theatricality that the brand won’t be genuinely endangered.
However, Klein likes to “deconstruct” not only what we expect from the particular subject but also the notion of what a portrait is. He says the National Portrait Gallery initially balked from exhibiting arguably his most shocking picture — Kevin Federline, Britney’s ex, with his throat slashed — but “to me, a portrait is a representation of a person and a slash across a throat is the equivalent of a brushstroke”.
It wasn’t a big deal for Federline to appear like this, says Klein nonchalantly. “It’s like a classical painting. The slash, the make-up, is a mask that reveals who the person is. For me, the break in the skin shows that all portraits are lies. To see through the skin is to see someone’s reality.” The violence of the picture is made more intriguing when you consider what happened to Federline next: dumped by Spears and fast-tracked to public enemy number one.
The picture of David Beckham with the footballer staring poutily and topless on a hotel bed is also suggestive. “Like Brad he’s completely at ease with his masculinity, his femininity, his sexuality. With being looked at. Men work on their bodies. They want to be looked at. At one point he said, ‘Maybe I should put on some black nail polish’. ”
Madonna, says Klein, is “very clear, surprisingly focused” in conceiving innovative pictures. “When you think about it you never see her back, you rarely see anyone’s back in a photograph and it’s fascinating to show its muscular structure”.
As for Pitt, “he doesn’t just stand in the corner. He starts playing, acting. The shots of him and Angelina were based on an idea he had. He was inspired by the portraits of old-style families in Life magazine. It’s meant to be set around the time of John Kennedy’s assassination and the sudden sense of fracture there was then.”
The shots are sexy and sly. Jolie and Pitt play a dysfunctional couple toying with guns, their relationship visibly fraying. “There's an ambiguity to the shots, it’s up to the viewer to read them,” Klein says, though insists he’s not out to shock or deliberately create controversy. “But I don’t like quiet, romantic pictures. I like confronting taboos, playing with popular culture. I don’t overanalyse or overconceive what I do.”
Next, Klein wants to move away from shooting celebrities, “and get out into the field” shooting reportage for three forthcoming books: one future subject “strips for Jesus”. He will also make a film with Madonna. So, friends and future associates, stand by to be cancelled.