“I’m everything that my pictures aren’t,” insists Steven Klein. After his three decades exploring endless, disturbing dark nights — days too — of the soul, I’m not sure how to take that declaration. From the outside, Klein’s life and work appear to be one. He looks like the 21st century equivalent of an 18th century libertine: the huge dogs, the stable of glorious stallions, the Bridgehampton estate (blessed with the name West Kill Farm) with its all-black interiors heavy on hardware feel like outward expressions of one of fashion’s most provocative and uncompromising aesthetics. One word: power. In person, Klein is slight-ish, soft-spoken, with curly hair and a goatee. But there is still no disconnect from the work. Dress him in a velvet frock coat and a pair of britches and I don’t see Francis Dashwood kicking him out of the Hellfire Club anytime soon. Spend some time paging through the hefty 450-page review of Klein’s career that Phaidon has just published, and you’ll see what I mean.
The book is not a conventional chronological survey. Images from some of Klein’s most memorable editorial work — including portfolios for W magazine such as Brad Pitt’s “Fight Club” (1998), Brad and Angelina’s “Case Study #13″ (2005) and Tom Ford’s “Valley of the Dolls” (2005), all of which have attained a peculiarly iconic status in the fashion world — are scattered throughout, seemingly at random. Dead centre is the “redhead” portrait of Pitt from 2004, like a death mask drenched in blood.
Klein says his editor Mark Holborn — best known for his books with Lucian Freud, William Eggleston and Nan Goldin — conceived of this one in its entirety, as a movie, with a beginning, middle and end, and certain scenes recurring back and forth. It all comes down to a single analogy Holborn makes, between shooting a picture and shooting a gun. Aim and shoot. “What excited me about working with Mark is that he saw this thread of violence in my work,” says Klein. “He feels it’s so relevant for today. We were doing a talk in Paris and he said, ‘Let’s show the hardest pictures and talk about those.’ That’s great. It gives me more of a sense of what I’m doing.”
And the hardest pictures are hard. Guns, knives, blood, bondage, the brute force of dominance, the pain of submission: they’re all stark tropes in Klein’s pictures. I only have to think of the directors whose work he echoes: Hitchcock, Lynch, Cronenberg, Haneke. There’s a prevailing air of menace. “I’m glad you’re saying that,” he acknowledges, “because you have a reaction to it. What happens when people say my work is too dark, too violent, is I say fashion and magazines are a little behind the times, because they’re not really reporting anything that’s journalistic anymore. They’re just showing a very idealistic view of a dress, which is no different than in the ‘30s and ‘40s when you had Cecil Beaton showing these idealised pictures of rich people in rich houses. I think the only people that were really radical were Avedon and Penn, who broke that ideal. And then in the ‘70s, it was Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton who asked, ‘How do we contradict fashion?’” It’s easy to draw lines between Klein and those earlier masters. Newton is a particular reference point. Klein pays homage to him in the book, with a photograph of Newton’s flower-decked death site on Sunset Boulevard.
Klein claims his work thrives on tension. He also calls it “my means of controlling an uncontrollable world.” And yet so much of his imagery seems to exalt chaos. Is this his way of defusing it? “I make an orderly chaos,” he says with a smile. “Instead of avoiding things, I like to address them.” But, he insists, not overtly. “It’s like, how do you implement things that are going on in the world without showing them in an obvious way? Whether it’s intentional or not, there are always hidden messages in my work. Being really honest, I’m not always really sure what they are. But sometimes — for instance, with Brad and Angelina, when we created that story with all the kids, it was just the beginning of their relationship — they became prophetic in a way.” The most notorious example of this in Klein’s career is surely the portrait he shot of Justin Timberlake for the cover of Arena Homme+ showing Timberlake, battered, bloody, in front of a burning American flag. The issue came out a few days before September 11, 2001. It was promptly removed from newsstands and pulped.
He can rationalise the extremes in his work as the simple practicalities of creating an arresting image. “I think you need to have something that’s dynamic in a picture. It could be warm, cool, dark, light.” He doesn’t use guns in his pictures anymore, but they used to be an easy way to create the tension he craved, the hard and soft, the metal against flesh. And if it wasn’t guns or knives, it was near-naked bodies posed provocatively.
If the content of these images is remarkably consistent, so is the context: the grim downtowns, the shadowy noir interiors, the clinical surgical facilities. Klein traces the latter back to the time he spent in a leg brace as a child. Which immediately begs the question about what other childhood experiences might have shaped his adult obsessions. He says he’s been fascinated by guns since he was a kid, when he found his father’s in a dresser drawer. The frisson of being caught! Same thing at the age of 13, on a family holiday in Miami, when Klein borrowed his father’s Instamatic and snuck into a local strip club. (The photo he took is reproduced in Holborn’s intro.) “I was always interested in peeping on people,” he says. “I do like criminals,” he also concedes. “Yeah, I do like people that are more streetwise. Growing up, I was more attracted to hanging out with people that were bad, like dealers or people that had been in prison, that grew up on the street.”
And yet, Klein hasn’t stepped straight out of a John Waters fantasia, even if it sounds a little that way. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was a mass market fashion wholesaler. His mother worked for the Schools Department. There was an older sister who beat him up a lot. (“Maybe that’s where it comes from,” Klein laughs). He studied painting at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design where he developed his obsession with the human form. That was also where Klein discovered Francis Bacon, another obsession. The meaty viscerality of Bacon’s paintings shadows his photography. I think of Caroline Trentini shivering in a meat locker hung with bloody carcasses for a Vogue story on skincare in winter.
Klein’s family has been completely supportive throughout his career. His mother, now 90, was the first person he showed the book to. “She is pretty straightforward and direct and I thought when I showed her the book she’d be the first to say, ‘Well, do you really think you should put a picture in with someone’s pussy out there?’ but she really didn’t. She was so proud of it.” In other words, Klein’s upbringing gave him nothing to rebel against. So I understand why he’s curious to know why he’s the way he is, especially when he’s never felt he needed therapy.
“I always thought it’d be really interesting to send all my pictures in a box to a criminal psychologist, because I’d like to find out myself,” he says. “I did try to search out why I was attracted to these kinds of images. There’s a part of me that does look for excitement and danger. But the thing is, I’m probably too afraid to experience it myself. So I probably would say to you, growing up so isolated, I was extremely intrigued with being voyeuristic and watching people. So that makes sense. I like observing people. I like people that are exhibitionists, because I’m not an exhibitionist. I’m quite shy by nature, although I prefer to be around people that are more extroverted. I’m quite attracted to the idea of drama, not in my life, but I do like the idea of dramatic people. I get along great with the most difficult people in this business because I’m probably a very empathetic, compassionate person. I’m everything that my pictures aren’t.”
There, in a nutshell, is the root of the hold that Steven Klein has on the fashion industry. He can make the most famous people in the world do seemingly anything. Like Jackass for pop cultural icons. Is that Madonna reenacting Marilyn Monroe’s death scene? Brad Pitt in the aftermath of male rape? Brangelina having a particularly toxic domestic fight? Kim Kardashian naked outside a motel? One frame from Klein’s book lingers with me because it so wildly counters its subject’s public image. The always cyborg-immaculate fashion plate and perennial Klein muse Daphne Guinness is photographed in Mustique, though the glamorous locale is utterly irrelevant. She is sprawled on the ground in desperate straits, achingly vulnerable, beehive akimbo, lipstick smeared. If you spent your entire existence in the spotlight’s glare with never a solitary hair out of place, maybe you too would crave the licence that Steven Klein gives you to let yourself go.
Such umbilical complicity between photographer and subject clearly lies at the core of his work. It makes you look again at the people he has gone back to over and over again in his work. “Because they’re all unconventional,” says Klein. “Some people I photograph I feel like I could have gone to art school with. I always have an affinity with somebody. Brad loves photography. So there’s an affinity I have with a person beyond what they do. And people just by nature have worked, and it’s like alchemy. People ask ‘How do I know?’ and I always answer, ‘I don’t, until it’s in front of my camera.’ I’m only a channel, and my camera’s another channel.”
I would say that Klein’s favourite models look like they’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth. He would rather consider them as survivors. “I like people who are powerful, who overcome their obstacles, people who become empowered by their tragedy. They’re creative people and they use their creativity to pave their way. I don’t see them as people who’ve been persecuted, I see them as winners.” But it’s striking how often he masks or obscures their faces, which are, after all, some of the most famous faces in the world. That ties in to how Klein feels about portraiture. He dismisses as bullshit the bromide that the eyes are the windows to the soul. “The flesh is just the clothing of the soul. What’s a real portrait? What’s ‘truth’ in pictures? My book was originally going to be called Based on Fiction, because I feel like if you’re basing your pictures on fiction, then you have the privilege of doing anything you want.” And what he wants to do is treat his celebrity subjects as the actors they are. So it makes sense that they agree to his challenging scenarios.
Still, he was curious how Madonna, his most frequent subject, would respond to the fact that she appeared multiple times in his book with her face covered. “I sent her the pictures that I was gonna publish and I expected her comment to be, ‘Well, where’s my face?’ But she only wanted one taken out, the cover of W magazine for the “Blame it on Rio” story, where she was dressed in underwear wearing sunglasses. She thought it looked too commercial because she was staring at the camera. She had no problem with any of the other images.” Like her as Marilyn, dead in bed. Or as Frances Farmer, being carted away by the cops. I just said it. Working with Steven Klein is clearly a liberating experience for imagebound superstars.
At which point, it’s worth revisiting one of Klein’s portfolios, this one for Interview magazine, when he was commissioned to do a cover shoot of someone he admired who would then interview him in turn. It’s not a story he’s told too often but he feels it illustrates his method. Klein chose Nicole Kidman, and the typically outré inspiration for his shoot was a cultish film from the early ‘60s called Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker as a college girl who is brutally raped as she is leaving the library one night. Given the period, the rape itself was necessarily rendered in a more ambiguous way but Klein loved that, along with the monochrome tonality of the scene. He storyboarded it, sent it to the magazine, who forwarded it to Kidman’s “people.” The answer was a resounding and unsurprising NO.
“So here I was on a Saturday in New York and she comes into the studio by herself. And I prepared Karl [Templer, stylist] to have this one outfit ready. I built a whole set that was like a park scene and I just sat down with her and I said, ‘I was inspired by this movie. It’s a rape scene.’ And here I have Tyson [Ballou, model] who’s my male muse. She didn’t know anything about Tyson before, that there’d even be another male in the idea of a big celebrity profile on the cover. Now that I think of it, it was probably a bit audacious — is that the right word? — but I don’t think that at the time because I really believe what I do is the right thing. I do believe that I’m making my movie. You know what I mean? So I sat down with her and I showed her some screen grabs and pictures and I explained to her how I love this film. And I was very inspired. I wanted to recreate that scene with her. And she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Some of the images from that shoot are in his book. You’re looking at others — and thinking of his mother’s reaction — and wondering if there were more extreme elements that never made the final cut. Klein sounds surprised himself when he says that Phaidon asked for only two images to be withdrawn.
None of the violence, none of the nudity, just two pictures that might be considered “blackface,” one from a Vogue Paris story about tanning, with a picture of blonde model Lara Stone, the other from an issue of Polaroids that Klein made for Vogue Italia just before editor Franca Sozzani died. “It was actually a Black model, and we just made her skin darker. It wasn’t even one of my favourite pictures, but they were just concerned more about ‘blackface’ than anything else. It wasn’t too bad a critique, considering all the other things that are in the book.” Which is, if nothing else, a telling gauge of the shifts in cultural sensitivities over the past few decades.
Klein unwittingly offers another when he says this: “I have a seven year old son, and I wasn’t really sure whether I was gonna show the book to him or not, He had his friend over, she’s probably six, and then all of a sudden I found them on the couch, going through my whole book, and they’d been there for about 30 minutes. And for them to have that kind of attention at that age … they studied every picture. At the end, about an hour later, he said, ‘I really liked the book’, and then all he said was, ‘Why do you photograph so many naked people?’ And I told him, ‘Well, because I don’t really like clothes that much.’ And that was it. He didn’t question anything.” Not the bloodied broken noses, not the cut throats.
So I have to ask what sex meant for Klein growing up, given the aggressively transgressive role it often plays in his work. Where was it? When was it? “I guess in all the wrong places, with all the wrong people. And it still is,” he continues. “That’s what’s exciting about it. I’m not saying gratuitous sex because I do believe in love. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s a realistic ideal living in 2022. I don’t know if you can survive love.” Still, he insists he’s had it in his life. “I know what it feels like. I think everybody needs to feel love at some point. People would expect that I’m very kinky, but actually I’m very traditional in my relationships.”
There’s something else Klein says when he’s talking about his pictures that I feel could apply equally to his life. “What the real story is, is up to the viewer. I’m always curious what people think is going on in the pictures. I’m quite amused by that, and sometimes I set up scenarios that have a certain amount of ambiguity so people can read them. Like when you read a story, you get a visual in your mind. I’m kind of doing the reverse, you’re reading my picture and you’re getting a story.” His story, with his dogs, his horses, his regular cast of characters, like the Steven Klein Players, reenacting his obsessions. He may well insist, “I’m everything my pictures aren’t,” but he isn’t fooling anyone.