What do you get when you combine a great American actor with a great American photographer? Arguably the coolest celebrity photo book ever published.
Which is only fitting when the actor happens to be Steve McQueen, the cinematic icon who redefined the word "cool" during the 1960s, and the photographer is William Claxton, who photographed many of the hippest record covers in jazz history. The two men shared a close friendship during the early '60s, a period in which Claxton photographed McQueen extensively, both at work on film sets and at play between films.
This kind of access would be impossible today, when movie stars' contact with the media is meted out in small, rigidly controlled portions. The typical celebrity image that results is notable only for its vacuity. In contrast, Claxton didn't need to rely on the whims of some handler to photograph McQueen, who would often phone Claxton early in the morning to invite him on motorcycle racing excursions in the desert. The two men also shared a passion for fast cars, and would frequently tool around Los Angeles in McQueen's Jaguar XK-SS.
On such occasions, McQueen let down his guard and revealed to Claxton's trusted camera facets of his character less familiar to the general public than the uber-cool persona his warmth and empathy, his emotional vulnerability, his mischievous sense of humor. These qualities are also evident in the pictures made on the sets of early McQueen films. Claxton shows the star joyously embracing a friend from his early hardscrabble years as an aspiring actor in New York; sharing a tender between-takes moment with his first wife Neile; chatting intimately with leading ladies Lee Remick and Natalie Wood; and playfully riding a mechanical horse in a five-and-dime store on location in a small Texas town.
Of course, Claxton also captured McQueen's trademark intensity, notably in an electric sequence of images of the actor taking part in a cross-country motorcycle race in the Mojave desert. One thinks immediately of McQueen's breakout performance as the rebellious, motorcycle-riding prisoner in The Great Escape. The photographs underscore how much the actor's on screen cool was rooted in his physical being. His lithe, lean frame and catlike grace translated into the confidence and strength of character his fans responded to in such signature films as Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair.
A class act, Claxton never abused his friendship with McQueen, never exploited it for sensation's sake. McQueen trusted Claxton to the extent that he allowed himself to be photographed lighting up a joint (it's impossible to imagine an actor of similar stature doing so today). Claxton, of course, refrained from publishing it until now, when it can do no harm to the late actor's reputation.
Refreshingly and fittingly, considering McQueen's down-to-earth personality the book isn't weighed down by pretentious essays. Instead, Claxton's witty anecdotal comments are sprinkled throughout in unobtrusive caption form, supporting the pictures rather than competing with them. Most of the images are in black-and-white, with a smattering in color. They range from polished publicity portraits to gritty candids, and many have never before been published.
William Claxton's warm and spontaneous pictures tellingly capture Steve McQueen's rugged individualism and unflappable sang-froid during the heady years of the actor's nascent stardom. But perhaps more important, they convey the sheer, unadulterated joy McQueen took in the art of living life to the full, and there's nothing cooler than that. DB
Dean Brierly admits to being a former editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine. He is currently a freelance contributor to photography and film journals, and is a lifelong silver-based photographic image maker.