William Claxton, a photographer whose portfolio included many of the world’s most famous people-among them numerous greats of jazz-died of congestive heart failure on Oct. 12 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Claxton was 80.
Claxton’s iconic portraits of trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker helped boost the musician’s popularity in the 1950s, and Claxton’s other subjects ran the gamut from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen. Jazz artists who came before Claxton’s camera included Thelonious Monk, Mel Tormé, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz.
Claxton first photographed Baker in 1951 and continued to document the musician over the next several years as his career ascended. Claxton’s jazz photographs garnered attention for their intimate yet soulful feel, and graced the covers of countless albums and magazine covers for over five decades. Claxton also authored 13 books and was the subject of dozens of exhibitions.
Born to a musician mother in 1927 and raised in Southern California, Claxton took a liking to jazz at a young age. He collected jazz records as a youth and began photographing musicians on an amateur basis. He entered UCLA but left when the newly launched Pacific Jazz Records hired him as a photographer.
Claxton also received renown for his controversial topless photographs of his wife, Peggy Moffitt, in the early ’60s. The couple remained married for 49 years and both she and their son Christopher survive Claxton.