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Cool eyes

“Please remember that I am a photographer and not a musician,” writes William Claxton in the introduction to his pictures of the young Chet Baker, “but a photographer who loves music — the words and the notes — and the people who make that music. I have tried to create images of these artists, images that will give you, the viewer, a little more insight into their artistry, images that you can enjoy.”

As writer-director Julian Benediki makes clear in the insightful documentary, Jazz Seen: The Life and Times of William Claxton (which premieres Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. on Bravo), providing insight and pleasure are equally important goals for the photographer who established the look of West Coast jazz in the 1950s. This in itself may seem like a minor note in the larger history of jazz (and indeed, it’s only one of Claxton’s impressive accomplishments), but looking now at these pictures, they seem to capture something quintessentially American, a cool, casual confidence and the vibrant energy of youth, talent and endless possibilities.

Claxton’s photographs of Baker (taken 1952-1957) caught the trumpeter and singer during the first bloom of a promising career, when he was evolving from a sideman for Charlie Parker to a key player in the Los Angeles cool jazz scene. Baker was taken quite seriously as a musician at the time (he was named best trumpeter in mid-’50s Down Beat polls, beating out Miles Davis), but it’s Claxton’s images that would transform him into an icon.

Claxton reveals in Jazz Seen that this musician — who looked to the naked eye like “an angelic prizefighter” and could even appear goofy — absolutely defined the term photogenic. The studied ease Baker had with the camera perfectly complemented the smooth, melodious sound of his recordings, and that fusion of sound and vision transformed him into a jazz James Dean, emblematic of a new brand of American youth culture.

To director Benediki’s credit, he doesn’t focus solely on this famous collaboration. The musically astute Claxton served as the official photographer and art director (with unofficial duties as a talent scout) for Pacific Jazz Records, and the album covers he created would serve as one of the templates for the outdoorsy California aesthetic. His famous shot of Sonny Rollins (decked out in full cowboy gear and standing in the desert) used for the album Way Out West, garnered Claxton a host of accolades, but eventually led to a strained relationship with the saxophonist, whose New York peers scorned this cheeky approach.

Trust is key to Claxton’s work, and the conversation Benediki captures between his subject and fellow photographer Helmut Newton reveals why. Newton looks at human flesh as “raw material” and maintains a cold distance from his models, while Claxton believes photographs are representative of “emotional interactions.”

Benediki’s documentary title, Jazz Seen, is also the name of a superb retrospective volume published by Taschen that chronicles Claxton’s music photography. His love of music, and jazz in particular, comes through not just in the images he captures, but also in the photo sessions documented in this film. During a shoot with vocalist Diana Krall and guitarist Russell Malone, Claxton engineers an awkward moment to capture their reactions immediately after, when nervous posing is replaced by the unconscious expression of their personalities, the soul beneath the facade.

As several interviewees clearly state, Claxton sees beauty everywhere he looks and tries to show his subjects at their very best. This philosophy didn’t change when he became a major force in fashion photography during the ’60s. This has much to do with the fact that his primary subject was his wife Peggy Moffitt, whose fame as a model rivaled Twiggy’s and who served as a muse for daring designer Rudi Gernreich, whose clothes put much of the swing in the swinging ’60s. In his vibrant color photographs, Claxton captured Moffitt’s inherent theatricality with a clear-eyed enthusiasm, and like his black-and-white jazz shots of the previous decade, these images helped define the aesthetic of their time.

Benediki segues smoothly from one aspect of Claxton’s career to another, from his explanation of the way famous subjects (particularly actor Steve McQueen) have influenced him, to his photojournalistic belief that the camera captures and preserves a distinct moment in history (which prompted the photographer to undertake an extensive journey to document unsung American grassroots musicians). Benediki’s approach is usually as unobtrusive and precise as Claxton’s photography, with a few exceptions.

But Benediki also succumbs to an insidious trend in documentaries and films — actors re-enacting key experiences in Claxton’s life. Although the photographer is convincingly portrayed by his son, Christopher, the stories illustrated in these scenes are served just as well by standard interviews. The day Claxton met Moffitt (which was spent shooting her with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend) is more interesting in their wry telling than in Benediki’s re-creations, particularly when it’s revealed that a torrential southern California rainstorm flooded Claxton’s basement studio, carrying off a substantial amount of photos and negatives in its wake.

The sharp pain on Claxton’s face as he recalls that loss is just the sort of moment of unstudied personal revelation he’s spent a career capturing in his compassionate art.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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