In his introduction to Klein’s book, photographer Mark Holborn writes that “to open this book is to enter criminal territory. Here, the police are busy. Transgression also has its charm. If Klein’s transgression doesn’t sound as thrilling as it once did, you can’t fault the work. It remains harsh, subversive, and “difficult” in an age when few magazines—and even fewer advertisers—appreciate anything remotely difficult. Sadly, that makes “Steven Klein” a period piece, a memorial slab of a time when fashion photographers including Klein, Meisel, Nick Knight, David Sims, Bruce Weber, Collier Schorr, Matthias Vriens, Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans – led an adventurous, sophisticated, queer-centric avant-garde. They opened old-guard magazines wide, launched new ones, and changed the way we think about media and message. Because Klein was one of the more radical members of this group, especially in retrospect, his work looks more outrageous now than it did when he first appeared. How dare he photograph a naked woman with surgical scars on her stomach and breasts as if she were a body thrown on the grass? Or conjure up a pregnant male nude, an LA porn set, a model submerged in a tank like one of Damien Hirst’s sharks, or Tom Ford polishing a man’s bare ass like it’s a car hood ? Strange to think that this is now too gross a story to repeat.
Holborn’s introduction describes a short film Klein made for Alexander McQueen who reworked the opening scene of Michael Powell’s 1960 film “Peeping Tom,” with Kate Moss as the doomed focus of a ” obsessive predatory stalker” played by Klein himself. A shot in this short, of a small camera clutched in Klein’s tattooed hands like a weapon, is one of the most charged and contained images in the book. Klein is not a lone stalker. He has a huge support team – editors, stylists, hairstylists and makeup artists – to help him achieve his obsessions. But his more sinister visions rarely make the editorial pages these days. Her transformation from singer-songwriter Ethel Cain into a Victorian vampiric queen, for the cover of the spring issue of V, is simply alarming. Subversiveness – the transgressive view – may be old school, but Klein hasn’t given it up. His monograph suggests that it is still a force that can move and disturb.