“Commit to something,” reads the tagline on the photograph of a woman wearing diamond earrings and little else, breastfeeding twins over a plate of steak tartare. If Equinox was looking to turn heads with its recent ad campaign, the elite fitness brand has succeeded. This startling image was created by Steven Klein, the photographer whose own “something” is an artistic vision that is seductive, transgressive and gender-bending. Saturated colour, high-contrast tonality and pointed storytelling are typical of Klein, whose background in film informs his fashion editorials and luxury-brand campaigns with cinematic magnetism and suspense. Klein says his models and celebrity subjects “are fearless when they can understand the difference between making pretty pictures versus interesting photographs.”
“Ugliness and beauty are in the eye of the beholder,” adds Klein, keenly aware that his daring work has caused shock waves over the years. When he photographs A-list stars such as Brad Pitt, Naomi Campbell or Lady Gaga, he often portrays them in scenarios that are erotic, foreboding and sometimes violent. In a 2003 sound and video installation, for instance, the photographer cast Madonna as a performance artist living out her most abject fears: in one scene, the pop star, surrounded by coyotes ready to pounce, is in a backbend and tied to a pole. Bondage, extreme poses, constricting clothing and dangerously vertical footwear are preferred Klein tropes. In his photograph Killer Heels, Klein shows female feet clad in devil-red stilettos after they have irrevocably scratched a car hood. The work, a 34-by-60-inch still from his video for the 2014 Brooklyn Museum exhibition of the same name, will be offered directly from Klein’s studio in Sotheby’s Photographs sale on 5 October.
STEVEN KLEIN, KILLER HEELS, 2014. ESTIMATE $18,000–22,000. TO BE OFFERED IN PHOTOGRAPHS AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK ON 5 OCTOBER.
As one of the most in-demand imagemakers working today, Klein is a favourite contributor to major fashion glossies such as Vogue and W. Yet one of his longest-running and closest collaborations has been with Visionaire, the influential, high-concept art and style publication that has come to define a certain brand of downtown New York cool. At its launch in 1991, Visionaire was the brainchild of the ultra-hip trio of Cecilia Dean, a student and model, and James Kaliardos and Stephen Gan, classmates at the Parsons School of Design (Gan left Visionaire in 2014). Their creation challenged the traditional magazine format: rather than as issues, Visionaire would be released in editions built around a theme and created in collaboration with artists, photographers, designers and performers – Mario Testino, Alexander McQueen and David Bowie, to name a few.
"I try to create intrigue through the ridiculous and the macabre."
The editions, numbering 66 so far, have been sculptural objects by contemporary artists, such as nesting-doll toys with designs by painter Alex Katz; more ephemeral, as in a set of 21 vials of experimental fragrances each paired with a picture by an international photographer; or in the form of provocative images that artists couldn’t easily publish elsewhere. “We were always – and still are – not afraid to publish highly controversial or explicit imagery,” says Dean, adding that Visionaire has remained advertisement-free “so photographers can express themselves without the usual commercial constraints.” Klein’s first appearance was in 1993’s Visionaire 8 THE ORIENT, which began an ongoing creative dialogue. “Steven is a visionary,” says Kaliardos. “There’s no one like him. His identity is so clear, yet he has been able to traverse many different styles and atmospheres.”
CECILIA DEAN AND JAMES KALIARDOS. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANÇOIS NARS.
Klein’s work has been featured in nearly a third of Visionaire’s editions, but the photographer has not had one devoted entirely to himself – until now. The forthcoming Visionaire 67 FETISH is all Klein, comprising ten never-before-seen photographs enclosed in a sleek three-piece black box produced in an edition of 200. (It will be unveiled this autumn at Sotheby’s New York.) “Visionaire 67 FETISH is the absolute, unadulterated embracing of photography and Steven’s imagination,” says Dean. “By delivering something tactile, we are paying homage to the art and craft of real photography and printing.” Kaliardos adds that the collectible format is “a remedy to the current nature of the disposable modern fashion editorial.”
A KLEIN IMAGE FROM VISIONAIRE 31 BLUE AND KLEIN’S PORTRAIT OF ALEXANDER MCQUEEN IN VISIONAIRE 58 SPIRIT, A TRIBUTE TO THE LATE DESIGNER. © STEVEN KLEIN STUDIO, COURTESY VISIONAIRE.
Appropriately, in Klein’s Visionaire 67 FETISH series, pleasure and pain are intertwined. In one photo, leopard pumps stomp over a blindfolded man’s face. In another, a pointy crimson stiletto stabs the crotch of a decapitated Ken doll. This edition also includes a version of Killer Heels, the work that Klein is offering at Sotheby’s. “I love the juxtaposition,” says Dean, noting how both stilettos and cars are clichéd symbols of female and male desirability. “It could seem like the woman has been forced to do something against her will, but my interpretation is that she is alone and seeking sweet revenge by ruining a man’s prized possession: his car.”
VISIONAIRE 67 FETISH, WHICH INCLUDES A SET OF ELEVEN-BY-FOURTEEN-INCH PHOTOS BY KLEIN, TO BE RELEASED THIS AUTUMN. © STEVEN KLEIN STUDIO, COURTESY VISIONAIRE.
Klein specialises in cultivating that kind of ambiguity. “I try to create intrigue through the ridiculous and the macabre,” he says. “For me, it is a balance of dark humour and a study of sculptural objects. The heels have strong personalities – some of them are killers.”
For more information about Visionaire 67 FETISH or previous editions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Issue 67 can be purchased on visionaireworld.com.