Because they have to work with teams of models, makeup artists, hairdressers, set designers, stylists, magazine editors, retouchers, and a posse of assistants, fashion photographers are not unlike film directors. And like directors, many of them are hacks, turning out reliably glossy, vacuously glamorous schlock month after month, but the best are genuine auteurs—artists who use the collaborative process to realize their own personal vision. If Beaton, Horst, Avedon, Penn, and Newton virtually define the pantheon, and Steven Meisel was inducted into its ranks years ago (his Linda Evangelista covers for Italian Vogue were the clincher), Steven Klein is its most accomplished and idiosyncratic new member. His collaboration with Madonna—including 44 pages in the April W, a massive video installation at Deitch Projects, and a fat, limited-edition artist’s book masquerading as that show’s catalog—is the capper to several years’ worth of drop-dead audacious magazine spreads, covers, and ad campaigns that have made Klein fashion photography’s auteur of the moment.
“It’s my world and the world beneath the surface,” Klein says when asked to describe the atmosphere he conjures up for his most memorable photo shoots. “Everything that is and isn’t.” Klein’s world is not unrelievedly dark, but the images that define him (like his fall 2002 campaigns for Alexander McQueen and D Squared) often seem to emerge from the unconscious and are set in a desolate, claustrophobic underworld—a place at once sinister and seductive. “I’m always looking for the ordinary, the generic, the ambiguous place,” he says. “Something that doesn’t fit into any time or place. I think of my spaces as gray spaces, neutral spaces that allow things to emerge.”
Before Klein brought Madonna into one of these spaces, for one 10-hour session last August in L.A., they exchanged e-mails and images for several months. Although he’d already done tough, sexy, and brilliantly iconoclastic spreads with Brad Pitt, David Beckham, and Justin Timberlake, Klein was understandably intimidated by Madonna. What can you do with a notoriously been-there, done-that chameleon? Their exchange reassured him: “Her premise is that sometimes not knowing what to do is a good place to start.” Early on, Klein had approached W with the project, knowing that its adventurous creative director, Dennis Freedman, would give him the freedom (and, later, the gatefold pages) he needed. But because Madonna made it clear from the beginning that she wasn’t interested in doing another fashion spread (“If I don’t feel like I’m creating something that means something,” she told W‘s Merle Ginsberg, “I don’t want to do it”), the exchange quickly focused on the idea of a performance, with the shoot imagined as a rehearsal, a peek backstage. “I always saw her more as a performance artist, anyway,” Klein says. “She started talking about how the final product is always disappointing, how sometimes the perfected performance no longer has the energy that the process originally had.”
It will surprise no one that in the resulting photographs, Madonna is wearing Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche leather boots, Prada tap pants, a Dolce & Gabbana silk corset, and several lavishly ornamented Christian Lacroix Couture pieces, including a beaded face covering that the Daily News mistook for a gas mask. But even in the pages of W no one will mistake this for a fashion shoot. In one of that magazine’s panoramic double gatefolds, the masked Madonna kneels, one leg outstretched, on a bare stage in what looks like a factory space, raw save for several panels of sheer curtains behind her. On the concrete floor nearby, a coyote strains at its leash, while a little further off a burning wedding dress, already half-consumed, sends flames high into the air. (Klein acknowledges “revisiting,” sometimes unintentionally, several key Madonna props—the wedding dress, the bed, the dance pole—to see how the singer’s relationship to them has changed.) At Deitch, in a show called, annoyingly, “X-STaTIC PRo=CeSS,” this image has been turned into a billboard-sized “photo animation,” eight feet high and 26 feet long, housed at the back of a deep, shed-like structure designed by those suave masters of the ad hoc, LOT/EK. At this scale, the photo is essentially life-size, and the illusion that we’re looking into another room is underscored by the animated images of the wafting curtains and the mounting flames. The effect is bombastic, all the more so because speakers embedded in the side of the booth are playing a loop of Madonna reciting passages from the Book of Revelation (one of the many “Justify My Love” remixes), filtered through whomping industrial noise.
But if the combination of absurdity and sincerity can turn deadly (a not uncommon problem for both Madonna and fashion photographers), trust Klein to balance it with a few oddly thrilling moments and a slew of images too slippery, too ephemeral to process except as dreams. There are four other pieces at Deitch, all sited at the far end of LOT/EK’s brutally industrial, silver-sheathed shooting ranges; the darkened space feels less like an amusement arcade than a torture chamber, complete with gunshots and electronic blips. Since Klein was making video and still photos simultaneously, he was able to bring several of his pictures to life in three of the installations here. In one, Madonna sits beside herself, one figure almost immobilized in a gold-encrusted red gown and headdress, the other stretched out in a leotard and tights on a bare mattress draped with piece of vivid blue silk (when Klein uses color in his gray spaces, you can almost taste it). Both figures execute a series of stiff, stuttered gestures, the one on the bed raising and lowering her bare arms in stylized movements whose elegance is undercut by the video’s jump-cut repetitions. At one point, she turns to look at us, but her glance slides away, and she cups a hand over her eyes as if to shield them from our gaze. It’s the perfect Madonna performance: She’s tantalizingly present but elusive—a siren, a cipher, a phantom.
In the most contained and unsettling piece, the camera hovers just above Madonna, still in black tights and a body suit, as she flails at the headboard of a wrought-iron bed. Again, her movements are abrupt and restricted; she squats, stretches, throws out an arm, grasps at the headboard, and thrusts her head through its bars over and over again, while indecipherable bits of her voice and music waft through the space. Because we never see more than a sliver of her bent and shadowed face, this is a much more anonymous performance. We can imagine that we’re peering into an institutional cell at a madwoman unaware of our presence. Though there’s no way to avoid the star power that generates this disturbing little drama, it’s effectively dimmed and something simply human emerges. Like the best of Klein’s still shots, the video offers a glimpse behind the cloak of celebrity at a solitary figure in constant flux, a woman in the never ending process of becoming and remaining a star. The accompanying catalog—243 pebble-textured, tissue-thin pages of still shots and video grabs that seem to evanesce right before your eyes—suggests that it’s all an illusion within an illusion anyway. Jerking mechanically through the videos, Madonna looks like one of those Blade Runner androids mid-meltdown, or a disjointed marionette. The effect may not be as startling as Timberlake’s bloody face or Pitt’s naked ass, but for Madonna the imagined loss of control is shock enough. In the end, of course, this fantasy of debasement, isolation, and yoga exercises becomes yet another milestone of Madonna’s relentless reinvention, but since that sort of start-again-from-scratch transformation has become Steven Klein’s specialty, too, their collaboration is as spectacular as it was inevitable.