Saturday, 29 January 2011

John Dominis

On his way to
the studio's
fitness room (1963)
from the book
by John Dominis

I got a book called McQueen by John Dominis a couple of days ago. It's German and the title page reads, Steve McQueen: Fotografien von John Dominis. I don't mean to blow minds with linguistic intuition, but I think the middle bit is something like "photographs by" in translation*.

The date on the Amazon page says December 2010, and the book also has the year 2010. Amazon Germany says 13 April 2009. I've only recently noticed it at any rate.

I've mentioned John Dominis in other posts. He took pictures of McQueen for Life, the popular photojournalism magazine, and the book is a collection of images from that time. The bits of text you get are, as you'd expect, in German. It's improbably cosmopolitan of me, but I know somebody from Germany. I'll take the book to the pub when we meet next week and ask for a couple of pints of translation.

Plenty of people helped enshrine Steve McQueen. William Claxton and John Dominis are the most prominent names, though, far as photography goes. Claxton's book covers 1962-1964. Dominis photographed him at rest and play in 1963. The overlap makes that year a particularly good one for Steve McQueen images.

The formula for celebrity photography was less refined in the 1960s. The system was in place, the paparazzi and other standard promotional shots, but photojournalists had more freedom. William Claxton met McQueen when Life sent him to photograph Natalie Wood at work on Love With The Proper Stranger. The co-star initially waved away the camera. Claxton talked to Steve about the art of photography, though, and they became comfortable in each other's company. William Claxton thought photography "jazz for the eye". Perhaps that's how he described it to the actor. Steve was a fan of jazz, and Claxton had made his name with portraits of jazz musicians.

John Dominis had enlisted in the United States Air Force in his early 20s, and he'd returned to military scenes as a Life photojournalist. Perhaps this helped when the magazine sent him to cover ex-serviceman Steve. They'd both raced cars. That certainly helped. Whatever the reasons, he enjoyed the same freedom as Claxton to document McQueen's life.

McQueen made the occasional gesture to reject attention, as when he waved away Bill Claxton's camera. The Dominis book helps us understand just how keen Steve was for photographers to document his life, though. (We learn how keen he was for people to see him in the gym when we compare the William Claxton book with the Dominis, where he strikes similar poses.)

McQueen knew a Life cover article had practical benefits as, say, John F. Kennedy knew beautiful photographs of the family on holiday had political benefits. It's just that the intensity with which Steve McQueen played lead in The Ideal Male Life went beyond the practical. This blog, Free & Easy, all of us: we're obviously a funny lot. McQueen impresses us as the perfect representation of men's style in the headiest days of the US. A message of the John Dominis collection, though, is that's what McQueen went out of his way to do.

The book's cover design is lazy. I suppose the moral is judge the content, as ever. The other thing to note is the currently reasonable price of the Dominis book in comparison with the Claxton one.

*I've had to translate the photograph caption too.

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