Steven Klein’s Modern Muses

The legendary photographer talks about shooting Kylie Jenner in that wheelchair, and Lydia Hearst and Bianca Van Damme for Equinox.

Lydia Hearst

Since the ‘90s, Steven Klein has been illuminating the darker side of fashion and celebrity photography. He’s left Brad Pitt knocked out on the floor and twisted Madonna around a stripper pole, and that is just in the pages of W. Along the way, he’s brought robots, horror-movie gore, and even old age into the fashion conversation, and ruffled not a few feathers along the way. Lately, he’s been branching out projects like a cosmetics line for Nars. I caught up with him on the cusp of 2016, before the debut of his new campaign for Equinox, starring the likes of Lydia Hearst and Jean-Claude’s daughter, Bianca Van Damme.

The Equinox campaign is very funny. I like that it subverts the idea that commitments should only be to the virtuous. I’m glad you find it funny. I did one of the first Equinox campaigns, with Lisa Marie. Then three or four months ago, they approached me with these specific stories they wanted to tell. It was a daring approach. It’s kind of rare to see briefs this exciting these days.

How did you go about casting it? I approached it the same way I do everything; each picture is to me a narrative, a film. With Lydia Hearst, she was the right character for the scene, which is set in a ritzy restaurant. Lydia is an aristocrat.

Didn’t she get engaged recently [to Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick]? Funny that she happens to be nursing two babies in the picture. She’s getting married next year, yes. But I didn’t know that until I saw her on set. I hadn’t seen her in a few years. But it kind of makes sense—she’ll probably have twins now! [laughs] Sometimes these things are prophetic in a way, you know?

And where did you find Bianca Van Damme? Oh, she came via the casting agent. But how amazing, right? I’ve wanted to photograph her father forever.

Do you have a resolution, or commitment, for 2016? No, I don’t believe in them. I think it’s more of a checklist you have to work on every day.

But you have a workout routine. Yes, almost every day I work out at home with the same trainer for seven or eight years now. Since I ride and jump horses, I train specifically during the week to ride on the weekends.

Are you aware of the recent controversy over your Interview cover, which featured Kylie Jenner in a wheelchair? I’ve heard, but I haven’t commented publicly.

Do you feel it was misunderstood? People are always going to misunderstand things. It’s human nature. That I accept. It comes with the territory of doing anything of value. In regards to the pictures of Kylie, they are based on pictures I did with Tom Ford a long time ago in W [from the November 2005 issue], where we used very humanlike dolls. Kylie and I discussed treating her like a doll. What happened when I shot them for W with Tom was that the dolls were too heavy to carry, so I had to put them in a wheelchair to get them around.

I often revisit pictures I’ve done before. Unfortunately, people see things in a personal way, whereas I see things visually. To me, it was just playing with this idea of the pseudo-living doll, the different positions and setups I could do with her. When you do things for magazines, you need to call attention to it somehow so people pay attention to what you’re saying visually, but I never do things for shock value. But what’s interesting is that since then I’ve received a lot of pictures from girls who are in wheelchairs who’ve done their own renditions of the pictures, in a positive way. So maybe for a girl who is in a wheelchair, she might say, ‘Look how beautiful she looks. How great is it that a girl in a wheelchair looks sexy and cool.’ So I always look at the positive aspect of things. You can find negativity in anything. What I try to avoid at all costs are mundane, boring things.

You mentioned how you like to revisit certain pictures you made in the past. Over the years, you’ve repeatedly reworked a few fascinations, including dolls, robots, and gore. Do you still find these things provocative? I do these things when it’s appropriate. For example, there is beauty in artful gore. I was on the set of “American Horror Story: Hotel” with Lady Gaga while she was getting cast for leg prosthetics. I was amazed by the technicians’ work on her legs. There’s an art to the whole horror genre. The thing is, fashion is a little too clean, in the sense that everything’s sugarcoated and sweet in this idealistic world. I think maybe because I’m the only one who does what I do, it puts me out of balance with other people.

But you’ve made these things part of fashion’s vernacular now. I wonder if they still arouse you, though. Yes. They still do. But a lot of things do, like the purity of my horse portraits, which are just studies, but they spark my interest, too. I have these things that are inherent in my language, and I think they’ll always be there. It’s just who I am. It’s weird that people think it’s a turn-on for me, when it’s more like an expression.

Part of the reason your sensibility has been able to infiltrate fashion and culture is that you have made collaborators out of stars like Madonna and Brad Pitt. Do you have new, younger collaborators you feel a similar kinship to? Well, Kylie was like that as well—really game. I’m pretty lucky with everyone I work with. I never try to coerce or talk somebody into doing something. Probably my best collaborations have been with Madonna and Brad because they’re so visually intelligent and love photography. They bring so much more to it. Lady Gaga, too. With them, it’s not just a celebrity showing up to a shoot and saying, “Okay, what do you want me to do?”

Your pictures are so influenced by genre movies, and you’ve been making fashion films for years. Are you working on a feature film? Yeah, I’m working on several things. I have a project with Lee Daniels that will hopefully go into production in the next few years.

I see a resemblance there, in terms of sensibility. Is the film going to be— Horror? [laughs]

Or just genre. Probably. Something between science fiction and horror, I think.

But something lurid? Yes.

Photos: Steven Klein’s Modern Muses

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.

Photo by Steven Klein for Equinox.