His photographs are unlike any others. For nearly three decades, Steven Klein has been developing a universe that is both subversive and sexy, where saturated colors, BDSM accessories and explicit nudity are regulars. Less sought-after by fashion magazines like Vogue and W now, with which he has collaborated since the 1990s, the American photographer born in 1965 has brought together some of his most beautiful series in his first monograph, as a testimony of not only his singular talent, but of the creative freedom of his time. While imposing, this book is far from being a complete survey of his prolific career and only includes some of his most iconic portraits. With the support of art critic Mark Holborn, Steven Klein has picked up hundreds of archive photographs that recounts the story of his work, in a way a film with a beginning and an end would do. We come across Brad Pitt covered in blood, a neck sliced in two, a horse in black and white, or Madonna with her lover lying on a bed... So many images with an exceptional narrative potential in which he exalts the beauty of bodies. The Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied, and his anatomical drawings, have a direct influence on his work. For Numéro, Steven Klein shares the secrets of five cult photographs.
1. Kim Kardashian, New York City, 2018
“For this shoot, we drew our inspiration from a Japanese anime. I think that this photograph almost looks like a painting with its very bright colors. While Kim was posing, she was waiting for a call from President Trump. At that time [in 2018], she was negotiating the release of Alice Marie Johnson, an African American woman wrongly accused of murder who spent 20 years in jail. She had met with Donald Trump in Washington shortly before that to discuss the situation, and he was to call her back on the day of the photoshoot. While she was posing for this photo, her assistant came in in a hurry and shouted, “President Trump is on the phone!” She quickly got dressed and, next thing she knew, she was standing there, self-composed, talking to the President of the United States in her robe. He told her that he was going to pardon Alice Marie Johnson. I remember she felt ecstatic and relieved. On this photo she is proud. Many people might just see Kim Kardashian posing naked for a photographer, when she had just released a woman from prison at that very moment. This photo is completely filled with power”.
2. Naomi and Kate, Meatpacking District, New York City, 1994
“I have known Naomi since she was 16. In 1994, I had already been working with her for eight years. We have a beautiful relationship. As for Kate, it was the first time I worked with her because I had just met her on the streets of New York. I couldn’t stop photographing her, my lens was drawn to her like a magnet. For this shoot, we worked with Edward Enninful, a stylist for i-D Magazine at the time [now he is the editor-in-chief of Vogue UK], and he arrived with two vintage Biba dresses from the 70s that he literally cut up! I remember that shoot very well. It took place one evening outside my studio, which at the time was in the Meatpacking district, where a lot of transvestites and prostitutes used to gather. While I was photographing Naomi and Kate, a small crowd gathered around us because no one could believe it was really Naomi [who was already very famous]. When they finally recognized her, the crowd became agitated. I think it was the first time Naomi and Kate had been photographed together”.
3. Brad Pitt #36, New York City, 2004
“This photo is actually a head cast of Brad Pitt, which was made for a series published in a magazine. So, it is not really him. The idea was to make it look like a statue, or a marble sculpture covered in blood. Mark [Holborn, the photographer and art critic] calls it “the bleeding head”, because he sees it more as an image of a head bleeding rather than a portrait of Brad Pitt. I covered his face with red paint to represent the blood, but without going for gore. I think red is a very strong color, it brings life into the photograph. Although I have done a lot of portraits in my career, they don't really represent a person to me – they are a mere facade, the physicality of someone caught in a specific staging. In this photograph of Brad Pitt, the blood represents the connection between the body and the soul, a theme I explored later in my Cut-throats series  in which I photographed severed necks. Ultimately, it is more a cynical critique of portraiture than gore photography”.
4. Madonna and Jesus, Hotel Glória, Rio de Janeiro, 2008
“I have an incredible relationship with Madonna. We have been working together for over twenty years on different projects, such as her albums, tours, or music videos. Not everyone knows this, but we have done a lot of photo series, starting with this one, Blame it on Rio. I joined her in Rio, while she was touring in Brazil. We often create a character in our shoots, and in this case, Madonna was a casino player on holiday in the South-East of France. We had the entire Glória Hotel for ourselves, as it was about to close. The night before, we hosted a party and had models coming from Europe for the occasion. It was a kind of street casting, but also a way to get to know each other. It was the night Madonna met Jesus [her partner from 2008 to 2010], and they ‘consummated’ their relationship for the first time on that photograph in the hotel’s presidential suite”.
5. Killer Heels, Mechanophilia, Barbara Fiahlo, New York City, 2014
“Mark chose this photograph for the book cover because of the contrast it would create between the red and white colors [the book cover is white]. I think he was right because it sums up my whole world: blood red, fashion, morbidity, suspense... Like in all my pictures, you don't really know what's going on or what just happened. There are disturbing and dangerous elements like those stripes on the floor and the almost sharp tip of the stilettos. This image triggers many questions. It comes from the Killer Hills series that I made in 2008 as a commission work for the Brooklyn Museum, which was preparing an exhibition on footwear. I wanted to play on the ambivalence of heels – a woman can feel powerful but also suffer wearing them. I think it is a nice introduction to the photographs that follow in the pages of my book”.
“Steven Klein”, edited and with an essay by Mark Holborn, Phaidon, €175.