Steven Klein on Pride, Censorship, and His Favorite Madonna Memory


Steven Klein

Photo courtesy of Steven Klein.

Steven Klein prefers to work out in the privacy of his own home. But if he were to join a gym, it would probably be Equinox, whose sexy and inventive “Commit to Something” campaign he shot back in 2016. This month, they rekindled their working relationship with the recent Pride Month show Between You and Me: The Disappearance of the Binary, an exhibition and accompanying benefit auction with Christie’s (proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Camp Felix) to which Klein, joining fellow visionaries Marina Abramović, Sir Isaac Julien, and David LaChapelle, donated the photograph Bondage Warriors 33, shot in 2009. “The selection of artists,” says Art Director Shai Baitel of the exhibition, “reflects its dynamic nature and the variety of different identities that the pride flag, itself debated and ever-evolving, increasingly represents.” You’re unlikely to find Mr. Klein at any parades this weekend—”I don’t like crowds,” he told me—but we were able to track him down after the opening to take a brisk walk down memory lane. Below, the photographer talks to us about his long working relationship with Madonna, navigating an increasingly conservative culture, the concept of Pride, and how he convinced Nicole Kidman to take part in that notoriously salacious Interview shoot back in 2014.



JAKE NEVINS: Hey, Steven. How are you doing?

KLEIN: Good, how are you?

NEVINS: I am good. And excited to talk to you.

KLEIN: I’ve known Mel [Ottenberg] for a really long time.

NEVINS: Yeah, Mel says hi. He told me to pass that along.

KLEIN: Yeah, say hi to him.

NEVINS: I will. Tell me how you got involved with this Equinox Pride show.

KLEIN: Shai [Baitel] is a good friend of mine. He was one of the curators of the show. I mean, I’ve known him for a long time. I donated pictures last year, so that’s how I got involved.

NEVINS: What was the process like?

KLEIN: Actually, it’s so weird. I did something with Slava [Mogutin], the artist. I did this pregnant man story a while ago for a magazine in Russia and they actually refused to publish the story, even though it’s supposedly an art magazine. So it’s like, the idea of where the line is of what’s acceptable of being a true expression is still a question with me when it comes to my work.

NEVINS: I mean, you have always reveled in crossing that line, right?

KLEIN: Right. I always like to be transparent. Those pictures were seen as too “provocative,” and I don’t know really what that means today, when everybody’s trying to have a free voice and vision of who they are and what they represent.

NEVINS: Well, that raises an interesting question. You’ve had a long and prolific career, you’ve seen the sort of ebb and flow of censorship and conservatism. Sometimes the culture is more permissive, sometimes it’s more draconian. Where do things stand now, as you see it?

KLEIN: I guess, speaking to my contributions for publications and for magazines, and looking back at my work over the last 20 years, I feel like I was able to express myself more freely than you can now. I feel like there’s a lot more restrictions, even though supposedly things have opened up in a way. People are much more open to trans and this and that. But in the end, it hasn’t really changed. People are just trying to be politically correct in a world where it’s a kind of trend, in a way. It was almost more exciting before than it is now, do you know what I mean? I feel like I was able to do a lot more for magazines like American Vogue and do things that I did in W, like I did with Tom Ford, or Brad Pitt bare-assed in W. I mean, I couldn’t do that now. People are saying now everything’s changed, but I think the culture has actually gotten a little bit more conservative in a way.

NEVINS: That makes sense. The piece you contributed to this exhibition is Bondage Warriors, which is a fairly racy image from 2009. What’s it like to revisit it?

KLEIN: For me, the good ones are long-lasting. That’s why I don’t love putting dates on photographs. You can put out a work or do something that you did 15, 20 years ago and it could still feel like something that I could have shot yesterday. So for me, I don’t look at it as a vintage piece of work. I see my work as revisiting and repeating itself and its themes. So looking at them, I sometimes have a greater appreciation now than when I did then. I don’t see them as like, “Oh, this is from this magazine at the date.” They have their own life and existence.

Steven Klein

Bondage Warriors 33, by Steven Klein. Photo courtesy of BFA.

NEVINS: Well, in the spirit of looking back, you’ve shot for Interview a lot over the years. Do any particular spreads stand out to you?

KLEIN: It depends what era, because it was the era of Ingrid [Sischy] and there’s the era of Fabien [Baron], who I did a lot of work with.

NEVINS: Well, should we go era by era?

KLEIN: Sure.

NEVINS: Let’s start with Ingrid.

KLEIN: Ingrid was amazing. Did you ever know Ingrid?

NEVINS: I did not, but I think Janet Malcolm’s piece on her in The New Yorker from 1986 is one of like, the five best profiles ever written.

KLEIN: She was amazing, and she was a person that was very much in the present and had a great appreciation for photography. She would call you up and say, “Oh, I have this new singer.” She was always on the beat of discovering people. They would be at her house and it was kind of like she had her own kind of cult around her as well. The first time I ever photographed Brad Pitt was for Ingrid, and it was before Fight Club. Originally, it was for a Japanese jean company and I’d never met him before. So I did these pictures of Brad and he ended up loving them so much. He called me up afterwards and said, “Oh, can we get them published anywhere in a magazine?” So I called Ingrid, and of course she came down to my studio at that time and she loved them and ended up publishing a big portfolio of these pictures, no credits, no nothing. I mean, that’s kind of the way she was. You would just call up and say, “I have these pictures” and she’d get very excited. It wasn’t like she said, “Oh, you have to go shoot Brad now, we want him for a cover and he needs to be wearing this credit.” She was just happy to publish the pictures.

NEVINS: I love that, a Japanese denim ad repurposed for an editorial.

KLEIN: It was very cool. And then I remember they did a whole issue once about New York. The idea was to find everything happening that month in New York and I went out to document it. It was the time that Mia Farrow was taking Woody Allen to court, so I went to the courthouse and I took a picture of him coming out of court and her coming out of court as part of the portfolio. And Scorsese was shooting Cape Fear with Jessica Lang and they built the boat in Brooklyn, so I shot the boat, because I wanted to shoot where they were shooting. I forget what movie he was doing, but I did a picture of Al Pacino on the subway. The idea was kind of like, New York through my eyes and whatever was going on at that time.

NEVINS: It’s a great concept. So what about the Fabien era?

KLEIN: I have a good story about Fabian. Did you see the Nicole Kidman pictures I did for Interview?

NEVINS: Oh, yes. Those probably wouldn’t fly nowadays.

KLEIN: I’d never worked with Nicole and the whole idea was to pick somebody that you admired and wanted to photograph and they would interview you, as a photographer, about photography. So I chose Nicole. It was a weekend shoot and I had this idea based on an old film that she would be doing a rape scene, kind of like a young college girl and she gets raped outside of the library. So when I presented the idea, her press people were like, “No, you can never do something like that. She’s on all these women’s committees and that’s something that she would never do.” So I remember, Saturday or Sunday morning, she came to my studio and I was still set on doing it. Nobody was there. She came by herself with no publicist, and she’s amazing. And I just sat down with her and I said, “Here’s the storyboard of what I want to do.” And she said, “Fine, let’s do it.” And nobody said anything. And again, it’s like the bureaucracy of magazines and all the people now that are in marketing and publicists, they kind of censor what we do.

NEVINS: Also, no celebrity would ever show up to a shoot without their entire posse these days.

KLEIN: Especially rappers and music people, they come with 30 people sometimes They’ll say, “Oh, they want to wear that” or “they want to do this.” And it’s like, I don’t work that way. I like working directly with the artists themselves, not through their management.

NEVINS: Speaking of, what are your proudest collaborations with Madonna?

KLEIN: Well, everything we’ve ever done together. They’re all different experiences. The one that’s most informative and most interesting is probably the very first time I worked with her, and I say that because that was probably 20 years ago and that was the beginning of our long relationship. Any time I approach any project, there’s a certain amount of fear and doubt that comes in my head. But I think even more so with her, because I’d only only met her once and I’d never worked with her, so I had to do a lot of my own prep work. We emailed back and forth for so long. The great thing about it was that I prepared and over-prepared, then I got to the studio in L.A. I had somebody design all the sets that we were supposed to use and I didn’t like any of them. So the day before the shoot, we had them all destroyed. The thing is, she was the one that first encouraged me to do films. That was the beginning of making films alongside of and for her, and afterwards I did the opening of her show. So I think for me, it was probably one of the most important ones that we did together because I think when you meet somebody the first time, it sets the tone. I distinctly remember when she walked into the studio, I’d never seen her without makeup, and I just remember the vision of her being so beautiful walking in. She was radiant, her hair in a simple center part, no makeup, sunglasses. And then she saw my films and wanted to use them for the opening of her show. She said, “I want to take your films around the world.” And then she gave me Vogue to do, which I never even imagined. It was all visual effects and I was like, in over my head. But she trusted and guided me along at the beginning of my film career. So I think that was a beautiful thing that doesn’t really happen these days. She’s good at taking people and seeing talent or trying to guide people. And we’ve done so many films and so many projects since then.

NEVINS: She’s second to none. I actually heard she’ll be making an appearance in New York during Pride weekend. What are your thoughts on the whole spectacle Pride has become? Do you partake, do you stay away?

KLEIN: I stay away. I don’t like parades. I don’t think I’d ever want to go to Rio Carnival.

NEVINS: Oh, no fucking way.

KLEIN: Right. I don’t like crowds. I used to go to Woodstock and I used to really like that because it was small and I knew a lot of people. For people who really enjoy celebration, it’s a good thing. The deeper meaning of it, well, that’s questionable. I think. My whole thing is, everybody should love thy neighbors as thy self and everybody should have equal opportunities. And I like that idea of everybody coming together, do you know what I mean?

NEVINS: Sure. Oh, also, are you a member of Equinox?

KLEIN: No, I’m not. But they are great. I used to do all of their campaigns. I’ve done a lot of great campaigns with them.

NEVINS: They’re very sexy.

KLEIN: Yes, but I like working out at home.

NEVINS: So you’re not a steam room kind of guy?

KLEIN: No, I don’t like working out with crowds of people. I like working out in my home gym.

NEVINS: Steven Klein likes his personal space.

KLEIN: Yeah, there you go.

NEVINS: Well, it was very nice going down memory lane with you.

KLEIN: Yes, and great to meet you as well.

NEVINS: You as well. Happy Pride, I guess.

KLEIN: You too.