Douglas Kirkland

As Douglas Kirkland and his wife Francoise enter the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, I watch for a brief moment from across the lounge. During that moment I know what it must feel like to be a photographer, to watch a scene unfold like a familiar growing in a shallow bin of developing fluid. Renowned photographer Kirkland must see slowly forming pictures the moment before he freezes split-second slices of life on film with the click of a camera.
Born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in Fort Erie, Ontario, far from the media hub of New York City, Douglas Kirkland still managed to cultivate his early affinity for photography. He began his photography career at age ten when he took his first picture. He snapped a shot of is family on Christmas morning with his Brownie Box camera clamped together with a garter. He converted a childhood bedroom closet into a darkroom to develop photographs taken with his first real camera, a Kodak Duaflex.

From dodging and burning in a makeshift childhood bedroom darkroom to becoming a published photographer of the stars and recently the photographer on the set of the movie Titanic, Kirkland is the 63 year-old guru of lifes continuous cycle of struggle, failure, and euphoric success.

Accept the fact that you will tested and pushed all of the time–its worth the while if you love photography, Kirkland says as he adjusts his tie. Theres no coasting. The fun of it is to make real, genuine gains.

Kirkland is proof that the battle to the top can be as fun and rewarding as success itself. In 1958, he was apprenticed to photographer Irving Penn in New York City. He was paid only $65 a week, which was a meager salary to support his wife and two babies. He moved closer to home base for a year while he worked in Buffalo, NY, and then in April, 1959, he returned to New York City to attack the photography competition once again. He freelanced as an assistant photographer until July of 1960 when at age 24 he landed a photographer position at Look magazine.

Accept the fact that you will tested and pushed all of the time–its worth the while if you love photography, Kirkland says as he adjusts his tie. Theres no coasting. The fun of it is to make real, genuine gains.

Kirkland is proof that the battle to the top can be as fun and rewarding as success itself. In 1958, he was apprenticed to photographer Irving Penn in New York City. He was paid only $65 a week, which was a meager salary to support his wife and two babies. He moved closer to home base for a year while he worked in Buffalo, NY, and then in April, 1959, he returned to New York City to attack the photography competition once again. He freelanced as an assistant photographer until July of 1960 when at age 24 he landed a photographer position at Look magazine.

I was the second youngest photographer Look ever hired, he says. Stanley Kubrick, the film director, was the youngest. He started when he was sixteen. Like Kubrick, the young Kirkland was destined for future success that came naturally once he was given this chance to actualize his enthusiasm and passion for photography. I was hired to do color, fashion work mainly, and I had the desire to do celebrities, Kirkland explains as he pulls his fingers through is silver hair. I had great enthusiasm and energy, and at that time there was nothing I could not do.

Elizabeth Taylor was the first celebrity Kirkland photographed. With his charm and subtle persuasion, Kirkland coaxed Taylor, who had not been photographed for years, to let him take her picture. The photo session with Taylor was the beginning of three decades of celebrity shots to be showcased in Kirklands Light Years, published in 1989 by Thames & Hudson.

In recalling his successful celebrity shots of CoCo Chanel, Jack Nicholson, Judy Garland, and Charlie Chaplin, to name a few, Kirkland reveals his secret to making the stars look into the camera: The problem with celebrities is that they often try to protect the way they look. They are aware of their good side, and as you get side tracked by things like that, its hard to concentrate on them. I look them in the eye and connect, he says. I really had a relationship with these people that could be seen through the pictures.
In November of 1961, five months after taking pictures of Taylor, the young Kirkland got the opportunity to travel to Paris with photographer Art Buchwald and photograph Marilyn Monroe. The ethereal Monroe flirting with him from behind white silk sheets is the quintessential example of his candid celebrity shots in Light Years.

With his charm and trustworthy demeanor, Kirkland revealed the intimate tears of Ann-Margret, the many faces of Debra Winger, a pensive Diane Keaton, and Susan Sarandons confidence. He magnified the raw emotions and even the pores and wrinkles of his photographed celebrities who became less surreal and more human with every shot.

Although he was master of the trust zone between photographer and subject, he soon realized that the candid power and beauty of his photos did not guarantee instant publishing success. Light Years, three decades of celebrity photography, took twelve to take from conceptualization to publication. At first, I couldnt get published. At one point it was three weeks from going to the printer, and the publisher pulled it, he explains. Thats why I say you have to have an ego to survive. Over a lunch date, someone asked to look at his book of celebrities, and by the time the lunch check had been paid, he had cut a book deal. Two months later, Light Years was on its way to the printer. Kirkland learned that even a talented photographer has to wait in the publishing line with his ego at bay. Dont let your ego get in the way. You need a lot of ego to keep bouncing back, but dont have so much ego that you think youre always right because youre not, he says.

In the autumn of 1963 after a string of successes and opportune photo shoots with Look magazine, Kirkland went off the staff and worked under contract with Look, which allowed him to freelance for different publications such as Venture magazine. He shot the cover for the first issue, and Venture sent him to Greece and Lebanon to put together photo essays. Then, Look folded, and in 1971 Kirkland began to work for Life magazine.

As a child, Kirkland had discussed and analyzed the photographs in Life magazine with his father, Morley. Ironically, several years after deep Life talks with his dad, Kirkland became a photographer for the magazine. Hired by the Time Life Company, Kirkland worked for several of the publications, including People, Money and Sports Illustrated. Then, in the early eighties, he added to his published pile and satiated his interest in science by doing science work for Omni, Science Digest and Life. There werent enough hours in the day at this point, Kirkland says.
His interest in science expanded along with his awareness of culture and politics. He did a story on the Beijing film studio in the early eighties. The first time he was in Beijing, their cultural revolution had ended
and everything was demolished. When Kirkland revisited in 1995, he witnessed a cultural rebirth. As people and cultures evolved in the eighties, so did photography and Kirklands techniques.

During his earlier years at Look and Life, he would spend three weeks to a month with the person he was photographing; but this process was inefficient and unthinkable in the eighties. I did things in a day or two, and I had to work faster and size people up faster, Kirkland recalls. Im not sure if I had the opportunity I would take it back to spending a month with a person. I feel, in retrospect, it was right for me at the time. In the pre-eighties years, Kirkland also traveled without lights and produced available light shots. Available light was almost hallowed, like it was very special, and now we feel the picture is the most important thing, and if we need a light we use one, he says. But in those days, reality was more important.

Light Years, which includes a color photograph of Audrey Hepburn that celebrates her face, pores and undereye wrinkles, exemplifies the early theory that real is best. Adapting to the highly competitive, get-the-best-picture photography of the nineties, Kirkland shot the original Audrey Hepburn in black and white. The interesting thing is, in those earlier years, if a photos in black and white, it was thought of as second value. Today, its gone the other way around, and I love this black and white in this book, Kirkland says as he looks over Hepburns flawless complexion. Legend captures new renditions of Light Years originals and fresh additions, such as shots of John Travolta and photography great, Man Ray.

A continuation of the Light Years three decade documentation, Legends, published in March, 1998, by Gingko, steps into the nineties. Kirkland dabbles in the emerging digital photography of the nineties in his book ICONS: Creativity with Camera and Computer, published by Collins San Francisco in 1993. He discovered the computer for the first time in 1993 when Kodak opened a digital imaging center in Camden, Maine. It suddenly seemed that I had a super darkroom that could do everything- dodge, burn, change color, crop, Kirkland says of his new discovery. I found it tremendously exciting and invigorating. Digital, seemingly metallic shots of celebrities, such as Cindy Crawford, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Kim Basinger, add to the ICONS collection of modern photography. Kirkland says he took the computer to an extreme dimension, creating futuristic images that pushed beyond traditional photographs. Today Im more inclined to take true photography, and Im not doing that extreme work I was doing then, he says. The computer can never replace the look of passion or the importance of the truth in the picture. The computer should not be a substitute for good photography. To Kirkland, good photography is honest, positive photography that literally strips the subject of any reservations or insecurities.

His book, Body Stories, published in 1997 by Leonardo Arte, features nudes, mostly close friends of Kirkland and Francoise, who confidently make being naked beautiful. The concept for this book began after Kirkland photographed a 22 year-old male dancer as a gift to the dancers boyfriend. At the end of the session, Kirkland ended up with nude photographs of the dancer who agreed to enter the photos in an AIDS benefit auction. Three platinum prints of the nude dancer were sold for $3000, and Kirklands new creative endeavor emerged. He started photographing more friends nude and hung the prints on the walls at his home to judge and edit. As other friends came over to dinner, they also analyzed and commented on the exhibited nudes. By the time they had finished the main course, they too wanted to be immortalized in the growing nude collection. A lot of people who had never been photographed in the nude before were nervous, but afterwards they felt totally exhilarated because it had been such a wonderful, wonderful experience, Francoise explains. They all felt very beautiful and flawless, she continues as she smiles admirably at her husband. Kirkland settled the models nerves by playing soft music, covering their bodies in gauze, and, most importantly, looking into their eyes. I work alone with them, and you must look them in the eye and not over their private parts in a vicious way because its the photography youre doing and nothing more than that, he says. Youre creating something of beauty, he says as he looks at the first photograph in the book. The male model in the first photo was so nervous that his sweat dripped onto the seamless paper. Kirkland says that although the model was both worried and apologetic, it was his perspiration that created the beautiful gleam along his back. Body Stories exemplifies his theory that the greatest satisfaction in life is doing something for yourself. But part of the challenge of success is being able to perform at the same optimal level when you are creating a product for someone else.

As photographer on the set of Titanic, written and directed by James Cameron, Kirkland learned to balance his personal expression with the creative force of a movie making team. As a still photographer, youre there to supplement the film, but not to get in the way. You have to accept the fact that youre not the center of things-the camera and the stars are the center, and you have to allow your ego to step aside. he says.

Kirkland, who has worked on 75 movies including Sophies Choice, Out of Africa, and Showgirls, has struck gold with his Titanic still-lifes that can be seen in the book, James Camerons Titanic. The book published by Harper Collins Publishers in 1997, showcases the making of the early twentieth century love saga and is in its second printing. Through motion picture photography, Kirkland learns to tell a story. Doing still photography for a film is like doing a huge report over time. You keep processing things in your head and figure out what statements you want to make about the film.

From taking his first photo of his family Christmas morning to shooting scenes from Titanic, Kirklands life lessons have taught him how to be a great communicator. My love is communicating, Kirkland states. I feel empowered to be able to photograph in different styles and tell a story about the images, put them in the computer, retouch them. The accomplished photographer thoroughly understands the art and the business of getting a photography book together and getting it published. Great art directors, writers, trial and error, and a cultivated perseverance have been his greatest teachers. And now, with knowledge of the publishing process and enough personal dedication, he knows he can accomplish any project. My fantasy can wander into different places. I think I should do a kids book, or I look at the cats in our house and think I should do an entire book on them. I probably wont, he says with a smile. Leaving his cat book idea in the recess of his mind, his latest project is about cinematographers and the evolution of cinematography for the American Society of Cinematographers. Colleague Bob Fisher and Kirkland have already photographed 80 cinematographers, and they plan to unearth early stills of movies that later evolved into the motion picture. The movie business really began with just the photographer. There wasnt a director, just a man with a camera.

Kirkland is excited about his next project and savors the period between conception and actuation because he can truly enjoy the project before jumping into work. Kirkland accepts the fact that success is a continual test. Regardless of how much he already knows, Kirklands secret to success is realizing he still has more to learn. Theres no easy gig or magic lantern you can rub and always get it right, you have to keep questioning yourself. I guarantee I will make a lot of mistakes, but I hope to catch those mistakes before they are published, he says. You should never say I got this perfect and now Im going to work part-time on it. If you have greater capability, push yourself more and get better–keep stretching, stretching, stretching.

Kirkland concludes with a confident, knowing smile, There aint no free lunch. These are just my beliefs. Based on his impressive past accomplishments, the belief that hard work and humble dedication render success is true for photographer and inspirational sage, Douglas Kirkland.

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