Douglas Kirkland

Douglas Kirkland’s most famous image, a sultry shot of Marilyn Monroe, naked save for a loosely draped silk sheet and tightly clutching a pillow the way she might hold a lover, is a perfect metaphor for the way one might view the photographer’s own life–a far-fetched fantasy.

It’s hard not to envy Douglas Kirkland. For almost half a century, he has intensified the aura, mystery, and, in some cases, humanity, surrounding more celebrities than he cares to remember-Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Leonardo Dicaprio, Tom Cruise-the list goes on and on and on. Kirkland has worked as the still photographer on the set of more than 100 movies. His most recent project, the photographs for the bestselling book, James Cameron’s Titanic, sold two million copies. It was once estimated that in any given week during any given year, at least 100 publications around the world were running a Kirkland photograph.

A representative sampling of Kirkland’s high-mileage lifestyle: Work for a week or so in Europe on a book on Italian women; fly to New York to pick up a sporty Jeep Grand Cherokee and drive it cross-country via America’s most colorful ribbon of kitsch, Route 66. Then, after a short hiatus at home in Los Angeles, hop a plane to Cuba for the Havana Film Festival, followed by a flight to Tokyo for an opening at the Tower Gallery in Yokohama. It’s no wonder this 64-year-old purveyor of the good life has no plans to retire. “What is there to retire from?” he laughs. “I’m living a dream.”These days, Kirkland operates his astral reality from, fittingly, Wonderland Park Avenue-just a few streets off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills-where he lives with his second wife and business partner Francoise, and their two cats, Oscar and Zouzou. Their quiet retreat with leafy terraces, an eclectic mix of French furniture, Balinese fabrics, and exotic trinkets gathered from around the world, is a perfect spot to sit back and soak in the fact that life’s, well, damn good. That is, when they have time to lounge between trips to, say, photograph Nicole Kidman in Australia on the set of her newest movie Moulin Rouge, or visit their grandchildren in Vermont.
Kirkland grew up universes away from Hollywood in Fort Erie, Ontario-population 7,000. Even then he sensed the largesse of life, and that a career as a photographer represented, as he says, “an enormous adventure, a total domain of fantasy.” One of the childhood rituals that most sculpted his future was the Friday arrival of Life magazine. Sitting with his father, a tailor, around the kitchen table at lunchtime, the two would pore over each vivid spread, discussing the implication of each photograph as if dissecting it for a college thesis, barely able to restrain themselves from greedily turning to the next page. Charged by the possibilities of photography, Kirkland started snapping his own shots with a Brownie box camera held together by a garter.

In retrospect, of course, Kirkland’s rise to the elite ranks of photography seems ridiculously fast and painless. While freelancing for his local newspaper and making the rounds on the regional wedding circuit at the age of 14, Kirkland landed a spot just across the border at Seneca High School in Buffalo, New York-the only program in America to teach photography at a secondary school level. Soon after, Kirkland was hired as an apprentice under Irving Penn and promptly moved his first wife and their two young children to New York, despite the measly $65-per-week salary. And while the insubstantial income ultimately forced Kirkland to quit the job and move back to Buffalo, Penn’s studio is where Kirkland first felt photography take on a life of its own. “It was my first exposure to New York,” says Kirkland. “Vogue editors would enter the studio and I would feel the power, enormity, and effectiveness of what was going on. I started to understand the impact photography had on the world.”

Two years later, at 24, Kirkland was hired as a staff photographer at Look-the second-youngest person to receive the coveted position, behind only Stanley Kubrick, who had been hired at 17. Almost overnight, Kirkland’s career went global. He would spend a week shooting small-town life across America, then hop a flight to Czechoslovakia or Greece or Lebanon before returning to the States for a session with Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, or Marilyn Monroe. Back then, his photo essays would run 10 or 12 pages and were, on average, seen by three out of five Americans-enormously generous statistics in today’s highly segmented, budget-conscious magazine trade.

“I really got an education of the world,” says Kirkland. “I’d get a call and my assignment could be down the block or it could be on the opposite side of the Earth. Back then, we were encouraged to do a variety of projects and to document our own version of the story.”

Somehow during those first few years Kirkland found his niche in Hollywood. Maybe it was his ability to add just a touch of realism to the portraits of these otherwise untouchable celebrities. Or maybe it was Kirkland’s approachable, low-key personality-a diplomatic complement to the stars’ high-strung perfectionism. Or maybe it was his golden rule: “In photographing an individual, my ego is completely secondary. There’s only one star-the person in front of the camera. If they don’t have confidence, it is my job to get them to connect with me.”

And connect he did, no matter what it took. “When he was shooting, Douglas would turn into this high-energy maniac-ranting and raving and jumping six feet in the air,” laughs Adam Jahiel, a photographer who was an assistant to Kirkland in the ’80s. “It would amuse the hell out of me. We’d have these wild sessions with movie stars and then almost as quickly as they came, they’d leave, and we’d pull out a can of Planter’s peanuts and a bottle of white wine and grin and say, ‘Ahhh, that was fun. But now things can get back to normal.'”

One of Kirkland’s favorite disaster stories, mostly because it has a happy ending, is a time in the mid-1960s when he photographed Marlene Dietrich. The egotistical star felt previous photographers had handled her very badly, so working with her was like walking on egg shells. Eventually, through gentle cajoling, Kirkland got his cover story and never heard from Dietrich again. But a year later, on a flight to Paris, he happened to be sitting in first class when the woman next to him leaned over and whispered in a familiar low, husky voice, “I liked those pictures you did. They were very successful.” It was Marlene Dietrich.

After Look folded in the late ’60s, Kirkland was hired by Life magazine, fulfilling his boyhood mission and slowly expanding his portfolio with other Time-Life titles including People, Money, and Sports Illustrated. And while he nuilt his career around Hollywood, some of his favorite images are from the days he shot features for Omni and Science Digest. Unexpected combinations of places and people also delight Kirkland, like an image he shot of Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace-a photograph he had completely forgotten until he recently unearthed it from deep within a file drawer.

With a handsome face, a lanky six-foot-three frame, and a shock of tousled white hair, Kirkland wears his own celebrity quite well, but he remains refreshingly untarnished by his work in the trenches of Hollywood glitz. He’s been to the Oscars only once, rarely mingles with his famous neighbors, and still has a penchant for frozen LeMenu TV dinners and iceberg lettuce, despite the fact that his French wife refuses to allow those particular groceries into the house. And while he admits that he was initially a little starstruck, Kirkland has had plenty of time to develop his own philosophy about fame and how he chooses to handle monstrous egos, annoying publicists, and clients who expect to be treated like royalty.

“The word ‘celebrity’ is a rather peculiar word,” he says. “I work with celebrities but I’m not in awe of them. Individuals are less important to me than the possibilities of creativity. It’s making images that excite me. Honestly, the names have come and gone, but my good fortune is that I’ve remained.”

“There are a lot of photographers who enjoy the status of being a photographer,” adds Jahiel, explaining his old boss’s uncanny ability to distance himself from the potentially ego-expanding line of work he happens to have chosen. “And then there’s another breed of photographers that I like to call ‘concerned photographers.’ I always put Douglas in this category. Down deep I don’t really think he gives a rat’s ass about the glamour, he’s just concerned about the quality of the photography.”

Equally as important as the quality and volume of images Kirkland has amassed over his 46-year career-he has more than 2,000 jobs filed in his studio-is his indefatigable wisdom concerning the art and economics of the business, and his willingness to share it. In addition to a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the American Society of Operating Cameramen, Kirkland recently won a “Mentor of the Year” award from Fotofusion, as well as “Photo-grapher of the Year” from the Photographic Manufacturers of America in 1999.

Little wonder, if Jahiel’s experience is a representative slice of the way Kirkland treats his underlings. “We worked together on a book on the Ritz Hotel in Paris,” says Jahiel, “and whenever Douglas would introduce me to famous stars or people in the hotel, he would introduce me as his associate. You can’t imagine what that meant to a young, impressionable photographer. I always loved him for that. He was a teacher, not an employer.”

And while Kirkland plays the role of mentor well, there are a few moments in his own career where his own mentoring relationship would have been helpful. Especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s when magazine budgets were slashed and perks were stripped away-a tough turn for someone like Kirkland who came from the gravy-train school of magazine photography. “Between 1992 and 1994 photography for publications changed enormously because budgets were cut in half,” Kirkland laments. “They used to just give me tickets to Alaska or Europe and that sort of thing just stopped, which came somewhat as a shock. They didn’t need people like us anymore because we were too costly. Ultimately, I was affected very little,” says Kirkland. “In fact, probably my best creative work was done in that period, but I was still very disturbed and confused.”

Rather than call it quits in this dicey brave new world of photography, Kirkland jumped on the new technology bandwagon, delving into new and exciting ways to apply the computer to photography. In two years he came out with Icons, the second of eight books, and a collection of celebrity photographs including mugs of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Kim Basinger, and Sean Connery that Kirkland digitally manipulated to look like paintings. Well-received by some and despised by others, Icons proved to Kirkland that he was still able to create a stir and evolve with the times. And while the market eventually bounced back, Kirkland steered away from magazine photography to pursue more lucrative commercial assignments and his own creative projects, like his upcoming book on Italian women. Recently his friend John Reuter offered to let him experiment with a very rare 20×24 Polaroid at a studio in New York, which Kirkland used to photograph a dancer.

Though he considers himself the luckiest man in the world for enjoying such unbounded success as a photographer, Kirkland spins a cautionary tale for starry-eyed photographers eager to jump into the fray. “The days of Life and Look are totally nonexistent now,” he warns. “There is no publication that has the same kind of impact. And while people have a lot of excitement for the web, I don’t feel like it has the same impact that you get from a book or a magazine. It’s unfortunate for young people because their prospects are limited.”

And while the glory days of photography might be gone forever, there’s no doubt that Kirkland’s going to be just fine despite the shrinking assignments and hyper-evolving technologies. “Even today,” he chuckles, “I feel there’s essentially nothing I can’t do.”

Stephanie Gregory is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

All photographs: Douglas Kirkland-Polaroid 20×24 Series-Carrie: Dance, Veil, Bare.

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