By Bill Dobbins
Nowadays, when we are bombarded with images from the Internet, social networks, television and (at least some) magazines it is sometimes hard to remember how important photo magazines used to be in our culture – communicating what was going on in the world and what it looked like to an audience of millions.
Douglas Kirkland needs no reminders to this, since his access to and involvement with those magazines provided the foundation of his long and illustrious career.
Looking back, Kirkland says he is amazed at how far he has come and what he has accomplished since the time he shot his first photo with his family’s box camera. “It was a cold morning in Fort Erie, Christmas day. I was ten years of age, was finally permitted to use the family camera and I looked down there, moved around, saw my parents and my brother standing in front of the house Christmas day and there was that click of the shutter, that small click, and that’s really where my career, my enjoyment and my excitment about photography began.”
At age 15 Kirkland started working for a local newspaper, shooting with a Speed Graphic, began recognizing the wonderful work of photographers out in the “big world” and dreaming of becoming one of them. He eventually went to New York City, worked with Irving Penn for four months and started contributing to a number of small publications to gain experience and build up his portfolio.
“In July of 1960 I was hired by Look and that’s when my life really began. I believe I got my true education traveling for Look. And as I kept shooting for the magazine they trusted me more and more and gave me more projects that were very special. And, eventually, they started to allow me to do whatever I wanted, within reason. So I got to shoot fashion, sports, journalism and everything else. All of that created the building blocks that constitute the story of where this guy sitting here today came from.”
Kirkland joined the staff of Look in 1960 when he was 24 years old and the photos Marilyn Monroe he became famous for were taken for the magazine’s 25th anniversary issue in 1961. “I photographed a long list of people over my career,” Kirkland explains, “any everyone is usually more interested in Marilyn than any of the others.”
He went to a bungalow in Beverly Hills with an assignment to shoot Marilyn and instead of the Hollywood diva he was expecting he found her to be easy going and somewhat playful. It was her idea, he recalls, to be photographed on a bed wrapped in a silk sheet and Kirkland says all the had to do was keep shooting as she rolled around the bed striking one sexy pose after another.
“I used a very bright flood light coming through a scrim,” Kirkland explains, “creating what we call a ‘north light’ look, like a big window. The lighting was that elementary, that simple. Marilyn had suggested that she’d like to be photographed on a bed, and she said with a white silk sheet, Dom Perignon champagne and Frank Sinatra records – and we had all of that.”
Kirkland emphasizes that, especially in a shoot like this, you need to be able to devote all your attention to the subject. This means you need get everything like the camera, exposure and lighting, all the technical aspects of the shoot, set in advance so nothing distracts you from your ability to focus on your interaction with the model.
Douglas Kirkland talks about this historic photo session in a video on YOUTUBE.
“I did not say to Marilyn, ‘Put your arm up. Do this, do that.’ I just talked, did some flirting, the vibes going back between us, and what I caught was that sexuality that was popping from her, that went into the camera, and that’s why we have these Marilyn pictures.”
Douglas Kirkland shot for Look for 11 years and then later for Life.
After all these decades as a professional photographer, Kirkland is well known as a celebrity photographer but also for the important work he has done shooting movie stars and on movie sets. Years ago producers and film companies would invite major photographers to photograph on the set and location during a production to get really high quality journalistic images (rather than having this work done by photographers working for the studio). This is one reason we have so many wonderful photographs of movie stars and actors at working during the making of many movies in the past.
“Sometimes people ask me how I ever got involved in the world of movies,” says Douglas Kirkland, “and it was rather a surprise because I was not originally hired at Look to work with celebrities or stars or have anything to do with the movies. I happened to be shooting fashion when I got a call from my boss in New York and he said he’d like me to go to Las Vegas because Elizabeth Taylor has not done an interview or been photographed in almost a year. I got an incredible scoop by being able to photograph her and having both Elizabeth Taylor and the magazine end up loving the images. One of the photos ran on the cover of Look, not my first cover by the way, and the photo set ran all over the world and got a huge amount of attention.”
Douglas Kirkland is like many successful celebrity photographers in that he is able to work quickly and unobtrusively when this is called for, doing as much set up and testing as possible before the subject arrives so they don’t have to spend any more time doing the pictures than necessary. He is aware that a celebrity, movie or music star might not like having their photo taken and is usually available for a relatively short time. So the photographer needs to be prepared, supportive, reassuring and personable.
And, of course, charm is a major asset in becoming a successful celebrity photographer.
In terms of being on set shooting movies, “I worked on 161 movies in the industry,” Kirkland says. “The process doesn’t change, whether I’m doing it today or whether I did it years ago. You have to be in the background, not in anybody’s way and not slow down the process of the movie being made. And you have to show respect for the people involved, the crew and to connect and be connected with the stars. That is very important. You work to keep these relationships. I love the individuals whom I meet through photography. And this ability to relate and connect has contributed to my career.”
Douglas Kirkland has worked with many cameras over the years, starting with the family Brownie, then a Speed Graphic, an 8X10 view camera, a Hasselblad, Mamiya RZ and a Nikon 35MM and now Canon DSLRs. He still shoots film when the job calls for it, but he is now an advocate of digital photography for a number of reasons and has been a member of Canon’s Explorers of Light since the beginning of the program and started working with digital cameras early on. An digital project was the advertising campaign for Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme” opera on Broadway
Digital, he feels, gives you a latitude in exposure lacking in film and with post-production using software like Photoshop you no longer have to hand over your film to an art director to create a finished image. You can sit down at a computer and do much of that yourself.
“As a photographer, you want your picture to look a certain way, and you want it to be represented at its very best. Years back we would give it to an art director and somebody else would make the scans, do color correction, airbrush the images – it was a very hit and miss process as far as the photographer and his own vision of the picture was concerned. Today we have much more control, because we do it in our own computers with our own scans and post-processing.”
Kirkland also sometimes goes very old school shooting portraits on film using an 8X10 Deardorff. Why? “People say to me, why do you use a camera like this? And truthfully, you get a look on peoples faces that are different than if you just pick up a camera and go click. Everything has to be held in one position. It takes time to take a picture with this.”
“You look in the back, you focus. Usually I do it with a loop or magnifying glass and you get it right. You may adjust this a little because you’re seeing all this in the back and then once it’s ready you must have your subject stay in the same position. You put the film in, pull the slide and then make the exposure. Take a picture like that and it’s a complicated, slow process. But in the process of doing that people end up having a very different look on their faces.”
Kirkland still works on film when jobs require it. For example, he has shot for more than 25 years on a project called “On Film For Kodak” for their motion picture divisions. “What that involved was photographing a cinematographer or occasionally a director or once in a while producer. I used to do one add a month. And since the series was called On Film and it was about motion picture film I used the Mamiya RZ 67. This long running series has not unfortunately terminated since Kodak is no longer the company it used to be.
Shooting so many portraits for the Kodak project that are essentially alike, Kirkland makes a great effort to keep changing things like lighting and backgrounds to create as much variety as possible. There is no photo that is too simple or too unimportant not to make every effort to shoot best possible image.
At one point, Kirkland says the publishing industry got much better at scanning and reproducing smaller film formats with improved quality and he started to rely more on a 35mm Nikon camera – which allowed him to shoot faster and more unobtrusively than with other equipment.
Nowadays, like most of the rest of the industry, he uses digital cameras and does post-processing on a computer. “I’m glad to still have the capability of working with film, but I’d say that most of my work nowadays is really done with one camera. It’s called the Canon 5D Mark IV.) With the digital technology that we have, the possibilities really excite me and I can get pictures that I never would have been able to as little as just ten years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to get photos with the same consistency and ease. I still do a very wide variety of types of photos and enjoy the effort of dealing with different challenges. I don’t want to just be doing the same picture all the time. Throughout the history of photography, innovations in equipment have always allowed photographers to keep creating new kinds of images. And that process is still going on in the electronic age.”
As legendary a career as Douglas Kirkland has had, and as many photographs as he has done over the years, he has no plans for ever stopping shooting as long as he is able to keep working. After all, he is doing what he has always wanted to do in life, starting back when he was a teenager in Canada.
“At 82, I have no intention of ever retiring. As long as this hand can lift a camera and push that button I want to keep doing it because it’s the joy of my life. And, frankly, my career has arrived at a point where I’m enjoying the best of it. And that’s the way I feel about it so I just want to use every moment I have to a maximum.”
Douglas Kirkland’s new book FREEZE FRAME SECOND CUTcoming out on April 1, 2017. An upcoming exhibition at the Mouche Gallery in Beverly Hills called Douglas Kirkland Beyond the Lens opening the weekend of April 26 which will feature photos from FREEZE FRAME SECOND CUT and introduce Douglas’s newest project. It is a collaboration with Erika Lemay, William Thoren and Simone Guidarelli called ABC …XYZ.
In addition to continually being busy shooting photographs, Douglas Kirkland also gives seminars and workshops, makes instructional videos and is author of more than a dozen books – available at Amazon.com.
And check him out on YOUTUBE.
NOTE OF APPRECIATION: Douglas Kirkland has been a friend of Samy and Samy’s Camera since the beginning. His account is among the first 60.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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