“The next time I saw her, she was a goddess, truthfully. I don’t want to be sounding overly dramatic, but she seemed to float, not walk, into the room…there was a great luminescence about her. Now she was Marilyn Monroe.”
From Marilyn Monroe to Angelina Jolie, Man Ray to Stephen Hawking, Orson Welles to Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Kirkland’s creative path has lead him, camera in-hand, to the most renowned contemporary icons. With a career spanning more than 50 years, his place in the cultural canon is interlaced with the legacies of the great performers, filmmakers, artists and thinkers of our time. Kirkland spoke to us from the Hollywood Hills home he shares with his wife and business partner Francoise, in a conversation that was at once awe-inspiring, honest, insightful and surprisingly unassuming.
PhotoHaus: You’ve had such a prolific career’ did you always want to be a photographer?
Douglas Kirkland: Well, yes. I was born in Toronto and when I was 3 my parents moved to a tiny town called Fort Erie. By the time I was 13 or 14, it seemed like the most glamorous work in the world. I used to look at Look magazine, Life magazine and all the publications at the time…it just seemed like it was a dream because in our little town of 7,000 people not much ever seemed to happen, and here were photographers that went all over the world. I also loved photography. I took my first picture with our family 1-16 Brownie – I still have it there, on the shelf – and before long I had the usual cameras like a Kodak dualflex and eventually an Argus camera. I was able to get work with our local photo studio where, by the time I was 15, I was photographing weddings and babies and passport photos. That was my world. From day one, it was a dream. But honestly, I didn’t ever expect it to go quite as far as it has. I’m 78 now, we work all the time, we have a full schedule, and it seems to get better all the time.
PH: Whose pictures really inspired you to go into photography?
DK: Well, growing up in Canada, there was a man in Ottawa named Yousuf Karsh. He was an influence in the early days, undeniably. I became a close friend of Gordon Parks. He was a brilliant photographer and became one of the top Life magazine photographers. He did fashion, he did reportage…he could turn his hand and do anything. He also made a number of films, and he wrote music…he was a great pianist. He did something like 20 books. He was very motivating. I worked as an assistant for Irving Penn in NY and ultimately, Penn was a greater influence than anyone. But the people that frequently impressed me were the people in my hometown of Fort Erie. There was a lady there named Magdalene Morningstar, she was very much a hands-on teacher for me. There’s no simple answer. We’re a composite of many things. I’ve learned from people like Francoise, and her parents. She had a wonderful mother who was quite a genius…spoke 4 languages, but was colourful and brilliant and had a great sense of art.
PH: You have photographed, it seems, every celebrity there is. Who was the first and how did you feel going into that shoot?
DK: I was hired by Look magazine in 1960 to do 2 things: photograph fashion and shoot colour, because a lot of the photographers at that time were uncomfortable with colour since they had been shooting only black and white. I was sent out here to California from NY, and I was shooting bathing suits. I got a call from my boss in New York saying, ‘Doug, we’d like you to go to Las Vegas. Elizabeth Taylor hasn’t been photographed in many months because she’s had pneumonia’. In fact, word was that she might not make it through. This was back in June 1961, and he said ‘she and her people have said they’d give us an interview for Look but no pictures. You go there and see if you can persuade her to allow us to have pictures’. So I went there, and sat at the back as the writer conducted his interview, and at the end I walked over to her and I extended my hand and said ‘Elizabeth, I’m new with this magazine. Could you imagine what it would mean to me if you give me an opportunity to photograph you?’…holding her hand and shaking it, and I think she thought she’d never be released! [laughs] She looked right at me and she said ‘Okay, come tomorrow night at 8:30’. So I did. Honestly, I had nothing else I could offer. She didn’t know who I was. I went there and I took pictures that went around the world because she hadn’t been photographed for quite an extended period and that was my first cover for a magazine. That put me on the map and by September I was traveling with Judy Garland, because she had a very successful show at Carnegie Hall and suddenly the world rediscovered her and she went on tour. We came out here to California where she made a big television show with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. It ended up she [Garland] was going to Berlin and in Berlin there were people like Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn…they were all there and I was in the centre of it. I did photograph Dietrich 1 or 2 months later. In November that same year, that’s when I did the Marilyn Monroe shoot, which was for the 25th Anniversary of Look magazine. So one thing just escalated into another and it was quite wonderful. It wasn’t something I anticipated, I just got very lucky. I was at the right place at the right time and I didn’t waste any opportunities.
PH: You’ve said that you met with Marilyn 3 times but felt you were never with the same person…
DK: I feel I saw the real Marilyn the first night that we went there to talk with her. That surprised me because I thought I was going to meet a movie star but I met somebody who was easy to talk with and to be straight-forward with. I thought I had to measure my words when I went in there, but there was none of that at all. She lived in a very small place, like a large deluxe hotel room, so we were taken to this small place…I had two colleagues with me and they were older than I was so they automatically sat down in the two chairs that were in the room and there was no place for Marilyn and me to sit. She just slapped the bed and said laughing, “just sit here…I think of it like a couch”. That was the girl who had grown up here in southern California. Perhaps that was the real, most honest girl, but not the girl that the public was interested in. The next time I saw her, she was a goddess, truthfully. I don’t want to be sounding overly dramatic, but she seemed to float, not walk, into the room…there was a great luminescence about her. Now she was Marilyn Monroe. It’s almost like she put Marilyn Monroe on like a costume, mentally and in every other way. Her voice was different as well. It wasn’t crisp and easy like the girl next door, it was the musical Marilyn’s sound coming out, with softness and sensuality. That was the girl I photographed and that’s the woman who is in those pictures. The last time I was with her was just the day after the session. It was about 17 or 18 hours later…here I was with her at 5:00 the following afternoon, having the film with me to show her because she wanted to see it. When I went to her place, it seemed like something was wrong. She had dark glasses on, and a scarf over her head. The door was opened a crack…this was the same room I had been in the first night but now it was dark. She wasn’t in a good mood when we started talking. She looked quickly through the pictures and she was less than happy with them. She disappeared and came back without the dark glasses and took another look through the pictures and started to find some she liked and eventually fell in love with certain images, such as the one with her holding a pillow. She said, “this girl is the kind of girl that a truck driver would like to be in that bed with”. That meant a real man, a kind of genuine man that she had probably grown up with. I think there were genuinely multiple personalities of this individual. Many actors have this to some degree, but I’ve never seen it as extreme as I did with Marilyn. When I was with that laughing girl the first night, she was very seductive in the girl-next-door way. The seductress…she was sexy, and sexual and every normal functioning man would want that woman. Who knows what grey clouds had come over her after that shoot by the next afternoon…her life had lots of complexity about it.
PH: Do you think you could pin down the secret to your own success?
DK: Not easily. It’s a great curiosity to me. I have 2 or 3 principles. Don’t ever burn bridges. For example, we’ve photographed all the nominees for Oscars this year…Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actors, there were 20 in all. Meryl Streep came in, and I’d worked with her on Out of Africa, Sophie’s Choice, and a couple of other times too. She came in and put her arms around me and said “Oh it’s so nice to see you again”…
I can’t understand it myself, except that I do try to always do the best I can. I have a positive perspective. I love, truly, passionately, love photography. I try to make the most of it…and one of the things I try to advise people is; whatever you do, do it as well as you can. If you’re taking pictures, if you’re mowing the lawn…whatever you’re doing, just do it as well as you can because at the end of the day, it feels best. The funny thing in photography, I find, is if you really reach and do your best and say “well I can get to here”…you get to there and then you push just a little harder and you find something a little better and you do things you didn’t know you could do.
See the full interview with Douglas Kirkland in the latest issue of PhotoHaus Magazine, hitting the shelves tomorrow, or check it out online and hear our full conversation as an MP3, available from our homepage next week.
Douglas Kirkland will be leading a Master Class at Vancouver Photo Workshops, January 18 to 20, 2013. Register here to take advantage of this rare opportunity to learn from this legend in celebrity portraiture.