Douglas Kirkland: He photographed the stars



                                                Cynthia Webb, Brisbane, QLD., Australia

Douglas Kirkland 


Several years ago, I attended a discussion with Douglas Kirkland, at the Gallery of Modern Art, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, where there was an exhibition of his photos of  Hollywood’s famous ones.


Douglas Kirkland was a warm and sincere man — whose life has been defined by the beautiful photographs he took of legendary people of the 20th century. His personality is so sincere, and his empathy for his subjects is genuine. That is how he became one of the main pictorial documentarians of our time. He photographed many Hollywood stars, and also the European cultural elite. People responded to him – trusted him – and he did not let them down.


‘All right Douglas.  Come tomorrow night at 8.30pm’. These words, spoken by Elizabeth Taylor, were the beginning of the fifty year career of Douglas Kirkland, celebrity photographer extraordinaire.


It was 1961 and a young man from Canada was just starting out on his professional career with LOOK Magazine.  Elizabeth was the biggest star in the world, and it was shortly after the plane death in a plan crash, of her husband Mike Todd, and her own emergency tracheotomy.


He had been sent by his employers, LOOK magazine, at the peak of its fame, to do an interview. Elizabeth Taylor made the condition of  “no pictures”  still being concerned about the scar on her throat. He was shaking her hand and looking into her famous violet eyes, when he decided to take a risk, and said, ‘Elizabeth, I’m new at this job. Can you imagine what it would mean to me if you would let me photograph you?’


 Her kindness towards a young man, in a new job, resulted in a portfolio of pictures that launched his career. And she surely wasn’t sorry, because he took such exquisite pictures of her — that showed her true personality and her astounding beauty, throat scar and all. Elizabeth did not to be flawless, to be beautiful. Perhaps this admission of humanity made her even more beautiful.


In the last fifty years Douglas Kirkland has photographed an incredible list of world stars, and been the official photographer on about one hundred movie sets.  Before his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor, he’d been doing fashion photography.


Observing the 76 year old Douglas Kirkland, it seemed clear to me that his own personality has played a large part in his success – making it possible for him to achieve the intimate images we have all seen, even if we didn’t all know his name at the time we looked at his photographs. 


He is an exuberant and friendly man, with a love of life, and a sure instinct for relating to people and setting them at their ease.  To use the parlance of his times, this man has “good vibes”. Surely it was this aspect of him that caused Elizabeth Taylor to relent on her “no pictures” condition.


On the occasion when briefly I met him, Douglas Kirkland stressed that his photography sessions were collaborations between him and his subjects.


  He told a story of Sophia Loren saying to him, ‘Yes, I remember exactly when and where we took this picture,’ on an occasion when he presented her with one of his portraits of her from thirty years earlier.


 The operative word is “we”.  Douglas Kirkland has the kind of personality that touches people and makes them comfortable, and after an hour or two in his presence, I felt sure of it.


He said: ‘You don’t say, “Act natural” to your subjects, because most people want clear directions.’  He explained that although he always arrived at a photo shoot with a plan, it could well be abandoned if the subject’s personality and ideas required it, and something spontaneous could often provide the best images. Douglas had the kind of empathy that could quickly assess this.


‘You must adapt to the situation. This is where the pictures come from.’


Many of the photographs show his stars in unguarded moments, sleeping, crying, and revealing utter exhaustion.  The photographs demonstrate that his honest and sensitive nature gains the trust of his subjects, who soon come to feel safe with him and relax.


 His career has involved traveling with stars while on the road for performances, or on film-sets, often in far-flung locations.  With some of them he has formed life-long friendships, and he spoke of others with great affection and respect, including Paul Newman, Roman Polanski, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Baz Luhrmann, Peter Sellars, Twiggy, and Sophia Loren.


Others he has photographed include Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie, Peter O’Toole, Ann-Margret, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicolson, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Orson Welles, John Wayne, Antonio Banderas, Jodie Foster, Gene Hakman, Angelina Jolie, Warren Beatty, and on and on. It was blindingly obvious that Judy Garland had surrendered herself to his sensitive and honest camera lens…. as I looked at his photos of her, sometimes taken in her most vulnerable moments.


Kirkland said, ‘When you look at my pictures, you are seeing my life.’ 

And I thought…. It was also representing – some of the most honest moments of the lives of your subjects.


Growing up in the small town of Port Irie, near Toronto, Canada, he took his first photos at the age of ten, with a “Box-Brownie” camera.


Sadly, there are very few magazines left now, which can commission and use major photo features, like LOOK Magazine and LIFE Magazine,’ however Douglas Kirkland has published several books, including a pictorial documentation of the filming of “Thriller”, Michael Jackson’s legendary music video.  And there is his book   “An Evening With Marilyn” (2005) where he describes sensitively, his encounter with MM…. A night when his young, and nervous persona met with a legend, and was confronted with an invitation that most men could only dream of.


In November 1961, he was assigned to photograph Marilyn Monroe. She stipulated that she would require a bottle of champagne, some Frank Sinatra records and a bed with white silk sheets.  These were set up in a studio and Marilyn had a couple of assistants present, but she later sent them from the room saying ‘I want to be alone with this boy. It will work better that way.’


 At the discussion, where I met him, Douglas continued, ‘I visually and verbally made love to her, because I wanted to capture the sensuality, after all this was Marilyn Monroe!  Then she said, ‘Why don’t you come into the bed with me?’  I just kept on taking pictures acting like I hadn’t heard.  I can’t deny that it was exciting, but I felt my role there was to put it all into the camera. Also, I had a wife and kids back in New Jersey.  In the years since, I’ve sometimes asked myself if I made a mistake, but my first love is photography.’ 

In the book he recalls:  “I kept remembering her last words to me, after seeing the pictures, “I want to do this again with you real soon!”  And then we’d kissed and I’d left. My appetite for more time with her in front of my lens had only been whetted. I knew that she genuine loved the camera and making pictures as much as I did.”


Marilyn died not long after this photo-shoot and the resulting photographs have become part of the Marilyn Monroe myth.


Douglas still sometimes uses his 10 x 8 inch format camera, a marvelous relic of a bygone photographic era. It is cumbersome, has an upside down image for the photographer to work with, and requires the subjects to stay still for quite a long time, but produces beautiful black and white images with a soft background, which he says cannot be achieved any other way. It is late 1800’s technology, however his own model is from the 1920’s.


He still shoots film, although much of his work today is done with a digital camera.

He has what he called “a goldmine”, of one million images which he and his wife Francoise sometimes explore, and find previously overlooked images that now seem to have found new resonance.


‘These times have brought us amazing technological change but I haven’t changed and my eye has not changed.  I always like to have a pocket digital camera with me. I do a lot of digital work today, but I use film as well. Photography is not just technology. It is art, so I moved with the times. When Photoshop came out, I jumped right into it, especially since I was going through a quiet time in my career.  So what about the saying that pictures never lie? I think that pictures have always lied. You have always been able to lie with the camera and in the printing process… even if only using a shadow to conceal a fat bulge.  The camera is only as dishonest as you make it.’


Kirkland was using his pocket digital camera in the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, where he was capturing images of “interesting looking” people in the lobby, and visitors looking at one hundred and fifty of his photographs, adorning the walls.  Kirkland’s visit to Brisbane, Australia has gained national news coverage and interviews, and that is testament to his skill in showing us the humanity and vulnerability as well as the larger than life side, of the icons of the second half of the twentieth century.


 His previous visits Down Under were when he documented the shooting of Baz Luhrmann’s films “Moulin Rouge” taking place in Sydney, and more recently on location in the Outback during the making of “Australia”.

If you look at Kirkland’s website or browse any of his books, most people will instantly recognize the familiar images that captured the zeitgeist of our times, during the second half of the 20th Century – particularly the faces of actors and musicians.
When I looked at the exhibition, what struck me was that in many of the most eloquent images it was Kirkland’s sense of empathy that had enabled him to spot unguarded moments that really revealed his subjects.Some of the pictures brought tears to the eyes.

Story and picture by Cynthia Webb

About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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