Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Charlie Chaplin, Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren, Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman, Audrey Hepburn, Jessica Alba, The Rolling Stones, and 1000s more all photographed by the legend Douglas Kirkland
Hollywood Hills, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/6/18 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Douglas Kirkland: Every time I pick up my camera. The world I look at is seen through that lens so I want to make sure it’s impeccable.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
DK: Irving Penn. I worked for him in New York and he had more of an impact on me than any other individual. I worked as an assistant to numerous people but Penn was the top. He paid me no money to speak of. I couldn’t live on what he was paying me which was $60 a week in New York City. The job I had had in Buffalo, New York paid me about $150 a week so after working for Penn I went back to work in Buffalo because I needed to earn a living. I had a wife and two kids. My son by the way is Mark Kirkland the top animator/director at The Simpsons. He’s been there 30 years and of course I’m very proud of him.
The man I worked for in Buffalo was Sherman Greenberg and he was into Type-C printing which was totally new and revolutionary at that time. Kodak is in Rochester, New York very near Buffalo. So I started printing Type-C which I also did for Penn in New York.
I was working at a studio in Richmond, Virginia and I got to know a number of art directors. One of them gave me books and said the top photographer is Irving Penn. So I wrote a series of letters to Penn. I had learned that letters one and two might not be answered but letters three and four might be answered. So after my third letter I got an invitation to meet Penn at his Manhattan studio on W 40th Street. He liked my work. He said “You’re very good but I have no openings here.” Then he thought for a second and said “There may be an opening coming up. One of our guys has to go into the military for six months.” I got that job.
JS: Who besides photographers influenced you?
DK: My uncle Scott who was in the second world war. I was nine or ten years old when he served in Europe. Later when I became associated with Look magazine he gave me his Contax camera and said “This camera should be with you.” My father received Life Magazine when I was a kid and every Friday at lunch time we would look through the magazine together. This inspired me to pursue this life that seemed unattainable. Look magazine was very good to me. They sent me all over the world with a generous expense account. They sent me out here to L.A. to photograph Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and numerous others.
JS: What was your first camera?
DK: It was a 116 Box Brownie camera which produced a 2 ¼ x 4 ¼ negative.
JS: What camera are you shooting with these days?
DK: Canons. EOS 5D Mark IV, EOS 5DS, my favorite lenses are 24-105mm f4, 70-300mm f4.5-5.6, 70-200 f2.8, I use Canon extenders 1.4 and 2x. I am an Explorer of Light and I have had a contract with them for at least 25 years. They too have been very good to me. My Canon Image Prograf printers are fantastic. I have two of them the 60 inch is the 9400 and one the forty inch is the 8400. I can print much of my work right here in the studio with my two wonderful assistants Cassandra and Sam. I usually always carry my little Power Shot G1X Mark III in my pocket to take candid photos on the run. I’ve also started to print some of my photographs on aluminum using a company in Rhode Island called Blazing Editions. Some of my work is available at the Mouche Gallery in Beverly Hills. Years ago I worked on a special series with Polaroid. I have an original Polaroid here framed on the wall that’s 20×24 inches! I’m also still shooting with a Deardorff 8×10 film camera. I bought it with all the lenses and tripod for $100 from Look Magazine when they went out of business.
JS: you worked for two of the greatest magazines of all time Look and Life. It is now 2018. What are your thoughts about the state of printed magazines and books today?
DK: I’ve done a dozen books. That’s what I put myself into. I can’t wait for a book to come out and make my statement. We are going to launch the new book Physical Poetry Alphabet at Ron Robinson (8118 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA on November 3rd from 4-7pm)
JS: Could you comment on some of the great movies you worked on?
DK: Of course.
JS: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
DK: I worked on that with a man who had been at Look magazine early in his career, Stanley Kubrick. He made me very welcome on the set. They were very secretive and didn’t want to show much. As a photographer I wanted to show a lot. Even though Kubrick had been a photographer he resisted. I did get some pictures but it was not simple. Kubrick had a ½ frame camera that he loved and told me I had to get one. I got one in London and I ended up doing a book When We Were Young mostly with that camera.
JS: The Sound of Music
DK: That was the first film set I was hired on. I went to Salzburg. I was there about three weeks. The opening was shot with a helicopter and they wanted to clear me out of there. I arranged to go back to that field to photograph Julie Andrews but they had cut the grass or hey. So I got down low in the remaining grass and got the shot with a Widelux panoramic camera. Julie was singing to me. Today when you enter the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles that very shot appears as an illustration.
JS: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
DK: Conrad Hall was the D.P. and his girlfriend was Katharine Ross. He got jealous when I spent so much time photographing her. He wanted to know where we were and why the photo-shoot was taking so much time as it was getting dark! I was shooting with a hand strobe at sunset and got a lovely photograph of Katharine. I also remember Paul Newman, and Robert Redford had matching Porsches that they would drive them around in the desert.
SK: The director was Canadian and raised in Niagara Falls and I was in Fort Erie 20 miles away. James Cameron and I are twenty years apart but we have the same birth date August 16. I knew Cameron before and we decided to do a book on the making of the movie. The movie had no budget for this book but my wife Francoise and I decided to do it because we knew this movie was going to be important. We came up with a very small budget, just enough to pay my assistant and we did a total of 45 days of photography. I’d drive to Mexico with my assistant where the movie set was with the ship. It was a great experience and the publisher ended acquiring the rights to the images.
JS: You photographed John Travolta around the time he made Saturday Night Fever.
DK: I was hired by People magazine to photograph this young man who was on the T.V. show Welcome Back Kotter. He was living in an apartment on Doheny Dr. in Los Angeles. I photographed him there. We went to a screening of Saturday Night Fever and were so impressed with the film that I proposed a story on Travolta to Newsweek but they turned it down. So I proposed it to Time magazine who agreed. I shot it outside by the pool at my house with strobes and smoke. That became an iconic picture. Some heads rolled at Newsweek when Saturday Night Fever became a hit and they realized they passed up this photo shoot.
JS: You worked a lot with Baz Luhrmann.
DK: I worked on his films beginning with Moulin Rouge, then La Boheme, and The Great Gatsby. Baz and his wife Catherine Martin, and my wife and I are great friends. I met Baz after my portfolio was sent to him by Steve Newman at Twentieth Century Fox. He reviewed about 30 portfolios and chose Mary Ellen Mark, Ellen von Unwerth and me. Baz does something unique every time I arrive on his sets. He grabs his megaphone and says “We’re really lucky, we have Douglas Kirkland here.” Well, this changes the dynamic and helps me during the project. You never see this happen on a movie production, the still photographer getting this kind of introduction.
JS: Can you comment on some of the great performers you photographed?
DK: Of course.
JS: Marilyn Monroe
DK: I was a lucky young man to be working with Look. I was sent out with the journalist Jack Hamilton. He knew Marilyn. This was a special 25th anniversary edition of Look. Jack and I stayed at the Chateau Marmont. The first time we went to Marilyn’s apartment on Doheny Dr. She was very receptive to Jack Hamilton, the bureau chief, and me. However she didn’t have enough chairs for all of us. She slapped the edge of the bed and said “Listen Doug, just sit here with me.” That’s how we began our discussion.
The magazine wanted a very sexy picture but I didn’t know how to ask for it. Toward the end of the interview she said “I know what we need. A bed, a white silk sheet, and I won’t wear anything but I’ll be under that white silk sheet.” Later in the week we met again at a rented photo studio. We set up the shot as she described. During the shoot Marilyn asked my assistants to leave the room and said “I want to be alone with this boy, I find it works better that way.” We were alone as she requested for and hour or two and eventually she asked me to get in the bed with her. I didn’t do it because I was an innocent young boy from Fort Erie. We ended up talking into the night, shooting photos and we ended at about two in the morning. I shot about 25 rolls of 120 film using a Hasselblad camera. Of all the pictures I’ve ever shot these have gotten on more covers and for general use then any other photos. This is probably my most famous shoot.
The interesting thing is, when they were first published, my Marilyn photos only ran a half page on the inside. This edition of Look was the 25th Anniversary issue and the theme was how would these movie stars like to be remembered in 25 years. I shot all the photos for the issue (Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine, and others.) So with all those movie stars in that issue the story on Marilyn was just one small part.
The day after the photo shoot the film was processed and I brought the pictures to Marilyn. I had to ring the doorbell several times before she came to the door. She had obviously been sleeping. She invited me in, went back to her room came back out and took a very quick look at the photos while wearing sunglasses. She said “There may be a few good ones, there aren’t many.” She then went out of the room where I think she did something to help her take away some of the alcohol from the prior evening. When she returned to look at the photos again she said of the photos “This girl is a girl any man would want to be in that bed with.”
I was in Paris working for Coco Chanel. It was a grey day and I saw a headline in a French newspaper “Marilyn est Morte.” I wondered does that mean what it suggests? Is that my Marilyn? I went back to the hotel and asked and they said yes and they told me the sad details.
JS: Man Ray
DK: I was in Paris doing a story for a travel magazine about a new boutique hotel on the Left Bank where Oscar Wilde used to live “L’Hotel”. The manager told us Man Ray lives in a suite on the top floor would you like to meet him? My wife, Francoise and I met Man Ray and his wife Juliet and I casually took a few pictures.
JS: Jacques-Henri Lartigue
DK: My agent at the time Robert Pledge at Contact Press invited Francoise and I to have lunch with Lartigue and his wife Florette, we went to his apartment first and we took pictures of each other. We saw him again when he had an exhibit in New York. These encounters weren’t assignments they just happened.
JS: Orson Welles
DK: Another unusual encounter. Francoise and I were good friends with Patrick Terrail the owner of Ma Maison restaurant. Orson Welles had lunch there everyday with his own table in the back. One day Patrick asked if I wanted to photograph Welles. I said of course. Welles however was quite large so I put him behind a screen so you only see half of him. Welles understood what I was doing and thanked me.
JS: Andy Warhol
DK: I was doing a story for Look magazine about the movie world and I insisted on photographing Andy and also Francis Ford Coppola. I had met Andy a couple of times in New York. Francoise and I were staying at the Chateau Marmont our headquarters when we’d come to L.A. Andy and his posse Joe Dallesandro, Jane Forth, and Paul Morrissey all came to the Chateau about 9am for the session. It was awfully early for them! I photographed them and also shot 16mm film. I made a collage using frames from the 16mm film.
JS: Marlene Dietrich
DK: Look magazine had a contract with her to publisher her book. She was getting on in years and was nervous about being photographed. I went to her place on Park Ave and we talked about the upcoming photo-shoot. I got along very well with her. She had already cancelled on two or three other photographers for this shoot and when it came time for me to do the shoot she cancelled again. My editor Dan Mish was loosing patience. Mish said “Get her agent on the phone.” He gets the agent on the phone and says to me “What time do you want to photograph her?” I said Monday at 2pm. Mish told the agent “Monday at 2pm or the deal is off.”
Marlene showed up but I was worried she wouldn’t because that weekend Ernest Hemingway her long time friend had died. I had read a lot about her and what dresses and colors she liked. She came in and looked awful. Earlier when I had met her she looked better. However she asked me which dress I liked and I said the green one. I had read she liked that color. She had given me some of her records and so I played them and she was wonderful. Basically she performed for me as her music played. Also the camera flash kept her engaged. She would frequently sing along with the record. Three years later I was flying first class to Paris and who ends up sitting next to me? Marlene. She said “Those pictures you made were very good, I should have called you I am sorry, but I was going through a lot at that time.”
JS: Charlie Chaplin
DK: I worked on his last film in London with Sophia Loren, and Marlon Brando. He was in total control of his set!
JS: Judy Garland
DK: I spent a month traveling with her. She had resurgence in her career and was being rediscovered. I saw her perform on stage and light her audience up and be wheeled onto the airplane the next totally depleted. When I photographed her for the cover of the magazine in the Look studio we talked about how difficult her life was and she started to cry.
JS: What advice would you have for young person who wants to be a photographer?
DK: Explore, ask questions, and allow your pictures to answer those questions.
JS: What’s next for Douglas Kirkland?
DK: I’m fortunate and I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can. Francoise has contributed enormously and we’ve been married 52 years. She is part of Douglas Kirkland and I am part of her.