Douglas Kirkland – A Life In Pictures

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Photo Credit: Vai Yu Law Photography

With over fifty years working as a photographer, Douglas Kirkland, one of the world’s most renowned photographers, remains humble when telling his story.

Now based in Los Angeles, California, Douglas Kirkland was born in Toronto. A couple of weeks ago, Douglas came back to Toronto to present his latest book ‘Douglas Kirkland: A Life In Pictures’ and showcased some of his best pictures at the exclusive and unique Izzy Gallery located in Yorkville. Marilyn Monroe, Coco Chanel, J.F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Jack Nicholson are all featured as part of this series.

With Douglas, the photographer and the person are one in the same. The way to get to know the most intimate parts of his life is through his work. At the age of eighty-two, Douglas has not lost an ounce of his energy and passion for what he does, and he carries a camera in his pocket wherever he goes.

Thanks to Izzy Gallery, Novella had the opportunity to meet with Douglas Kirkland and get to learn more about this photography icon. During our interview, we were joined by his beautiful wife Francois Kirkland, who has a natural spontaneity that many French women have.

Douglas’s story is not just about photography but also about kindness and honesty, and his legacy and pictures prove that real beauty comes from having these traits.

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Photo Credit: Vai Yu Law Photography

Celia Fernandez: At the age of 10, you took your very first picture on Christmas day. Can you tell us about your Uncle Scott who had a significant impact on developing your passion for photography? 

Douglas Kirkland: My uncle Scott was involved in radio and television and he was a favorite of mine. He just did things that were different than other people. He was also in Europe during the Second World War and lived in France and Germany as the war was ending.

C.F.: So, when you were flipping the pages of the magazines and pictures that he brought from all of his travels, what fascinated you about photography? What was your first fantasy about photography?

D.K.: I guess it was the way my uncle traveled, I loved him and, at the age of twelve or thirteen I always looked up to him. He was a very tall, good-looking man and he was confident in everything he did. He came back from the Second World War with many pictures of all the places he had visited, and I enjoyed seeing those pictures so much. I just wanted to be my Uncle Scott! 

C.F.: In the beginning, you worked as a salesperson and assisted in different photo studios. You did know you wanted to be a photographer but didn’t have a clear and organized plan on how to make it as your career. What was the turning point?

D.K.: Well, when I started taking pictures I was mainly photographing weddings, babies and anything the allowed me to photograph. I was working at a studio in Fort Erie, and I just took in everything I could. As I graduated from High School, I moved here to Toronto and worked in a camera store with a photographer named Ken Bell, who was a great influence on me.

Eventually, I would move back to Fort Erie and from there I worked at the Times Review newspaper and some other local publications. After that, I went to Richmond, Virginia in the States for two years, and from there I ended up in New York where I worked with the one and only Irving Penn. During that time working alongside Penn, I learned a lot.

Then, it was LOOK magazine, which was a publication with a circulation of seven million copies per issue and I worked with them for eleven years and traveled all over the world. Many of these pictures that you see in this exhibition with Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Coco Chanel, etc., were the result of being with LOOK magazine. Later on, when LOOK folded, I would work with Life magazine.

All that has happened to me throughout my career has been a fantastic ride, but it all started here in Toronto.

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Photo Credit: Vai Yu Law Photography

C.F.: Throughout your career, there were a few times that people tried to discourage you from pursuing a career in photography sometimes because they were afraid that this was not a secure job. In spite of that, you remained pretty determined on what you wanted to do. Did you ever have a moment were considered changing your path?

D.K.: Oh, I certainly had questions of that type, but I had such a strong commitment to photography. That’s why all these pictures are here today.

Francois Kirkland: I think the one thing about Douglas is that he lives for photography. He once said that he sees the world better through a camera.

D.K.: Oh yes! I would never travel without a camera!

C.F.: The title of your book is ‘Douglas Kirkland – A life in pictures’ and you once said that ‘for you, life in pictures is the best life you could have ever imagined.’ Is this still true for you today?

D.K.: Yes, I’ve done twenty photographic books beautifully printed – in most cases – and I considered myself very lucky for the life that I’ve had. I’ve traveled the world from Europe to Japan, to Australia, everywhere!

Francois Kirkland: I think that this book, ‘Douglas Kirkland – A life in pictures’ is his life in pictures. Most of the people are interested in Douglas because of his celebrity work, but this book brings a complete perspective of his work and his art which is a lot more than celebrities. He has done movies, landscapes, news, and many different things!

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Photo Credit: Vai Yu Law Photography

C.F.: In 1961, at the beginning of your career at LOOK magazine at the age of 27, you photographed Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Being such a young photographer, did that feel a little bit overwhelming?

D.K.: I wanted it so much. I had such a strong feel for what I wanted to accomplish and how I wanted to make people look. Just imagine that you are a photographer, and I tell you that Marilyn Monroe is here, and we need to take pictures of her, what would you do? What I did is having a meeting with Marilyn at her small apartment in Hollywood and I went with an editor and a journalist, of course, both were much older than me. They took the only two chairs that Marilyn had, and she was sitting on her bed and said ‘Come here, boy! Seat here with me, just think of this as a couch.’ So there I was, sitting on her bed discussing what we would do for the photo shoot. Here, at this exhibition, you can see part of the result of those days shooting with Marilyn.

C.F.: Something that people can take from your book is not to feel intimidated by anybody, no matter if you are working with a Hollywood star or with the girl next door. When you were shooting with Marilyn Monroe, you had a great connection with her and perhaps this was because of your confidence and honesty. But how did you feel once the shoot was over or even the day after? Did it feel real at all or you did you think you dreamed it?

D.K.: It was kind of the same thing you are doing right now. You are seating in front of me interviewing me and doing your job and that was my focus when photographing Marilyn Monroe. I was just trying to do a good job, and doing it as well as I could. Also, Marilyn made it easy, and I felt very comfortable working with her. It was wonderful and a very sexual evening. She said ‘we need a bed, white silk sheets, champagne, and Frank Sinatra’s music playing in the background’; It was magical.

C.F.: Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann has said that what sets you apart from other photographers is that you tell stories within the story and that you become part of the story, and it’s not just what you do with the camera but who you are as a person. 

D.K.: It’s interesting that you mention Baz because we are about to see him and his wife, Catherine Martin, in New York. We love them so much, and we call them ‘the caravan.’

Francois Kirkland: Baz is an incredible person, and he has managed to retain a crew that works with him that now have become almost his family. Throughout the years we have become wonderful friends, we have a great connection, and he always says that when he grows up, he wants to be Douglas. He says that whenever he is on set filming a movie where Douglas is working as the Special Photographer, he looks at Douglas and thinks ‘okay, if that is where Douglas is, that is where the camera is supposed to be.’

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Photo Credit: Vai Yu Law Photography

C.F.: When the 70’s arrived the economic situation was not necessarily good so LOOK had to close its doors and you lost your job. You were so devastated that you said that you felt ‘like a close family member has just unexpectedly died.’ Were you more affected from a personal standpoint rather than the professionally? 

D.K.: Yes, but I was insanely lucky because right after LOOK folded, I was asked to come to work with Life magazine which it was also an excellent publication. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting along with people and making connections.

C.F.: You said one of the sexiest and sophisticated quotes I’ve ever heard about photography: ‘A photo session is a seduction, a slow dance, you feel the vertigo of falling in love, and you are in love for that moment.’ Is that how you see photography?

D.K.: It is, in fact. I think it’s entirely accurate, and maybe that is why I said it. It’s about having a connection, seduce the other person and let yourself be seduced as well.

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Photo Credit: Vai Yu Law Photography