An Interview with Douglas Kirkland
Douglas Kirkland reigns as one of the most critically acclaimed photographers in the entertainment world. He served as the photographer behind the exquisite photographs of many of Hollywood’s elite and icons including Charlie Chaplin, Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, and the beloved Marilyn Monroe. In addition, he has worked on over 100 films including Titanic, Moulin Rouge!, and The Sound of Music. His prominent and renowned work in the entertainment industry has earned the legend numerous achievement awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen in 1995. Kirkland recently released the short film featuring the delicate process of putting photographs together for his book, A Life In Pictures, which commemorates some of his most famous and celebrated photographs throughout his career.
MINT: We watched the documentary that was posted on Vimeo about the process of publishing Life in Pictures and it was fantastic to watch. There was this one scene where you were talking about your first experience with the camera, the Brownie Box 116. You said it was kind of that snap, that spark. Does that kind of sense of wonder and joy ever wear off?
Douglas Kirkland: Whenever you get to that certain point in the photo shoot, you get a certain feeling. Sometimes, people say to me how do you know when you get that picture. You know when you have the picture when a certain feeling comes over you, this combination of pleasure. It’s a sense of joy. You know you’ve gotten the person at their best at a very comfortable point. I like people and I like people to be comfortable in whatever situation we are in, as I’m enjoying sitting here with all of you because you put off the same vibes. Whatever you’re doing with me is very similar to what I would do if I were photographing you’ve obviously learned something about me and that’s a starting point because the photographer doesn’t do it alone. It’s a joint effort and I feel that very much. So, that’s what I do and how I care and how I function. The photographer is not alone. It’s the photographer and the subject that make the picture.
MINT: Do you have a favorite memory or photo shoot or time when you captured a photo that was just wonderful?
Douglas Kirkland: Of all the pictures, I’ve photographed a lot of celebrities through the years. I’ve worked on 170 movies, which is a lot of movies. Some of them were spectacular. Some were ones you’d like to forget about because they were so horrible and then a few were extraordinary. I mean some; I’ll give you a surprise film. One of my earliest ones to work on was a little film called The Sound of Music. Nobody in Salzburg, Austria, where that film was being shot, really thought that it was going to amount to very much. Even the 20th Century Fox people didn’t think it was going to amount to much and there was pleasure being there and it’s a great memory just feeling you were a part of something that was creating a history. That film goes on and on and I made one of the pictures become poster art, so when I go into 20th Century Fox, even to this day, I look down and I see a picture of Julie Andrews. They have it huge, almost the size of the wall, a quarter of a mile away, and I think of that time back in Salzburg. The thing about that movie is that they didn’t think that they had a winner. They thought it was all so ran and because they were looking at Cleopatra and they were spending a lot of money on Cleopatra and the studio could have gone out of business because of that.
Of all the individuals I photographed, probably no one interests people more than Marilyn Monroe. They always want to know what was Marilyn Monroe really like and, in the short answer, I can tell you and I wrote a book on this. For the short answer, I was with her on three different occasions. It was like she was three totally different people. The first time it was when we were talking about what we would do and she was very disarming because she was like a sister or the girl-next-door. I went into her small apartment in Hollywood with two colleagues, older men who were with me. They took the two chairs. It was such a small place and she took the bed and said just sit here and she laughed and said I just think of this like a couch. So I sat beside her and I expected this giant that I had seen on the motion picture screens with glamor and everything. But, it wasn’t. She was light, easy, and like the people we are around all the time. And, not at all head in the clouds. She really helped me a great deal because I was young. I was 27 at the time. Frankly, I was delighted to have this assignment from my magazine; it was called LOOK magazine. I was delighted to have this opportunity, but secretly I said to myself have I gotten myself in over my head. Am I going to carry this off or am I going to mess it up? She calmed me down on that first occasion.
Now the second time, just about three days later, and I didn’t sleep very well those three nights. We had everything ready and the studio we rented and I had my lights set up and everything. She was supposed to arrive at 7 and then 8 happened then 9 happened and I was starting to think and I came out from New York to do this. What am I going to tell my bosses if I don’t get any pictures? That’s not going to go down well. Then I heard the door open and she came in. This was a totally different person. This was the illusion of an angel. She seemed very luminescent, very white to me. It may sound strange but that was the way it was. And, she didn’t seem to walk on the ground. She seemed to slightly float, be in slow motion, almost like a movie. She wasn’t walking she was slightly floating and that was the illusion I got. We finally get started working, and she had suggested working with nothing on except a white silk sheet over her. I was a boy from a very small town Christian family and this sort of shook me a little bit. Not little bit, quite a bit. It excited me. At a certain point after we started, she said, “I want to be alone with this boy”. There were two or three other people, an assistant, and I had her public relations man and the editor I was working with. She wanted to be alone with me. They’re all out of the room. The door closes and here I am left with Marilyn Monroe without anything on besides a white silk sheet. Now go the next stage, the electricity was amazing and that was what was able to go into the camera. We seduced each other and she was very seductive with me. She suggested other things but I acted like I didn’t understand. I just kept taking pictures and then we worked for about an hour and a half taking those pictures, which are the pictures that exist today, and you see that charge coming into the camera because of that edge. Let’s say that I had gone along with her suggestions, there wouldn’t be any pictures like that. It was all put into the electricity going into the camera.
The last time I saw her was just about 15 or 16 hours later. I had the film developed and she wanted to see it that afternoon. I went around to her place, the same place I had gone to the first night. I met a very different person. She was sad and depressed and had dark glasses on and a scarf over her head. She was not happy. First she saw and looked through the pictures very quickly and didn’t think it was very good. Then, she went out of the room and came back and said, “Why don’t I look through it more carefully”. She started to fall in love with certain ones. She ended up smiling, but something had happened in less than a day. I can’t explain any of this multiple personalities. That was Marilyn. I have a couple books on that. One is called With Marilyn: An Evening/1961, and there are variations of that.
MINT: Seeing that we’re in the Silicon Valley, the epicenter of technology. Nowadays, everyone is carrying a cellphone and can take photos so easily. Everyone’s a photographer. What are your thoughts on this kind of evolution on what it means to be a photographer and the notion that anyone can be a photographer and post to different sites?
Douglas Kirkland: It’s so simple. I have a cellphone here and I can take a picture and it takes a very good picture. But, you have to do more if you’re a photographer making your living than just use this. You may use this sometimes, but I have another camera in another pocket that goes beyond that and takes pictures in a different way. I have control over it. So, you still have that possibility. You have control, but, to the public, it may look like oh photography today is very simple, anybody can do it. But, there are all these elements that I talked about. It’s your relationship and how you feel. This is the power of photography.