This week, I have the distinct pleasure of bringing to you an interview with one of the highest names in photography today. He was gracious enough to take some time to talk to me, and share some thoughts with us all. Without further ado, here is Douglas Kirkland.
Please remind our readers how you got started in photography.
I was born in Toronto, Canada. When I was very young my parents moved to a small town on the American border with Canada (Fort Erie), where I grew up. Not very much ever seemed to happen there. My fantasy world was looking at magazines like Life Magazine and Look Magazine. This is where I was first exposed to photography in a big way.
At the age of ten I took my first picture with a Brownie camera. On a cold Christmas day, I had my parents in front of the house, and I took one photo, ‘click’. I had only eight photos in the camera. It was a big happening when you took a picture. We just didn’t take pictures like we think of it today. That click was where the fantasy all began.
By the time I was 13, I got a summer job in a photo lab developing pictures. A few years later I was photographing babies and weddings. Photography was always my passion, my love, and it remained my fantasy.
We used to get these magazines as I mentioned. I’d look at the pictures and I’d think “oh boy, the pictures these people take are so exciting. If I had one of those jobs it would be the most exciting job in the world”. So that’s where it all began.
I had formal training myself. Two years in photo school. I think it’s helpful. It’s changed so much. In my time we were studying chemistry, we did art courses which were very valuable, we were drawing perspective, painting, we learned about the principles of color. Ideally, it’s good that a photographer knows all of this if they can. If you have no training whatsoever, It’s kind of limiting. I don’t think it’s critical, but it’s desirable.
What were the main obstacles you faced along your career?
Photography is a very glamorous world to many people. And many people, especially today when cameras have been simplified, say they want to become a photographer. This makes a lot of competition, and that’s one of the obstacles. What you need to do is, ideally, know photography and be comfortable with it. Also the more you get along with people, fitting in and selling yourself as a photographer, like why someone should hire you rather than Sally or Joseph.
What do you consider to be the ingredients for success as a photographer?
There are several elements that I feel are very important. One of the things I’m asked when I teach is “how do you connect to people?”. To begin with, I happen to personally like people very much. You have to allow them to feel comfortable. You can’t have too much ego. The subject is always the king or the queen in front of your lens. I like to know as much as I can about them. Your pictures will only be as good as the subjects feel when they’re in front of your lens. I do everything I can to make them comfortable. I speak with them frequently as I’m shooting. And the way you speak to people varies depending on who you’re shooting. For example, I recently had a project where I had to photograph children all day long. They were aged from 1 to 10. When I photograph a one year old I will sit on the floor and become as much of that as I can. And when I’m with the 12 year olds I will talk to them on a different level. You have to put yourself into the role. That’s my principle, and it’s worked quite well for me through the years.
Where do you find inspiration?
I look at movies, I look at other people’s photography, and at art through the centuries. There are certain photographers who have been inspirational. When I was in my early twenties I worked as an assistant with Irving Penn in New York. He was certainly an inspiration. I later got to know Gordon Parks, the Life magazine photographer. He was always an inspiration, because his work was so varied. Whatever he did he did well. There are others. Sarah Moon has in my estimation always been brilliant. You can go all over the world, from Eugene Smith to Cartier Bresson, and on and on. We all get input from everywhere, if we allow our sensitivity to go out. Some people may say “I can’t copy that”. You don’t copy it, it’s just your inspiration, your motivation.
You are a very passionate photographer. How do you fuel that passion year after year?
It’s done spontaneously. My world has changed enormously through the years. Because life has changed, and photography has technically changed. We went from chemistry to electronics today. It was a natural transition for me, because I am a curious individual. I had computers back in the 80s, long before Photoshop. I had them because I wanted to know how they worked. So I was very comfortable in 1991, when I was first introduced to Photoshop. It was a natural transition. The reality is, you must change with everything around you. I don’t make an effort to try to rejuvenate myself, because it is spontaneous and automatic.
How is photographing a celebrity different from photographing other people?
Some people are comfortable with a camera. People from the motion pictures world have cameras around them all the time, so they understand what a long lens means versus a wide angle lens. In fact some of them will say “how tight are you today?”. Ultimately the rule still remains, whoever they are. You have to realize that they are the star, give them your attention and, they vary as much as anybody else. If, for some reason, an individual resists, you have to talk to them and reason with them. Today, what often happens is I make some pictures and I get very excited, and I show them the back of the camera, bringing their energy into it. Taking a picture is ideally a collaborative project. It’s not me alone. We do it together. And when they are part of that creative process, it’s amazing what they will suddenly do.
I know this is probably an impossible question, but is there a photo shoot you feel most proud of?
There are a lot of pictures that have a lot of importance in my life. I will tell you about one. When I was in my mid-twenties I had the good fortune to be hired by a magazine called Look magazine. I was hired to photograph fashion, and to photograph color, because a lot of the older photographers had trouble shooting color. The year was 1960. By 1961, I was sent to California to photograph bathing suits on the beach. My boss called me from New York and said “Elisabeth Taylor hasn’t done an interview in two years. They’ve said they’ll give us an interview but no pictures. You go there, and see if you can persuade her to allow you to photograph her”. To make a long story short, I went and I sat in the back of the room while the journalist did his interview. In the end I walk up to her, I took her hand, looked into her eyes and said “It’s nice to meet you Elisabeth. I’m new with this magazine. Could you imagine what it would mean to me if you gave me the opportunity to photograph you?”. She hesitated for a moment, and then looked at me some more and she said “OK. Come tomorrow night at 8.30”.
Those were very important pictures, because they went all over the world. Not only was it my first cover in Look magazine, it also ran in the cover of Elle in France, in Stern, and probably even in Portugal. The world hadn’t seen Elisabeth in a couple of years except for paparazzi images. So that put me on the map to photograph celebrities overnight. I travelled a month with Judy Garland. I photographed her with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. That opened doors for me. A month later, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. But it all started with that one shoot, and that one question to Elisabeth.
Do you post produce your images? Are there limits?
Yes, I do it all. I used to paint as a kid, and I did have art in school, so that’s all part of the process. I like to imagine it to the final stage, because that’s all part of creating the image as far as I’m concerned. I definitely post produce. I have to have help at times, when we are very busy. But in the most ideal situation I like to take it up to completion.
What advice would you give to someone making a start in photography?
The process requires that you have ego and belief in yourself, but don’ have so much ego that you’re insensitive to others. Because subjects will make your picture, and so you have to be sensitive to them. In terms of work, it’s a building process. There’s no magic switch that you flip and suddenly you’re a great photographer. For me it was steps. I worked on newspapers, I’ve done commercial photography, I’ve done a lot of different things. You have to have a deep passion for photography, and a belief in your own abilities. The most important for me is to always make the most of every opportunity. Don’t ever half do anything, because you only get better when you do your best, and you’ll feel better at the end of the day. I also analyze my own work all the time. Did I do well? And I will be honest with myself. Or, was I not all that good? Let’s say you weren’t good. What were the elements that made it go wrong? How can I prevent that from happening in the future? Or, if you feel you’ve had a triumph of some kind, acknowledge that and say “that really worked!”. What was it? Was it the light? The way we talked? What was it that worked so well? Let’s learn from that. Life is a learning process, if you care to keep living it and getting the most out of it.
Douglas Kirkland started his career at Look and Life magazines in the ’60s and ’70s, the golden age of photojournalism. He has worked as a still photographer on the set of over 100 motion pictures. Those include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Out of Africa, Titanic, Moulin Rouge and Australia.
His iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas, among others, are known all over the world. Some of his books include Light Years, An Evening With Marilyn, the best selling James Cameron’s Titanic, Freeze Frame Coco Chanel, Three Weeks and Michael Jackson–The Making of Thriller.
Numerous awards include, a Lucie for Outstanding Achievement in Entertainment Photography, The Golden Eye of Russia and a Lifetime Achievement Award from CAPIC. In October 2007, Douglas received an Honorary Master of Fine Arts Degree from Brooks Institute for his deep commitment and dedication to his profession.