Profile: Douglas Kirkland, photographer

2nd November, 2016


Photographer Douglas Kirkland is proof that one image can change everything. In 1961, at the age of 27 he was hired as a photographer for LOOK magazine and would go on to shoot the image that would establish his career. The photograph in question was Marilyn Monroe wrapped up in bedsheets and wearing nothing else [below]. The image has become iconic and started Kirkland on the path to shooting some of Hollywood’s biggest and most renowned stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot. An exhibition of Kirkland’s work is currently taking place at There Is, a gallery in Perth’s Northbridge so I decided to speak to the man himself. Here we speak about the most memorable shoot he’s been on, the key to a good photograph and whose portrait he’d most like to take…

Your shoot with Marilyn Monroe… did you ever expect how big an impact it would have on your career?

Of course I didn’t. It was just another, albeit great, assignment in between others. The impact of the Marilyn Monroe session came much later. At the time no one paid that much attention to it. It was not used that well in the magazine. After she died, the interest got bigger and has not stopped growing since. 

Marilyn Monroe – the image that started it all

You’ve shot so many famous faces. Who has been the most interesting to shoot and why?

This is a difficult question to answer. There have been so many wonderful and interesting people and the next shoot is always the most important in my mind. But I would say Audrey Hepburn. It was in the Fall of 1965 in Paris …Audrey was lovely of course but the bonus was that this was when I met my wife Francoise. We fell in love, got married and here we are 50 years later as if it was the first night.

What has been the most challenging shoot you’ve ever been on?

Every assignment is a challenge, If you don’t feel challenged you are asleep and you will not get satisfying results.

What’s your artistic process like for shooting portraits?

It is instinctive. It is a process, you assess the situation, you care about your subject, It is a dance, you cajole, you whisper, you shout, you make love to your subject with your camera.

Portraits are so personal. How do you develop that rapport with the person you’re shooting so you can take the best and most engaging photo of them possible?

In the 60s and 70s you had days and sometimes weeks to develop a rapport with your subject, now if you are lucky you have a day or at least a few hours, but sometimes only a very very short time. And you just need to get a feeling, connect with the person and tread carefully to keep your subject happy, engaged and comfortable.

The beautiful Brigitte Bardot

Whose portrait would you absolutely love to shoot?

Absolutely Michelle and Barack Obama.

These days it seems anyone with a smartphone and access to a filter thinks they can take a good photo. Do you think this has helped to evolve the craft or has it taken away from the skill required to be a photographer?

I don’t think it really has done either, tools do not take the pictures, they are just an accessory and whatever tool you choose you the photographer still has to do an exceptional job that will stand out.

What can people expect from your exhibit?

They will get a glimpses into people’s lives they don’t know, and hopefully they will go home feeling good, moved and enriched by the images.

Elizabeth Taylor

You’ve worked as a photographer on some iconic films. What did you find the most enjoyable about doing motion picture photography?

Being on a film set is like an addiction. It is both thrilling and unnerving.

There is a lot of waiting around and yet a great sense of urgency. In the best of circumstances as it always is on a Baz Luhrmann set, you feel you are part of a wonderful creative process, you are part of a collective effort to accomplish something special and you feel privileged to be part of the caravan.

What’s the key to a beautiful photograph?

This is completely subjective. What I find beautiful is not necessarily what others do. So a successful image depends a lot on the beholder.

Audrey Hepburn in Paris in 1965

For amateur photographers out there, what are your top tips for taking photos?.

Know your equipment and don’t spend time fumbling with it. The most important thing is to connect with your subjects.

Who or what inspires you?

The fantasy of photography and what you can find and explore with it and how you can speak with it. And of course my wife and muse Francoise.

Douglas Kirkland’s Icons and Idols exhibition is on until 13 November at There Is, 49 Stuart Street, Northbridg, WA.

All of the limited edition signed prints are available for purchase. Enquiries: [email protected]

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