Exclusive interview with Douglas Kirkland: Photographer of world’s most legendary figures
23 June, 2017
Exclusive interview with Douglas Kirkland: Photographer of world’s most legendary figures
I could not believe my eyes when I received the press release of Douglas Kirkland’s exhibition and the presentation of his book “Freeze Frame: Second Cut” from my friend, who lives in New York. There was also an inscription: “You can call him anytime’ for the interview”. In case some of you don’t know, Douglas Kirkland is a photographer, who beginning from the 1960s has worked with Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, John Kennedy, Coco Chanel, Jack Nicholson, Michael
Jackson, Audrey Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin and others.

Various thoughts filled my mind. I immediately sat down to write him the official letter, at the same time thinking how I would ask my brilliant respondent about Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn or maybe Marcello Mastroianni. I had a lot of questions on all of his heroes, since the beginning of his career in 1960, when he started working for the Look magazine. Douglas and his amazing spouse, Françoise, agreed to the interview despite the busy schedule and it is the first exclusive interview of the world famous photographer Douglas Kirkland in Georgian media.
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Douglas Kirkland, Titanic, 1996

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: "I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor." Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.” This is how Roland Barthes’s book “Camera Lucida” starts and I would like to start our interview with these words, because I have the same sense watching at your photography. How did the journey of your photography begin?

On a cold Christmas morning, in a very small town in Canada: Fort Erie, Ontario, population 7000, across the border from the United States and Buffalo New York, near the Niagara river, I must have been 10 or 11 at the time, my parents entrusted me with the family Brownie camera to take a portrait of them with my little brother Kent in front of the family house. Film was expensive to process and we saved picture taking for special occasion. Sometimes the roll of film remained in the camera for 6 months. I took my job very seriously, held the camera close into my stomach, carefully framed the image looking down into the tiny viewfinder and pressed the shutter. Click-Clack. I was hooked for life. I still own that camera.
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Douglas Kirkland: Coco Chanel, 1962

When I am photographed and know it, I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of "posing," I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is very important for photographer as well as for the person who is photographed. Your heroes look so natural, none of them had the feeling I described? What is the secret of Douglas Kirkland’s photography?


I love people; I want my subjects to look good. I feel the secret to a successful photo session is collaboration. If your subject is not happy or comfortable, it will show. I want people to feel good and beautiful. A photo session is dance, an exercise in seduction no matter who your subject is: young, old, woman or man or child. You apply different sensibilities but it is a love affair each time.
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Douglas Kirkland: Marilyn Monroe, 1961

In French magazine “Le Nouvel Observateur” ( Spécial photo N°3 Juin 1978 Parfait état Photographe) there was an issue discussed: “To whom does the photo belong? Is landscape itself only a kind of loan made by the owner of the terrain? Countless cases, apparently, have expressed this uncertainty in a society for which being was based on having. Photography transformed subject into object, and even, one might say, into a museum object”. Thus, my next question is: To whom does the photo belong? To photographer, to the model or to the spectator? Who is the creator?

The answer is a very subjective. Some tribes do not want to be photographed because they feel the camera will steal their soul. If the photo is not seen and appreciated it doesn’t have life as any other work of art, be it painting, sculpture or beautiful music. The creator is the photographer but the subject or the creation and the spectator gives it life.

Photography has the twin concepts of studium and punctum: studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it. Which of these two concepts is yours? Studium or punctum?

Definitely Punctum…

Questions about celebrities are frequently asked to you, so I won’t ask you about them. However, I would to ask about your life and experience in a different way. In one of your interviews you told how you started photographing celebrities: “It was almost an accident. I was on a fashion shoot for Look magazine in California, and the editors asked me to see Elizabeth Taylor with a writer who was interviewing her in Las Vegas. They had said, "No pictures." I went along and at the end of the interview; I looked her in the eye and said, "Elizabeth, I'm just beginning at Look. Can you imagine what it would mean to me and my career if you would give me an opportunity to photograph you?" She thought for a moment and said, "Come tomorrow night at 8:30." Those pictures ran all over the world. She hadn't been photographed in that way for years and the world couldn't get enough of Elizabeth Taylor in those early 60s days. That catapulted my career, and before I knew it I was next photographing Marilyn and Judy Garland and Dietrich and on. And I was a celebrity photographer.” As through many years you have been interviewed by a lot of journalists, it’s my great opportunity to have a chance ask you: Do you have a story that you haven’t told to Media yet and would like to tell it exclusively to me? That could be great.

In the early 70’s , I was photographing two beautiful young daughters Karen and Lisa sitting in a window in our apartment on the Upper East side in New York. The light was perfect they looked so innocent and radiant, two very lovely girls and I kept saying “This is great, you are beautiful, perfect. You are so beautiful”! My oldest daughter Karen looked at me straight in the eyes and said “Oh Dad…you say that to all the girls!” and the reality is I still do.
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Douglas Kirkland: Elizabeth Taylor 1961

Tell me about new project called A Poetic Alphabet. What is it about? What or who inspired you during the process?

This was more Françoise’s project in a way so I will let her answer this.

Françoise: The creation of the Alphabet was an epic adventure and labor of love. For the longest time I had the idea or creating a human alphabet inspired by the wonderful illustrator Erte. I knew we had the perfect subject in circus performer and physical poet, Erika Lemay whom Douglas had photographed a number of times for various publications and projects.The stars aligned to get our dream crew together during the summer of 2015 and the production of this project was my 81st birthday present to Douglas. What better gift than working and taking photographs. That’s what he loves best. Fashion Director Simone Guidarelli flew in from Milan with accessories and costumes, we made endless sketches and prepared the costumes and ideas all together before starting to photograph in a special acrobat studio, the shooting took a week. Everyone stayed at our house and we would come home after a long day, make dininer and end up in our Jacuzzi to relax the tired muscles and drink champagne.
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Douglas & Françoise by Julie Adams

Then came the next phase after making some selections of images, Element Design Artist William Thoren and I decided on the overall final look of each letter. He photographed the elements in our studio, flowers, personal objects and jewelry of mine and meticulously transformed them, incorporating Erika into the design. This was an endless process as he was traveling on his own projects as well and took a year and a half to complete with Douglas giving the final approval on each creation.

Mr. Kirkland, how has photography changed since the early twenties, when you joined Look Magazine?

Photography is vastly different now than it was 100 years ago and when I started in my early 20’s at Look Magazine in 1960, yet it remains the same. The tools have evolved and will continue to but they are only tools to be used carefully. A great image remains a great image and will always stand out by itself. We have to adapt to the times, I have always embraced change and will always continue too. We cannot be stagnant or stay stuck in the past but we need to keep our artistic integrity.

Douglas Kirkland by Scott Erikson
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By Nino Tsipuria for Kviris Palitra

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