Douglas Kirkland lives in an expansive Hollywood Hills home with the love of his life Françoise, his wife of forty-eight years. Beautiful Françoise and handsome Douglas exude kindness and an alluring charm. The ebullient Françoise possesses degrees in political science, English and German, which augment her role as Kirkland’s super-savvy business manager. Both Douglas and Françoise style all their shoots together. Kirkland’s photographs appear in the permanent collections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Institute, the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Eastman House in Rochester, and the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The movie-making process always fascinated the photographer, who became an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers in 2001. Over the years, Kirkland’s legendary images commanded countless magazine covers and became the focus of nineteen photography books. Their storied life led the couple to live and work all over the world.
Tall and straight-backed, Douglas Kirkland’s brilliantly blue eyes sparkle intelligently, in vivid contrast to his shocking mane of long white hair. Françoise, soigné, sweet and gracious, served me a cup of frothy cappuccino, brought two glasses of water, and then left us alone for our interview.
Kirkland’s photographs, which include a dizzying archive of the past fifty years’ most famous movie stars, adorn their living room. A display of other artists’ works pepper his collection: a Ray-o-Gram by Man Ray, a Picasso portrait by Arnold Newman, and Dada “instant artist” Maurizio Galimberti’s photo rendering of Douglas and Françoise. A serious humanist inspired by Italian Neorealism, Kirkland welcomes the many documentary-like works of other photographers, like Ruth Orkin’s American Girl In Italy (1951), and exhibits them alongside his own. His obvious passion for Italian film stars and directors compelled him to shoot many iconic photographs of them. This artist also displays the rare combination of being able to both write about and photograph a subject.
While Douglas was distracted by a phone call, I discreetly perused his bookcase, investigating what was on the shelf: Phil Stern, Slim Aarons, Kirkland’s An Evening With Marilyn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Collection de photographies du Musee national d’art moderne, 1905-1948. When Kirkland returned, I asked him which photographers most inspired him. He listed Irving Penn, Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Arnold Newman, Richard Avedon, Andre Kertesz, Pete Turner, and Gerd Ludwig.
I wanted to know why he chooses to shoot or deliver images in black and white instead of color. “Frankly,” Kirkland declared, “some pictures ask to tell their story in black and white.”
Kirkland got his first job from Look magazine when he was twenty-seven. “Elizabeth Taylor launched my career of photographing celebrities,” Douglas told me. On one of his first assignments, he accompanied a print journalist to Taylor’s hotel room in Las Vegas. The young photographer sat hidden away, deep in the shadows, and waited for his colleague to finish the interview. Then, “I came up to her, shook her hand and said, ‘I’m twenty-seven years old; new to the magazine. Can you imagine what it would mean to me to photograph you?’ She held my hand while I looked into her violet eyes and she said, ‘yes.’”
“In 1971, I was in Los Angeles working on a story on top movie directors for Look magazine and Andy Warhol was to be one of my subjects. Andy and Paul Morrissey arrived at my room at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, right on time at 9:30 am. I was surprised because I thought these people were night people. Warhol brought some of the cast of Trash: Joe Dalessandro and Jane Forth. Andy posed with one of the first hand-held video cameras. Dalessandro re-enacted the scene where he shot up drugs into his muscled arm, flexed with a tight black leather strap. We photographed everything with available light in my hotel room. Later on, I re-photographed some of the 16mm frames with different colored filters on my camera. Andy was very professional. He was an essential part of the creative process. He was completely pliant and direct-able. The most memorable thing about the session was Warhol’s generosity, his comments. I was surprised that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of my work.”
“The first time I saw her, she seemed genuinely comfortable in her tiny studio apartment on Doheny. She was very much the girl next door. We talked about what we needed for the shoot. Marilyn knew exactly what she wanted. ‘We need a bed, a bottle of Dom Perignon, Frank Sinatra records playing and we need a white silk sheet.’
She arrived two hours late at the studio. She entered the room. At that point, she was truly Marilyn Monroe. She did not walk. She floated in slow motion. She was luminous, the Marilyn Monroe I knew from the movies. She really ran the shoot. At a certain point, she threw out all her assistants. ‘I want to be alone with Douglas,’ she said. We were both sexually charged. I could have taken advantage of that moment but I chose instead to take pictures, and all that wanting each other and anticipation is in the images we shot.”
Michael was very shy. There was genuine warmth and love emanating from him.”
“I was working on a travel story in Paris on “L’Hotel”, rue des Beaux Arts. Known as “the Hotel d’Alsace,” it had been Oscar Wilde’s last home, in room 16. The owner asked me if I would like to photograph Man Ray, an offer one doesn’t pass on. It was a small, high-end hotel, on the Left Bank, with only 20 rooms. Man Ray was living there. He was 82, the year was 1972. Man Ray was wonderful. He spoke English well, after all he was American. I interviewed him in print. We had a great conversation while I photographed him with his wife Juliet. He was incredibly good-hearted and he regarded me as a colleague. I shot him very simply with available light.”
“I shot George Clooney in 2012 at the Academy, when he had just been nominated for an Oscar. Afterwards, he went around and shook each person’s hand – all of the assistants and all of the crew – and smiled and thanked them individually, one by one, for their help.
Leonardo Dicaprio and The Making of The Titanic
“We worked a lot together and did an entire book on the making of Titanic. As James Cameron and I discussed the project, I could see a book waiting to be done. Cameron told me in minute detail what they were planning to do and gave me a script. I knew the film and a book on it was going to be very special. I have worked on a hundred films, so I knew the territory. James Cameron shot underwater off the coast of Halifax and I photographed the submersibles as they were going under water and then we moved to Baja, California. This disaster movie turned out to be an extraordinary success. The book was published in many languages and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for six months. The fees were minimal, and I worked beyond my paid contract because I believed in the project. It’s like someone you love…you want to embrace them and be with them, always. James Cameron and his Titanic adventure were like that for me. I made the Titanic book with love, passion and thoroughness. I worked 52 days on the book.”
“Françoise and I are shooting all the time. Glitterati just published A Life in Pictures: The Douglas Kirkland Monograph, an in depth memoir of my career, which includes hundreds of images, and I am re-doing one of my books called Freeze Frame. I am writing it, making it bigger and featuring the royal wedding of Diana and Prince Charles. People say, ‘well, you’re eighty, do you still work?’ Of course I work but it doesn’t feel like work. Working is the joy of my life, why would I stop?”
Finally, I asked Douglas Kirkland one last question: how would he like to be remembered?
His brilliant blue eyes looked humbly and honestly into mine: “That he cared passionately for Françoise and for his world of image-making.”