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His list of subjects ranges from Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn to Hugh Jackman and Jack Nicholson. He’s been a set photographer on a diverse slate of films from The Sound of Music to Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby. But even after a 60-year career in which he’s surpassed the million-photo threshold, photographer Douglas Kirkland still can’t believe what he’s accomplished.
“When I think of it, I’m amazed,” Kirkland tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I almost look over my shoulder and say, ‘Was there another Doug Kirkland?’ Because he couldn’t have done this much.”
Kirkland’s new monograph — titled A Life in Pictures: The Douglas Kirkland Monograph, featuring a foreword by Luhrmann and his wife, costume designer Catherine Martin — chronicles the breadth of his career. Even though he’s published more than a dozen books, he sees this as his first autobiography. In it, Kirkland answers a question that has been frequently asked by his students and acquaintances: How did you get here?
Kirkland recalls how it all began with snapping his first photograph at 10 years old. The shot was of his parents and brother on Christmas morning in front of their house in Fort Erie, Canada.
“Taking a picture in those days was a very big deal, so it was reserved for very special occasions,” Kirkland says. “You didn’t just go click, click, click. Sometimes it would be six months from the time you took the first picture to when you got through the last and sent them to the lab to be developed.”
Kirkland went on to become a photographer for LOOK and Life magazines, and he marks his first meeting with Elizabeth Taylor in 1961 as the true tipping point in his career. He was photographing bathing suits in Pismo Beach when he received a call from his editor about the remote possibility of shooting Taylor in Las Vegas. It would be a big get for the magazine, as Taylor hadn’t been shot since falling ill with a near-fatal case of double pneumonia.
Kirkland immediately headed east and attended one of her press conferences, where he positioned himself patiently in the back of the room. Knowing that shooting her could be the big break he was looking for, Kirkland approached her with the proposition.
“I looked her in the eyes and said the only thing I could,” Kirkland recalls. ” ‘Elizabeth, I’m new at this magazine. Could you imagine what it would mean to me if you could give me an opportunity to photograph you?’ “
She was silent for a long moment before finally agreeing — with hesitation, Kirkland says. Photographing her the next night, he describes her as being perfectly prepared, put-together in a beautiful black dress and flawless makeup. Unlike his shoots today, no crew was needed. She was down-to-earth, he says, and she made the shoot work.
“Those pictures went all over the world,” Kirkland says. “Overnight, I was known as somebody who photographs celebrities.”
From there, he traces his six-decade journey with each subsequent star, each set and each country he traveled to in his 368-page book. Kirkland and his artistic director went through his collections and paired photographs that worked well together to fill the pages.
“I went back in my memory of my earliest years as a young man with a big press camera in my hands, and what it was like and the excitement I felt,” Kirkland says. “I was able to go back in time in my mind. It’s a very strange thing.”
Kirkland says that writing the 40,000 words that accompany his photographs reminded him of how far he has come and all the people who made a difference in his life.
“My probability of success was double zero almost. Here I was in a town of 7,000 people, loving photography,” Kirkland says. “How do you go from there to the level I’ve worked on, all over the world?”
He recalls working on a film in Italy that starred rocker Sting and approached the musician about doing a special shoot. Kirkland showed him a small book of his pictures as a reference and says that when Sting saw a photograph of The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, he remarked, “Well, if you’ve worked with all of them, let’s do this together.”
For Kirkland, however, working with stars and celebrities is just part of the job. “I was never awed by them; I was never intimidated,” he says. “I felt I could connect with them. And I think they understand that I genuinely want to work with them and build some great images.”
Now at 79 years old, Kirkland still works five to six days a week and just wrapped shooting on the set of Need For Speed with Aaron Paul in Utah. He has no plans of stopping.
“If somebody is a great musician, he or she is not going to throw their instrument or music away because they’re a certain age, and that’s how I feel,” Kirkland says.
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