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Assigned by Look Magazine to photograph Marilyn for its 25th anniversary issue in November '61, Douglas Kirkland was already well known for shooting the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich. Although the astonishing story of this shoot has been told many times, it is the first time that the British public is able to see these photographs of the star clad in nothing more than a silk sheet.
Marilyn arrived with the usual entourage of assistants to pose for the photographs, however, she soon requested that she and the young photographer were left to continue the shoot alone.
'I can only say this: it was extremely intimate'' comments Kirkland. 'It was just myself, the camera and Marilyn.... Frank Sinatra filled the room with his seductive beautiful ballads. That was the atmosphere of the evening: quiet, soft and enticing...
''I had three encounters with Marilyn,' Kirkland said. 'The first took place at her apartment, which was small and unimpressive, not the type of place you'd expect to see a super star live in. She was disarming, she laughed easily, and I felt like I was talking with a sister. When she arrived at the studio for the photo session though, I felt I'd been hit by a lightning bolt. She didn't walk-she floated in slow motion'.
When Kirkland met Marilyn for the third and last time to review the photos, she was dark and depressed and at first unimpressed with the images, until finally she fell in love with them.
ePHOTOzine caught up with Douglas on July 25 in Hollywood for this exclusive interview.
ePHOTOzine: You started photography at the age of 10. What made you pick up a camera and did you have aspirations to become a celebrity photographer?
Douglas Kirkland: When I was ten I lived in a small town in Canada called Fort Erie, Ontario near the American border. Photography seemed to hold enormous glamour to me. It was the thing that would take people all over the world. We would see Life magazine and Look magazine, and those images in the 40's and 50's, especially the 50's when I was growing up, were the greatest excitement of all and that's when I picked up a camera. I was ten in the mid 40s and used the camera to take a picture of the family - it was a special event. That's the way we did it in those days, we'd take one picture and we wouldn't probably take another snap for another two weeks. Every picture was very precious and frankly the picture is even very precious to me today, because it's a record of history.I became involved in photographing celebrities partly because of the glamour that was represented by photography. It was always very stimulating to think of the people who were well known, who the public followed. What were they really like? I didn't think I would really ever get that close to them, it was more of a dream than I could truly imagine.
EPZ: How did you get the job with Look?
DK: In the early 60's the emphasis was on youth, I was 24 in July 1960 when I was hired by Look magazine. I was actually in the right place at the right time. I'd worked on newspapers in Canada and, at one point, in a camera store in Toronto. But by 1960, when I was approaching 25, I found myself in New York, I'd been freelancing for about a year as a photographer when Look magazine hired me. I was hired to photograph both colour and fashion. Many of the older photographers were uncomfortable with colour photography, which was second nature to me since I'd been doing it for some time. Fashion photography seemed very exciting and that led to celebrity photography. The first celebrity I really photographed that brought attention was Elizabeth Taylor whom I photographed in June 1961. Approx five months later it was the opportunity I got to photo Marilyn Monroe on 17th November in Hollywood.
EPZ: Meeting all those film stars must have been scary at first?
DK: Absolutely not! It was exciting, this was my opportunity, my gateway to doing things that I felt would be meaningful. Being in their presence, many of them seemed extraordinary. They seem like they weren't truly people. They were bigger than people. I have subsequent learned that being a celebrity is like their job - everyone is made of the same stuff ultimately!
EPZ: Of all the icons you've photographed over the years who would be your favourite and why?
DK: Two people stand out. One is Elizabeth Taylor, because I accompanied a journalist to Las Vegas, representing Look magazine. She had not been photographed at the time for about two years and celebrity photography had not been my forte. I really hadn't done it. At the end of the interview, which I sat silently during, I looked Elizabeth in the eye and said, 'If you gave me an opportunity to photograph, just image what it would do for me and my career, I'm just a beginner'. She thought for a moment and said 'okay come tomorrow night at 8 o'clock'.The other person, of course, is Marilyn, because of all the people I have photographed through my career, no one holds greater fascination for the public than Marilyn.
EPZ: Who's been the most difficult to work with and why?
DK: It's interesting, each assignment or project I begin, I do it with tenacity, pleasure and excitement, but there's no simple or sure thing as a photographer of celebrities, because there are so many elements that affect you. For example, when I photographed Marlene Dietrich in 1961, she was quite stormy. There had been a lot of negotiation arranged beforehand and the day that I had set aside for photography was unfortunately one day after her friend Ernst Hemmingway had died, therefore that shoot got off to a very bad start. Ultimately, we did okay. Of others, I don't remember negative things, because ultimately it's my job to try and triumph, to bring back good pictures. Somebody said recently 'the public will hate you if you bring back bad pictures of people they love' and I totally agree with this. It's my job to get the best pictures, not to be clever and try and find the thing that's wrong. I have a very positive outlook on photography and I love the people who I work, and there are very few exceptions to that.
EPZ: What's been the most difficult situation during your career?
DK: I'd say for any young photographer beginning, the most difficult is getting stated. It's no easier today than it was when I started, in fact, its perhaps more difficult today, because there are fewer places for young photographers pictures to be seen. I don't remember bad times, but one of the things as a pro, you have to keep reaching and pushing. It's never good enough. Here I am, 40 years after photographing Marilyn and there have been a lot of people in-between and I am still on trial totally each time I go and start working again. There's no certainty. You don't gain security by having been around a long time. You're tested for the first time, every time. That's the way I look at it. And for me it's very important that I get the very best picture I can.
EPZ: What's your proudest moment?
DK: My proudest moment is not easy to say, because there have been many of them. I had a book come out in 1989 called Light Years, the first of a series of books. I have now done a dozen and my 12th is An Evening with Marylyn, but my proudest was when the first came out. We had an opening here in Los Angeles and CNN was there and all the media, the newspapers, the magazines and an enormous number of stars showed up for the opening. There were searchlights up in sky, it was an extraordinary evening and for a few moments that was my proudest evening. But you do have to remember, always keep your feet on the ground, enjoy, but don't believe it's necessarily the truth!
EPZ: Who haven't you photographed that you would like to?
DK: A person who I have respect for and her career goes up and down a little is Madonna. There's been talk of me photographing her, but it's somehow never happened. It will, I suppose. It's not something I have a fixation on, there are so many great opportunities that I'm not really searching for any and I don't feel any frustration over a lack of having opportunities to photograph any individual.
EPZ: Most of your photographs are of film stars or musicians. Is this what you prefer or just the way the work goes?
DK: Interestingly my life is much broader than that. I've done everything from social to news events photography. For example, I travelled across Trans Siberia doing journalistic work and I've worked on every continent other than Antarctica, including Japan and China. My work is much broader than one might imaging. However it's the fascination of those people who are in front of still and motion picture cameras, such as musicians who are in the public eye, that hold the greatest fascination and therefore that's the work that gets the attention. When I have a show, very rarely is it not of celebrities, even though my work is much broader than that.
EPZ: Do you feel the attitude towards celebritory photographers has change over the years?
DK: I'd say the media itself has changed and the whole world of celebritory photography and treatment of celebrities has changed. There are more photographers trying to get more pictures and trying to get them any way they can. There are fewer big publications that have the importance to put a photographer with some one on a one to one basis, so therefore you have the paparazzi world and that's probably changed the attitude towards photographers. Fortunately it's not something I've been involved in myself. I got started at a time when it was more of a one to one with celebratories and therefore that's the way I still am able to work when working on films or on TV shows and doing portrait sessions. I've established myself in that and still continue to do the same. Again it's very difficult if you're a beginner, I say that sympathetically.
EPZ: What advice would you give someone wanting to get into this career today?
DK: As I say, I am sympathetic of anyone getting started. I also acknowledge it's not easy, but basically whatever you do, look at things, evaluate, then determine what you like. You have to follow your passion. Always do it the best you can and try to make your work different. Probably knowing something about how to use the computer with your pictures is important today, whether you publish a web site, modify or enhance with Photoshop, this is the day of the computer. Much of what we did in the darkroom can now be done on a computer, but most of all you have to follow what you really feel and find every possible way to get your material used and, of course, make a living at it!
EPZ: What piece of kit would you never be without?
DK: It's not physical, it's imagination, fantasy - what's most important is what's in the photographer's mind that's what really makes pictures. The pieces of equipment are just devices to substantiate the image in your mind, to put it down on film or to record it. It first begins with an idea and an ability of knowing how to use whatever you have to its fullest extent to get the image. For me it's a cross between the image and me. The equipment is secondary, it has to work right but the most important thing I bring to any photo session is enthusiasm and imagination and I guess that's were the pictures really come from as far as I am concerned.
EPZ: You crossed into digital in the 90s. Do you still find it as exciting?
DK: I find it much more exciting. I say this very strongly! I can do a lot of delicate work that was never possible in the past using traditional methods. I can do it better and I feel I can achieve much more. I go back into my archives and give pictures life that had not had them, because maybe they were never used in the past. The Marilyn show at the Alex Proud Gallery is a very good example of that. I had the Marilyn images, but they really didn't come to life until they where scanned careful at high resolution into the computer. In many ways they've improved as they had started to deteriorate with age. So yes, the computer age is a very exciting thing and a very critical thing is the difference - it's the most exciting piece of equipment that I have at this time of my life and I not only use it for old, but for new too. Because I'm photographing all the time, on movie sets doing celebrity photographs and all types of work I keep very busy. I have two book projects underway and I'm currently working on a film doing stills and advertising photography there's always a lot to be done and it's very exciting with the computer being a very important factor in this.
EPZ: Do you shoot using digital cameras?
DK: I've worked with them off and on for a number of years and used them for teaching purposes through last eight years, but only recently started to use one seriously for my work as a photographer, because quality has improved so much. I use a D60 with 6.3megapixel CMOS sensor. It does a very good job and who knows what lies around the corner. I know there are new pieces of equipment coming and getting in sync with future, the equipment and the possibilities is really truly what it's about. Looking at the times and what is possible - what you can do and how you manipulate things in a positive way - that really is what Douglas Kirk is about.
You can see these and many more Marilyn Monroe photographs along with a collection of Elvis Presley pictures at a joint exhibition entitled Elvis & Marilyn: Anniversary tribute to the two greates icons of the 20th century
July 26th to September 5th
The undisputed King of Rock n' Roll and the original Blonde Bombshell are to be exhibited for the first time in this groundbreaking exhibition - Elvis & Marilyn, at London's Proud Central.
Address: Proud Central 5 Buckingham Street, London, WC2N Tube: Embankment and Charing Cross
Opening: 10am to 7pm, Monday to Thursday 11am to 6pm, Friday - Sunday
Prices: Entry Full Price 3 Concessions 2
Visit: Douglas Kirkland's web site www.douglaskirkland.com for images of stars he's photographed throughout the years.