Look back through the most iconic celebrity portraits of the last 50 years. Chances are, the man behind the camera for many of them was Douglas Kirkland. He’s been alone in a room with Marilyn Monroe clad only in a satin sheet and a smile, met his wife through Audrey Hepburn, spent weeks in the company of Coco Chanel, and has captured the inner spirits of some of pop culture’s greatest enigmas. With a retrospective of Douglas’ work taking up residence at GOMA from September 11 as part of Brisbane Festival 2010, one might think that the iconic photographer’s career is slowing down. But at 75 years old, this affable gentleman is working as hard as ever, with as much passion, enthusiasm and pure joy as when he first picked up the camera at age 10.
What was your childhood dream?
I grew up in a small town of 7,000 people not too far from Niagara Falls. I had a good childhood, but it was a quiet life because it was a small town. We used to get picture magazines like LIFE and Look, and I would find such excitement and inspiration in them, because their photographers showed us the world. I was only 10 or 11 years old, but I couldn’t imagine a more exciting job. I took my first photograph when I was 10 – it was outside on a very cold Christmas Day and that one click of the camera resonated into my career. I still feel the same excitement that developed in those early years.
Were your parents an influence on your career?
In a very positive way. My father had always liked photography and took pictures. Every Friday afternoon we would look through LIFE magazine when it came. It was unimaginable for us, living in such a small town, to think of everything that was out there in the world and depicted in the magazine. It was during World War II when it wasn’t common for people to travel in general, so the great photojournalists showed us what the world was like. I never imagined that I would live to see any of it myself, but it eventually became my reality.
What first attracted you to photographing celebrities?
It was something that evolved – I never set out to photograph celebrities. Elizabeth Taylor ended up being the catalyst that brought me into photographing celebrities. I worked for Look magazine in New York at that time and I was hired to do fashion and colour photography.In 1969 I was out in California shooting bathing suits on the beach and my boss called me from New York and said I needed to go to Las Vegas where Elizabeth Taylor had agreed to give the magazine an interview. She had said ‘no pictures’, but he told me to go there and see if I could persuade her. So I went there and sat quietly while the journalist had his interview, and at the end of it I walked over to her, took her hand and said, ‘Elizabeth, I’m new at this magazine – can you imagine what an opportunity it would be for me if I could photograph you?’. She thought about it for a moment and finally said, ‘OK, come tomorrow night at 8:30’. She had been ill and hadn’t been formally photographed in two or three years, but the world was wild about her. I photographed her and then the pictures ran all over the world. That was the beginning of my career and within months I was travelling with Judy Garland.
How do you find the true character of someone who has made a living out of fabricating characters?
Ultimately, there’s an individual behind all of that. There are some actors and actresses who have an idea of how they want to be presented and they try to only present that side of themselves. If you’re photographing them in character as someone else, that’s one thing. But to try to get their real person, it’s sometimes not that easy because actors are often masters at being other people. If you get to know somebody, if you have time to, they eventually open up to you. As I’ve become more established, people have come to me and asked me to photograph them. I try to show people as honestly as I can. And I also want people to feel good at the end of a session. I’m a firm believer that when I’m taking pictures of a subject, they have to feel comfortable. I don’t want to be pressing them into anything they don’t want to do, because I respect them. If I can get them to feel comfortable and to be looking at me, and connecting with me as the viewer, you will see in the picture as much honesty as I can possibly bring into it.
What has been your greatest challenge?
The world of photography is incredibly competitive, even more so today. When I came in the late 1950s, people said to me ‘Kid, it’s too late. It’s all happened.’ The funny thing is that they’re still telling young photographers the same thing. But it’s never all happened – you have to adapt to the times and they keep evolving. I worked for at least 15–20 publications that have gone out of business. You have to adapt to new ways of doing things and constantly keep reinventing yourself. As a photographer, I don’t want to be arrogant in any way. You have to be confident enough to do the work but you need to maintain your humility too, because no one wants to be around someone who is full of themselves.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Honestly, I’d say it’s my relationships with people and also still having the opportunity to do what I do. I’m 75 years old and still busy. We work up to six or seven days a week sometimes. I’m in a wonderful place because I love my work and I enjoy talking to people about it. I have no special magic but I keep doing what I do with a passion and joy. I’m so lucky to be able to work with my wife, Françoise. I met her when I was working in Paris years ago with Audrey Hepburn. Her mother was the publicist on the movie that Audrey was working on, called How to Steal A Million, and Françoise came to visit her on set. That was 45 years ago, and we’ve been married for the last 43.
Who inspires you?
When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a very important photographer named Irving Penn, who was a photographer for Vogue in New York. I learned so much so quickly working with him. One of the most important things I learned was the importance of preserving one’s work– that’s why I still have all the images that are in the retrospective. Looking at it now, I can’t believe how many exciting projects there have been. When I put them all end to end I’m amazed. There’s no single magic moment – I just try to make the most out of every one and approach them with an open mind. I’ve worked on films like Out of Africa, Titanic, and Moulin Rouge – my career goes back so far that I did a picture for The Sound of Music! I also was there during the shooting of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And then I’ve photographed people like Peter O’Toole, Andy Warhol, Katharine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe and many others.
What is your dream now?
To be able to keep doing what I’m doing. My wife and I are in good health and our relationship is good. We’re having the time of our lives! We’re celebrating our lifetime, enjoying it and making the most of it.
Where do you find peace in life?
By having a good relationship with my wife and trying to do the right thing always. We’re not here forever and we have to make each day count and always do the best you can. When you’ve done the best you can, no matter what the circumstance, you know you haven’t short-changed yourself in anyway.
What are your words of wisdom?
I really try to help people wherever I can now. When I was very young and I was miraculously hired by Look magazine, it was a huge step to get hired for such a big picture magazine. They hadn’t hired a photographer in 12 years and they came to me. I finally found out that there had been an individual named Morris Gordon who had recommended me and that’s how it all happened. So I found this man and I said to him: ‘Morris, you have no idea what this means to me, having this job. What can I do for you in return?’. He said: ‘Just do the same for somebody else; just pass it along’. I’ve tried to do that ever since – to help people as much as I can and to treat people kindly. And I always tell them to do the same for someone else as they develop their careers. Everyone begins at something and you should help people as much as you can. Make the most of every opportunity and try to help people in any way possible. It’s the right way to do things.