This week, photographer Douglas Kirkland will receive the American Society of Cinematographers’ Presidents Award. In the 25 years that the ASC has been honoring outstanding contributions to the art form at its annual ceremony, it’s the first time the laurel is being given to a still photographer.
“I still haven’t quite recovered from the idea,” admits the 76-year-old Kirkland, gesturing toward a cabinet in his Hollywood Hills home where various plaques and statues are displayed. “Of all of them it’s the most important. It’s the closest you get to an Oscar…I’m very moved that they see me in this way.”
During his nearly 60-year career, Kirkland has worked on the sets of 160 films, and photographed more than 200 cinematographers for a Kodak ad campaign he’s shot for the last 20 years. He says the first time he understood the d.p’s critical role was watching Richard Kline on the set of Joshua Logan’s “Camelot.” “I was there to photograph Vanessa Redgrave for LOOK magazine,” he recalls, “but I watched him….I saw that he was putting a face on (the film) that it might not have had without him. I thought, ‘Wow. That’s the guy I’d like to be.’ I told him that recently; he laughed and said, ‘I’d trade places with you.'”
Raised in Fort Erie, Ontario, Kirkland found his calling poring over the pages of LOOK and LIFE. “I just thought the people who were able to take those pictures were in the most desirable spot in the world,” he says.
A job at a camera store led to work at a small newspaper, then a commercial studio: “I didn’t stumble into it, it was one step at a time.”
However, one of those steps happened to be an apprenticeship in New York City with Irving Penn, for whom he printed some of Penn’s earliest color photography. Then at 25 he was offered a staff job at LOOK, where his ability to convince a reluctant Elizabeth Taylor to pose for him made his career. “That established me as somebody who could work with the stars,” Kirkland notes. His secret? “I’m not overly enamored of them. I want to have a connection with them but you can’t function effectively if you’re gonna be staring up at them like a teenager.”
It’s hard to believe Kirkland could have contained his inner teenager when he photographed Marilyn Monroe in 1961, in bed wearing nothing but a white silk sheet, but outtakes reveal a friendly intimacy between the two.
His 2007 book “Freeze Frame” is a fascinating document of a life of near-unimaginable adventure and glamour. “I spent a lot of time with Bardot,” Kirkland says casually, flipping through its pages. “I spent a lot of time with Julie Christie, too.”
He also toured for a month with Judy Garland and spent more than that on the sets of “Out of Africa,” “Titanic” (published as a bestselling book) and Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia.” These days work is as likely to come in the form of an assignment from a luxury brand like Jaeger-LeCoultre watches as it is from a movie studio, but Kirkland expects to be working again with Luhrmann this summer on “The Great Gatsby.”
He also developed a rapport with Elle Fanning during a shoot at the Chateau Marmont while Sofia Coppola was making “Somewhere,” and has continued to photograph her at his home studio, run by his wife of 43 years and business partner, Francoise.
Unlike many of his generation, Kirkland embraced digital technology early on. “People used to think I was nuts,” he says with a chuckle, before turning philosophical: “If you think you’ve learned it all, you’re dead. Every day is a new page.”
Roger Deakins | John Seale | Douglas Kirkland |Michael O’Shea