Douglas Kirkland, who took portraits of movie stars, dies at 88

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Douglas Kirkland, who took portraits of movie stars, dies at 88
An undated photo provided by Douglas Kirkland shows Douglas Kirkland photographing Marilyn Monroe in 1961. Douglas Kirkland, a photojournalist and portraitist whose subjects included Marilyn Monroe wrapped in a silk sheet and Coco Chanel at work in her Paris atelier, died on Oct. 2, 2022, at his home in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 88. Douglas Kirkland via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Douglas Kirkland, a noted photojournalist and portraitist whose subjects included Marilyn Monroe wrapped in a silk sheet and Coco Chanel at work in her Paris atelier, died Oct. 2 at his home in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 88.

Francoise (Kemmel-Coulter) Kirkland, his wife and manager, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

For more than 60 years, Kirkland was a leading celebrity photographer, first for Look and Life magazines and then as a freelancer for various magazines, Hollywood studios and advertising agencies. Courteous and exuberant — he was no annoying paparazzo — Kirkland was welcomed into stars’ homes and hotel rooms and onto movie sets.

The tall, dashing Kirkland “had this magical quality,” said Karen Mullarkey, who worked with Kirkland as director of photography at New York and Newsweek magazines. “He had this way of making people comfortable — he was so enthusiastic.” For an issue of New York, she recalled, she brought model Kathy Ireland a bunch of peonies, and as he photographed Ireland, Mullarkey heard him saying: “Caress them! Kiss them! They’re your boyfriend!”

In 1961, a year after joining Look, Kirkland had two dramatic encounters. For the first, he accompanied Jack Hamilton, a reporter, to Las Vegas for an interview with Elizabeth Taylor, then one of the biggest stars in the world. When the three met, Taylor said she would talk but not sit for pictures.

After the interview, Kirkland recalled to the website Vintage News Daily in 2021, he tried to persuade her to pose for him. He held her hand and said: “I am new with this magazine. Can you imagine what it would mean to me if you let me photograph you?”

“I did not let go of her hand; she wore jungle gardenia perfume which I could smell later on,” he continued. “She thought for a while and said, ‘Come back tomorrow at 8 p.m.’”

The result — a picture of Taylor in a yellow jacket, wearing spectacular diamond earrings — appeared on the cover of Look’s Aug. 15, 1961, issue.

Later that year, Look sent Kirkland to Los Angeles to photograph Monroe. They met at her house, where she told him what she wanted for the shoot: a white silk sheet, Frank Sinatra records and Dom Perignon Champagne.

When they met at a studio four days later, she slipped out of a robe and got into a bed, swaddled herself in a sheet and posed for Kirkland; for part of the shoot, he perched himself on a balcony above her. She was, it seemed, directing herself, with what looked like joy. She hugged the pillow, hid everything but her face in the sheet and turned her back to the camera.

“I had everything technically right,” Kirkland said in an interview with “CBS This Morning” in 2012. “My Hasselblad — click, click, click — but it was Marilyn Monroe who really created these images.”

He recalled that shoot in the 2020 documentary “That Click: The Legendary Photography of Douglas Kirkland,” directed by Luca Severi: “What the pillow represents is what she would like to be doing to a man, and I could have been in there and been the pillow. But I chose to keep taking pictures, because that’s how Douglas Kirkland really, bottom line, is.”

Look used only one of the Monroe pictures, inside the magazine, but Kirkland collected many of them in a 2012 book, “With Marilyn: An Evening/1961.” His other books of photographs include “Light Years: 3 Decades Photography Among the Stars” (1989), “Icons” (1993) and “Legends” (1999).

At Look and Life, and then as an on-set photographer, Kirkland shot pictures during the production of more than 100 films, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Rain Man” and several Baz Luhrmann films, starting with “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001. Luhrmann said in “That Click” that Kirkland’s photography “captures the romance of cinema.”

His career started at a time when his subjects were accessible to journalists, and it continued into a time when stars and their handlers exerted greater power over the media. “In the ’60s, there was an idea of letting the camera be revealing of truth,” he told The New York Times in 1990. “Today, it’s more like ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”

Douglas Morley Kirkland was born on Aug. 16, 1934, in Toronto and raised from age 3 in Fort Erie, Ontario. His father, Morley, owned a shop where he made men’s made-to-measure clothing, and his mother, Evelyn (Reid) Kirkland, kept the business’s books.

He took his first picture with a Brownie camera as a child: his family standing at the front door of their home on Christmas Day. By 14, he was photographing weddings. After high school, he studied at the New York Institute of Photography and then returned to Canada, where he worked for two local newspapers. He later moved to Richmond, Virginia, to work as a commercial photographer.

While there, he wrote three letters to the influential fashion photographer Irving Penn, seeking a job. In 1957, Penn hired him as his assistant.

“I was paid $50 a week, and even in those days in New York it was not too simple,” he said in an interview with the American Society of Media Photographers in 2017. “But I was with Penn and I was quickly learning.”

He joined Look in 1960 and stayed there until the magazine folded in 1971. He was then hired by Life, where he remained until it stopped weekly publication the next year. For the rest of his career he was a freelancer, working for Time, Paris Match, Sports Illustrated, Town & Country and other magazines.

He received the American Society of Cinematographers’ Presidents Award in 2011 for his photographic work on film sets. The next year, he was commissioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a series of official portraits of Oscar nominees, among them George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close.

One of the actors, Michelle Williams, had been nominated for playing Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn.” In the documentary “That Click,” she said that being photographed by the same man who had photographed Monroe a half-century earlier had been a moving experience.

“Never could I have imagined this sort of circumstance,” she said.

In addition to his wife, Kirkland is survived by his son, Mark, and his daughters, Karen Kirkland and Lisa Kirkland Gadway, from his marriage to Marian Perry, which ended in divorce; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

In August 1962, Kirkland spent three weeks with Coco Chanel in Paris for Look. At first she was wary of him, permitting him to shoot only the outfits she had designed but not her. But after he showed her his first set of prints, she backed off, letting him observe her at work — always in a hat and usually surrounded by her staff. On his last day there, she suggested that they take a ride to the Palace of Versailles. He took one last picture of her, walking alone in the palace’s gardens.

“It was chilly and had started to rain, even though it was August, so I gave her my raincoat,” Kirkland told The Guardian in 2015. “She put it over her shoulders and it looked almost like a fashionable cape. She said that she often liked to go there because it gave her an opportunity to get lost in time while being surrounded by the magnitude of old French culture.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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