There was a time when stars and photographers got along. They invited them on tour, onto the set, into their homes, made them welcome. Sometimes, Douglas Kirkland says, they even became friends.
Kirkland once spent a month with Judy Garland. A month following her around. How things change. In the post-paparazzi world, the relationship between the media and celebrity is mutually suspicious, access is restricted, and control is the name of the game.
Kirkland can recall what went before. Kirkland was there. And he has the pictures to prove it. More than a million of them in his archive. Pictures of the biggest stars in the world. From movie monarchy to rock and roll royalty; all celebrity life is here.
Many are on display in Kirkland’s new book Freeze Frame: Second Cut, an extended version of an expanded edition of his mammoth compilation of images dating from the 1960s to the 21st century. Here is Elizabeth Taylor, all cleavage and perfection, in 1963; Marilyn Monroe wrapped in a bedsheet in 1961; Brigitte Bardot, who knocked on Kirkland’s door in the middle of the night; Sinatra and Dean Martin joking around with Garland; Keith Haring painting a nearly naked Grace Jones; Raquel Welch wearing next to nothing, chasing her kids out of the room; Ewan McGregor dancing with Renee Zellweger.
Here is Kirkland at Candice Bergen’s 29th birthday party, inside Jack Nicholson’s house a couple of weeks before the actor departs for the UK to make The Shining. Here, in short, is everybody.
And here is Kirkland’s life’s work, all between two covers. “This is my seventh book and this is a particularly important one,” the photographer tells me from his home in the Hollywood Hills, which he shares with his wife Françoise. “It’s a summation of my career which even when I look at it I’m rather astonished. I’m 82 now and I can’t believe all these things have happened to me over the last 60 years. I’ve been a very lucky guy.”
At 82, the photographer is still active (he’s off to pilates after we speak), still taking photographs. But it’s his rich and storied history we’re here to talk about this morning. Kirkland’s story is an accident of timing and proximity. Born in Canada, he grew up in the small town of Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo, New York. He started taking photographs aged 10, was working for his local paper by the time he was 15 and then headed to New York to pursue the photographer’s life. He was committed, even when Irving Penn told him he was wasting his time.
Instead, he lucked out getting a job for Look Magazine, the main competitor to Life Magazine at a time when both were selling in the millions. He was the first photographer taken on for years, he recalls. His course was set when Elizabeth Taylor said yes when he asked if he could take her picture in 1961. Everything followed from that.
The power of the weekly magazine was at its height when he started, he recalls. “TV was in its infancy. It did not have the power that it has today and so those weekly magazines were very important vehicles for people to get information or their fantasies brought to them. And I was in the right place at the right time.”
That word fantasy is important there. Because in many ways Freeze Frame is a dream book. In its pages are the objects of desire for most of the world over the last half-century. When Kirkland, then 27, took the famous images of Marilyn Monroe in bed, the star demanded white silk sheets, Frank Sinatra records and Dom Pérignon champagne. The resultant images are the ones everyone wants to talk to Kirkland about.
“I was only with her on three occasions. The first night was to talk about what we would do and then the second night was to take the pictures and the third night was to look them over. We had planned to do another session and unfortunately that never happened.” Less than a year after the shoot, Monroe was dead.
The question to ask perhaps is whether for Kirkland the taking of a photograph then is an act of seduction? “It’s a form of seduction,” he agrees, before adding a caveat. “It’s a question of how you think of that word.” For him that seems to mean getting on with people. “I want to be comfortable with people and that’s how it generally happens.” So what does he want to capture in his images? “I’m a very positive person. I want people to look good in my pictures and that, I suppose, more than anything else, is what has followed me.
“Some photographers like to make people look bad. Paparazzi-type things. It’s the opposite end of the road for me. I want people to look good. I want them to be happy. I want them to like their pictures. If I have not accomplished that I feel like I’ve failed.”
In the end Kirkland’s dream life also changed his real life. “I was working in Paris with Audrey Hepburn. Audrey was exceedingly good with me and liked the camera and the camera liked her. Audrey led me to Françoise. Françoise’s mother was working with the film studio and she came up to visit her mother one day. That was 50 years ago. And we’ve been happily married ever since.”
Douglas Kirkland once spent a month with Judy Garland. On reflection that’s the least of his luck.
Freeze Frame: Second Cut, by Douglas Kirkland, is published by Glitterati Incorporated next month glitteratiincorporated.com
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