"If a person feels beautiful they will be beautiful in the camera" Q&A: Douglas Kirkland

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Photographer Douglas Kirkland's new exhibition, Three Weeks with Coco Chanel, opens at Perth's Claremont Quarter from this weekend. We sat down for a Q&A with the legendary portrait photographer ahead of the exhibition.

Best-known for his distinctive portraits of some of the world’s most beloved icons including Man Ray, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, LA-based Douglas Kirkland has been a working photographer for more than 50 years. 

Australian Photography: What made you think photography could be something you could pursue as a career?

Douglas Kirkland: The decisive moment happened when I was about eight years old and I was trusted with the family camera to photograph my parents in front of their house on a cold Christmas morning. I held the Brownie box camera (which I still own !) against my body to steady it and pressed the shutter which made that Click! This is now the title of a documentary about my life.

AP: One of the big steps in your development was getting a break with Look magazine, and then later, Life. How did these opportunities come about?

DK: There was a wonderful man called Morris Gordon who saw my portfolio and recommended me to Look. I got my interview thanks to him and they hired me after I had done a couple of feature stories for them. I thanked him and asked what I could do for him and he said “Pass it along” I have never forgotten, and made sure I honoured his wish.

© Douglas Kirkland
© Douglas Kirkland

AP: How would you describe your photographic style?

DK: Versatile and very sensitive to the individual subjects. Honest and uncomplicated.

© Douglas Kirkland
© Douglas Kirkland

AP: What do you look for in a portrait? Can you tell me about your shooting process?

I want to capture the essence of a person, and I want them to connect with with me and the camera. It is different with every sitter but I try to put people at ease and [make them] feel beautiful. I want them to trust me and know that I will not allow photos to go out that are unflattering. I want them to turn themselves over to me. If a person feels beautiful they will be beautiful in the camera. 

© Douglas Kirkland
© Douglas Kirkland

AP: What's the best piece of photographic advice you've ever received?

DK: Arthur Rothstein, Director of Photography at Look Magazine, told me: " Look, learn and observe, and always get the most out of your assignments." I still do.

© Douglas Kirkland
© Douglas Kirkland

AP: What advice would you give people who want to take better portrait images?

DK: Be interested in the person you are going to photograph, make them comfortable and relaxed, and have your equipment work seemlessly to avoid any distractions.

© Douglas Kirkland
© Douglas Kirkland

AP: What would you say to young photographers who want to pursue a career in photography?

DK: You really have to be passionate about it because it is a difficult journey. Photography has been very good to me but I still work hard to maintain my career to this day at the age of 85.

© Douglas Kirkland
© Douglas Kirkland

AP: Can you tell me about your favourite image/most memorable photographic experience?

DK: Talking about favorite images is like saying you have a favorite child. My most famous image is Marilyn Monroe and I had no idea at the time when I photographed her that this would be the image my name is most often associated with. I still look forward to my next shoot with great anticipation. Photography is my life.

About the exhibition

For 21 days in 1962, Kirkland fixed his lens on Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel – the result is a distinctly unique look at the woman who transformed twentieth century fashion.

Sent to Paris on assignment for Look magazine, Kirkland ended up living with Chanel for three weeks, catching both the public and intimate moments of her daily life. 

Douglas Kirkland said, “she wasn’t even sure I should photograph her. She’d been photographed by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, but she didn’t know me so she made me photograph some fashion first, to prove myself.”

Kirkland spent the next few days taking shots of models in Chanel outfits at famous Paris locations. Chanel was pleased with what she saw and allowed him to spend three weeks with her at the 31 Rue Cambon salon and workrooms.

Commenting on the experience Kirkland said, “Chanel had a great impact on me. She opened my eyes as a photographer, but also as a student of life. It was lifechanging for me.” 

Douglas Kirkland's Three Weeks with Coco Chanel exhibition runs from 13 March until 12 April at Perth's Claremont Quarter. Find out more here.

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