Douglas Kirkland – whose celebrity portraits have become almost as iconic as the celebrities themselves and whose photographs document some of the most important filming in Hollywood history – died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on Monday. He was 88.
Kirkland has portrayed the biggest stars of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brigitte Bardot.
He has been the specialty photographer on more than 100 films including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sound of Music, Sophie’s Choice, The Last Picture Show, Fiddler on the Roof, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Saturday Night Fever, Alien, Midnight Run, Rain Man, The Great Gatsby, Out of Africa, Titanic and Moulin Rouge!
Kirkland has never worked as an official unit photographer. His work on these films was primarily for publications such as Look and Life magazines.
“It was a time when photographers in the unit were generally shooting in black and white with Rolleis and only one focal length,” he once told American Cinematographer Magazine. “The studios wanted a certain type of photo, but they couldn’t achieve dramatic effects or really capture the essence and look of a film,” but that’s what the glossy magazines wanted.
In 2011, Kirkland received the ASC’s Presidents Award in recognition of his contributions to advancing the art of filmmaking. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Operating Cameras (SOC).
“Douglas is a particular talent, particularly in terms of his amazing portraiture,” said Richard Crudo, ASC, then Chair of the Society’s Awards Committee. “He was a great friend and supporter of cinematographers and a great promoter of the ASC. We felt it appropriate to recognize this with our Presidents Award.”
Kirkland was an associate member of the ASC.
His work has been collected into 10 monographs, many of which have been published worldwide in multiple languages, including the iconic work An Evening/1961 With Marilyn and the retrospective Freeze Frame: 5 Decades / 50 Years / 500 Photographs, published in 2008.
He told CBS This Morning that Monroe, whom he described as “light and almost playful,” required three things before filming.
“I want white silk sheets, Frank Sinatra records and Dom Perignon champagne,” Kirkland recalled the actress’ words. Watch the interview below.
Kirkland’s photography is in the collections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Eastman House Museum in Rochester, the Houston Center for Photography and the Annenberg Space for photography in Los Angeles.
When asked in 2017 which of his works he would change if he could go back and recreate them, Kirkland told CNN, “All of them. There’s no reason to think that the only picture taken is the best you could have made. I always think I could have done better.”
Born in Toronto in 1934, Kirkland moved to New York in 1957 and landed a job as an assistant to legendary photographer Irving Penn. He came to print by photographing for an eclectic group of publications including Chemical Week, Business Week and Popular Photography.
In 1960, at the age of 26, he became a staff photographer for Look magazine. A year later, Kirkland asked Elizabeth Taylor if he could take her portrait, stating that he was new to the magazine.
“She paused,” he later recalled, “and then said, ‘Come back at 8:30 tomorrow night.’
One of those photos became his first look cover.
Kirkland later worked for Life and Time magazines.
“The bottom line is that I see the world better with my camera,” he told Gallerie Gadcollection in 2018. “And that’s how I’ve always seen the world since I was a little boy in Canada.”
Kirkland is survived by his wife Françoise, son Mark and two daughters Karen and Lisa.