The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents March 2011 Return to Table of Contents
The Adjustment Bureau
Career TV Award
Presidents Award
Page 2
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Douglas Kirkland receives the ASC Presidents Award for capturing decades of superb stills depicting the industry’s filmmakers and stars.

Photos courtesy of Douglas Kirkland
Douglas Kirkland fell in love with photography when he was a teenager, and even today, at age 76, his home studio buzzes with activity as he works with some of the most famous faces in the world, fulfilling requests from galleries, book and magazine publishers, and filmmakers. Over the years, much of Kirkland’s work has focused on personalities who work in front of and behind the motion-picture camera, including the 200-plus cinematographers he has photographed for Kodak’s “On Film” ad campaign. He is an associate member of the ASC, and last month he was honored with the Society’s Presidents Award in recognition of his contributions to advancing the art of filmmaking.

“Douglas is a special talent, especially in terms of his amazing portraiture,” says Richard Crudo, ASC, chairman of the Society’s Awards Committee. “He has been a great friend and supporter of directors of photography and a great promoter of the ASC. We felt it was appropriate to recognize this with our Presidents Award.”

When Kirkland’s wife and business partner, Françoise, got the call from ASC President Michael Goi about Kirkland’s award, she first assumed the Society wanted her husband’s help with a photography project. “I gave him the phone and went into another room,” she recalls. “When he hung up, he came in and said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ He was so serious I thought it must be terrible news! But he was just that moved about receiving this recognition. And he is not what you would call an overly emotional person.”

“For me,” says Douglas, “the ASC is the singular heart of the industry. I know so many of the members, and so many of them have done amazing work. There is no film without them — at least, no viable film.”

Kirkland grew up in the Canadian hamlet of Fort Erie, Ontario (population 7,000), where an uncle’s Kodachrome slides and back issues of Popular Photography sparked his fascination with photography. He pursued his interest relentlessly, studying photography at a vocational high school in Buffalo, N.Y., and taking any photography job he could find. His early gigs included snapping photos for Fort Erie’s weekly newspaper and serving as an assistant at a Buffalo photography studio. All the while, his heart was set on working in New York City, the heart of the publishing industry.

In 1957 he moved to New York and was fortunate enough to get a job assisting legendary photographer Irving Penn, for whom he did everything from numbering negatives to making Type-C prints. “I was learning a lot but not earning enough to live in New York indefinitely,” he says. He needed to make the leap to a staff job, ideally with one of the glossy national magazines that were extremely popular at the time. Of course, an entire generation of talented photographers was chasing after those same staff jobs, and there were very few openings in those publications. Kirkland went back to Buffalo, where he shot in a product-advertising studio. Within a year, he was headed back to New York.

When he finally moved to the Big Apple, in 1959, he found the competition fierce and the cost-of-living high. “I found jobs at little magazines nobody had heard of,” he recalls. His early assignments included freelancing for Chemical Week, Business Week and a boating magazine. “I’d cover meetings or take portraits of executives. I also did some work for Popular Photography and wrote reports about my experiences with different equipment.”

In January of 1960, he received a call from Arthur Rothstein, the director of photography at the popular and highly respected Look magazine. There were two new openings, the first in 15 years. They tried Kirkland on a couple of stories, and he landed a staff job. “It’s hard to describe what that meant to me at that time,” he notes. “I had just turned 25, and this was an unimaginable break.

“I was hired to do fashion and color,” he continues. “When I say that to people today, they think I mean ‘colorful pictures,’ but no, shooting color was a specialty then. Color photography in those days meant transparencies, and you had to get the exposure absolutely perfect. Remember, Look hadn’t hired anybody in many years, and most of them were used to shooting a black-and-white negative and having the ability to alter it in the darkroom. I was ‘the new generation.’”

The tools of the trade were also changing. Medium-format twin-lens reflexes, such as the Rolleiflex with its one fixed-focal-length lens, were still the camera of choice for many photographers of the day, and some even worked with larger, bulkier gear. But Kirkland was among a younger set that embraced shooting with 35mm Nikon rangefinders and SLRs, Canon SLRs, and the medium-format SLRs made by Hasselblad.

Not long after being hired by Look, Kirkland was asked to accompany a writer who was going to interview Elizabeth Taylor. The year was 1961, and Taylor was among the biggest movie stars of the day. “She had agreed to the interview but said she didn’t want to do any pictures,” Kirkland recalls. “My editor said, ‘You go there and see if you can persuade her to let you photograph her.’”

Kirkland was determined to fulfill his assignment. Resolute but respectful — traits he continues to bring to his celebrity portraiture — the young photographer quietly approached Taylor and told her straight out that he was new to Look.  “I said, ‘Imagine what it would mean if you would give me the opportunity to photograph you,’’ he recalls. “She paused, then said, ‘Come back tomorrow night at 8:30.’

“She hadn’t had any portraits done for quite some time — the only current pictures of her were by paparazzi,” he continues. “My picture of her became my first Look cover, and it ran in other magazines all over the world. It really put me on the map. By September of 1961 I was on the road with Judy Garland, shooting her for a month. That’s the way magazines did it in those days.” He was soon taking pictures of many other top celebrities of the day, including Shirley MacLaine, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, and this work, in turn, led to shooting on film sets.

Kirkland never worked as an official unit photographer, instead doing what was known as “special photography” for Look, Life and other publications. “It was a time when the unit photographers were generally shooting black-and-white with Rolleis and just one focal length,” he explains. “There was a certain kind of photo the studios wanted, but they couldn’t get dramatic effects or really capture the essence and the look of a film,” which is what the glossy magazines wanted. Accordingly, photographers like Kirkland were sent to the set to capture staged setups and behind-the-scenes material that fulfilled the publication’s editorial needs in a way that the unit photography of the day couldn’t.

Kirkland has done this kind of photography on more than 150 feature films, providing a preview of the film’s look to millions of readers. Some of his special photography has even made it into poster art or other key art, such as the shot he took with his Widelux camera of Julie Andrews on the mountaintop that became part of the key art for The Sound of Music, or the Kodachrome slide of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep used to advertise Out of Africa.

Kirkland loved these assignments because they took him to the center of the filmmaking process, a vantage from which he could observe the cast and crew at work. “I have a fascination with the power of cinema and watching how it all works,” he says. “I learned so much watching cinematographers work, seeing rushes and tests of lighting and lenses. I definitely have more refined abilities today as a result of watching cinematographers. I may use a strobe light or a mirror or reflector rather than the lights they generally use, but the ideas about light that I’ve learned on movie sets have affected me enormously. As a still photographer, you can use the light that’s there, maybe add some light, or even light [the shot] completely, but a cinematographer must think of a lot of things still photographers don’t need to consider, such as camera movement, continuity and where you are in the story. How fortunate to be a photographer and be so close to such work!”


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