Douglas Kirkland, Famed Photographer of Hollywood Luminaries, Dies at 88

Douglas Kirkland, Famed Photographer of Hollywood Luminaries, Dies at 88

Douglas Kirkland, the legendary photographer who trained his lens on the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Brigitte Bardot, Mick Jagger, Catherine Deneuve, Kim Basinger, Angelina Jolie and so many others, has died. He was 88.

Kirkland died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, a family spokesperson said.

The sheer number of remarkable public figures to have stepped before his camera seemed unparalleled in the medium of photography, and his photographs appeared in thousands of publications throughout the world. 

“Douglas Kirkland has left an impossible void to fill in both his personal and professional lives, and his boundless joie de vivre, warmth and passion will be missed by a long life of wonderful and meaningful friendships,” Jeff Dunas, director of the Palm Springs Photo Festival, said in a statement.

Kirkland’s most famous images are sultry shots of Monroe taken in 1961 in which the actress appears in bed embracing white silk sheets.

Photos of Elizabeth Taylor he had shot during one of his first assignments in 1961 for Look led to the Toronto native meeting up with Monroe in a Hollywood studio for the magazine’s 25th anniversary issue that year.

“I knew the pictures I wanted to take of her, but in my shy Canadian way I didn’t know quite how to get them,” he said in an undated interview. “It was Marilyn who took charge: she said that we needed a bed and some white silk sheets, some Frank Sinatra records and a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. She had a robe on, and eventually she slipped out of that and under the sheets, and that was how she wanted to be photographed.”

Kirkland also served as an in-demand still photographer on more than 100 films, from Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Last Picture Show (1971) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) to Sophie’s Choice (1982), Out of Africa (1985), Rain Man (1988), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Titanic (1997), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013).

He was always upbeat and never nervous about photographing famous people, he said.

“The word ‘celebrity’ is a rather peculiar word,” he noted in a 1998 interview with Stephanie Gregory of Photo Insider. “I work with celebrities, but I’m not in awe of them. Individuals are less important to me than the possibilities of creativity. It’s making images that excites me. Honestly, the names have come and gone, but my good fortune is that I’ve remained.”

Born in Toronto on Aug. 16, 1934, Kirkland was raised in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. His father was a tailor. After teaching photography at Seneca High School in Buffalo, New York, he became a staff photographer at Look magazine in 1960 when he was just 26. His lovely photo essays would typically run 10 or 12 pages.

After Look folded in the late ’60s, Kirkland was hired by Life magazine, and his photos would appear in other Time-Life publications including People and Sports Illustrated.

The list of those he photographed also included Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Marcello Mastroianni, Judy Garland, Michael Caine, Katharine Hepburn, Ann-Margret, Robert De Niro, Natalie Wood, Nicole Kidman, Peter O’Toole, Paul Newman and Leonardo DiCaprio.

A photo Kirkland took of Chaplin in 1966 resides at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and his work could also be seen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; The Smithsonian Institution; the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia; the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York; and the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

His 1993 book ICONS: Creativity With Camera and Computer features 66 original photographs of famous people — Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Billy Idol and Stephen Hawking among them — that were modified digitally to produce startling new creations.

His other books included Freeze Frame: 5 Decades/50 Years/500 Photographs and Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel/Summer 62.

Kirkland was an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers, which honored him with its prestigious President’s Award in 2011. Six years later, the Canadian Consul General in Los Angeles presented him with the Award of Excellence in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding accomplishments.

Survivors include his Paris-born wife, Françoise; son Mark, an Emmy-winning director on The Simpsons; daughters Karen and Lisa; grandchildren Jamie, Chad, Ryan, Patrick and Anna Sophia; and great grandchild Madison.

In her piece for Photo Insider, Gregory presented a “representative sampling of Kirkland’s high-mileage lifestyle” that went like this:

“Work for a week or so in Europe on a book on Italian women; fly to New York to pick up a sporty Jeep Grand Cherokee and drive it cross-country via America’s most colorful ribbon of kitsch, Route 66. Then, after a short hiatus at home in Los Angeles, hop a plane to Cuba for the Havana Film Festival, followed by a flight to Tokyo for an opening at the Tower Gallery in Yokohama.

“It’s no wonder this purveyor of the good life has no plans to retire. ‘What is there to retire from?’ he laughs. ‘I’m living a dream.’”

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