‘Marilyn took charge. She said we needed a bed with white silk sheets, some Frank Sinatra records and a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne.’
Douglas Kirkland’s extraordinary career has been defined through his iconic pictures of legendary stars, including the one and only Marilyn Monroe, but a chance meeting with Victor Hasselblad right at the start of his career was equally important to him.
Douglas has been dubbed ‘Hollywood’s favourite photographer’. This is the man who pressed the shutter on some of the most sensual and unforgettable images of Marilyn Monroe ever taken, a series of shots that, over fifty years later, still resonate with a raw sexual energy. He remembers the shoot as though it were yesterday, every moment leading up to the point where it was just him and a naked Marilyn alone in a room, his Hasselblad poised to make a series of pictures that would never be forgotten. It’s the stuff that legends are made of, but it’s another meeting altogether that Douglas wants to talk about first.
“It was very early on in my career,” he recalls. “I was born and raised in Canada, but knew that I had to head for New York if I really wanted to get my photographic career off the ground. I’d arrived there and had landed a job, as an assistant to the great Irving Penn. It was a remarkable place to learn your profession, however, New York was a very expensive place to live. I had a family to support, and I was struggling after a while to live on the $60 a week I was being paid. “So I asked for a raise. Penn said that he would think about it for a couple of days. But eventually he came back and said ‘I just don’t think the money is in the business any more!’ So I left the studio and headed back to Canada, but was determined to come back and have one last try at breaking in.” A year later he returned to New York and landed some work with the magazine Popular Photography. One of his first jobs was to test a Hasselblad 500C and a full set of lenses. “The way I figured I would do it was to photograph department store windows at night in New York,” he says. “I loved the camera and, as a young man in my twenties, I was enjoying the opportunity to work with this wonderful kit, and it was all going really well. Then, towards the end of the evening a gentleman came up to me and asked me some questions.”
“I remember that he took a great interest in the camera and was intrigued to know what I thought about it. I was really enthusiastic and went into great detail about how much I was enjoying the experience. He just smiled a little and said. ‘I’m really glad you like it because I make this camera. My name is Victor Hasselblad!’ And then he just walked away and vanished into the night.” Douglas knows for sure that he really did bump into the founder of Hasselblad that fateful night because a year or so later a friend of his happened to meet Victor and asked him if he remembered the meeting. “And he did,” says Douglas, “every single detail. It was just an incredible coincidence that he just happened to be passing by that night.”
Charm wins the day
So impressed was Douglas with the performance of the Hasselblad he was using on that fateful New York evening that he eventually managed to acquire the kit, and it was the start of a relationship that continues today. He matter-of-factly reels off the names of those he’s photographed with the camera, and it’s a simply a who’s who of famous names including: Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Marlene Dietrich, Man Ray, Charlie Chaplin, Mick Jagger, Sting and Andy Warhol. And it was another Hollywood beauty, Elizabeth Taylor, who helped him to really make his mark on the celebrity scene.
Douglas had landed a job at Look Magazine in 1961, and one of his first assignments there was to photograph the great film star. The problem was that, at the time, she was at the centre of a media furore, due to the fact that she was recovering from a bout of double pneumonia that had come close to claiming her life. She made it clear that she didn’t want to have her picture taken, and Douglas was facing the prospect of having to return to his office without the end result he needed. He solved the issue by using his charm and a few quiet words. “I told her I was new with the magazine,” he says, “and could she imagine what it would mean to me if she would let me photograph her? She thought for a moment and then asked me to come to her hotel at 7pm. When I arrived she was ready for me and I got my pictures.” It was a shoot that put Douglas on the map, and it directly led to him being given the job to photograph Marilyn Monroe for the magazine’s 25th anniversary issue later that year.
It turned out to be an assignment that still resonates today, and the way it came together was pure Marilyn. “The shoot was at a photographic studio in Hollywood,” he says, “and 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. 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.”
Douglas got on a balcony in the room so that he could shoot looking directly down and started to shoot. Then came a break and Marilyn asked everyone else to leave the room: “She said ‘I want to be alone with this boy. I find it usually work better that way’ and that was it,” he says. “I was on my own with her and the pictures became even more sexually charged.” The shoot was given extra poignancy since it was one of Marilyn’s last: she died the following August, and the pictures have gone on to become a lasting legacy of an extraordinary Hollywood star.
For Douglas however, it was just the start of a successful career and, now into his eighties, he’s still very much hard at work. Over decades he has acquired a unique one million image- strong photo-archive. He’s been a photographer on more than 150 films, blockbusters such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sound of Music, Out of Africa and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and he even photographed John Travolta’s dance sequence in Saturday Night Fever.
He also earned a reputation for the quality of his celebrity portraits, among those appearing in front of his camera the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Sophia Loren and Michael Jackson. His skill is his ability to always squeeze something extra out of the situation, such as on the shoot with Judy Garland where he photographed the star crying.
There’s no prospect just yet of Douglas hanging up his cameras. He’s still very much at the top of his game and contracted for work all around the world. All these years on, however, that early meeting with Victor Hasselblad on the streets of New York still sticks in his mind: “It really was a remarkable moment,” he says, “the start of a relationship with the camera that’s still strong today.”