On Photography: Douglas Kirkland, 1935-2022

“I said, ‘Imagine what it would mean if you would give me the opportunity to photograph you. She paused, then said, ‘Come back tomorrow night at 8:30.’” -Douglas Kirkland

Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest movie stars of the 1960s, had turned down Douglas Kirkland’s request to photograph her for Look magazine. It was the 25-year-old’s first assignment for the magazine. His quiet, respectful request got him the session with the star. Douglas Kirkland died on October 2.

Career launch

Elizabeth Taylor had not had portraits done in a while. Her current photos were all by paparazzi. Douglas Kirkland’s 1961 image of the star was his first of many covers for Look magazine. The photo ran in magazines all over the world.

The success of that session really launched his career. That year he photographed Judy Garland for a month, Shirley MacLaine, Marlene Dietrich and of course, Marilyn Monroe. It was a very busy good year.

The movies

Douglas Kirkland was never an official unit photographer for motion pictures. Yet he worked on over a hundred and fifty movies doing special photography for magazines. He photographed behind-the-scenes and staged setups in ways the public relations shooters with their square format Rolleiflex cameras couldn’t.

His movie work was often seen as posters for films in theatres. The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odessey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Out of Africa were some of his features.

Watching cinematographers

“I have a fascination with the power of cinema and watching how it all works,” Douglas Kirkland said. “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!”

Douglas Kirkland received the American Society of Cinemtographers’ Presidents Award in 2011.


Douglas Kirkland’s work is in the collections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Smithsonian and the Annenberg Space for Photography and others. His work is in ten monographs are collected in his book A Life in Pictures: The Douglas Kirkland Monographs.

On Photography: Douglas Kirkland, 1935-2022
Kevin Ames & Douglas Kirkland Photo by Greg Strelecki

A personal note

I met Douglas Kirkland and his wife, Françoise when I was president of the ASMP Atlanta/SE chapter. I had worked with Canon and their Explorer of Light program to sponsor him to come to Atlanta and make a presentation of his work with our chapter. It took a lot of back and forth to get everything arranged. And it was worth the effort.

The event happened in the Tent at the advertising and imaging school The Creative Circus. After he was finished, the head of the Image department asked Douglas if he might make some pictures. Douglas happily agreed. I was invited to share the sofa for a moment during the shoot.

The evening was spectacular. He was witty and fun. His stories told of what I consider the golden age of glamourous photography. On the way back to his hotel, we chatted and he and Françoise gave me a copy of his book “An Evening With Marilyn” that he had personally inscribed to me. Needless to say, I treasure it.

The story of the famous shoot as told by Douglas Kirkland to Anthony Mason on CBS This Morning is in this video.

Sources: American Society of Cinematographers, Douglas Kirkland.