Photography | Douglas Kirkland – Cinematic photography at its finest

Douglas Kirkland’s photography has made an indelible mark on the history of cinema. From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Titanic, Kirkland has captured freewheeling moments on set and off that have come to define modern film. In Freeze Frame, Glitterati’s portly yet substantial publication, Kirkland draws together over 400 photographs from the past five decades, some of which have never been seen before.

The corpus of Kirkland’s work points repeatedly to his characteristic conveyance of intimacy, energy and engagement with his subjects. His work during the 1960s, when the golden age of photojournalism had dawned (along with Kirkland’s career at Look magazine at the age of 25), stresses an incredible amount of reserve and candor for an epoch coloured and coiled by glamour. His photographs of Vanessa Redgrave represent a degree of intimacy extended to him in turn by other film companies. She nonchalantly gazes out of her limo during a 4:30am journey to Burbank studios, where she will film Camelot with Richard Harris.

To ensure the same level of solace and pragmatism Kirkland’s work offered, United Artists had gone so far as to fire every photographer bar Kirkland on the Mexican set of Viva Maria in 1965. Even with less exotic sets such as the cramped flat in London of Fahrenheit 451, the still of François Truffaut manages to capture a suspended and unconscious gaze of the French director in between cuts, preserving every sensibility of an intimacy balanced with spatial intensity.

When Look folded in 1971, Kirkland’s swift employment by Life magazine marked a trait of rapidly and enthusiastically adapting to change. In 1988, Kirkland was hired by Newsweek to photograph Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise for the publicity of Rainman. The catch however, was that they were on opposite sides of the American coast. Departing from the norm of news magazines and into the foray of advertising, Kirkland digitally brought them together after individual shoots in New York and Hawaii. Embracing such changes was not always met with praise by his peers though. “Many of my colleagues thought I had gone mad” he admits. Some even accused him of “single handedly destroying photography”.

Any truth to such contentions soon dissipates when looking at the splendor of shots illustrated throughout the 80s and 90s. The former decade encapsulates the energy, money and heavy makeup typically imbued in photographs of Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer in Hollywood. Although this era saw the growing strength of publicists such as Pat Kingsley (aptly nicknamed ‘Dr No’ by magazine editors) along with heavily orientated marketing commissions, there are still plenty of tender moments captured. Nowhere is this more apparent than his work with Sydney Pollack on location in Kenya shooting Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. The following decade showcases this strength tenfold over with powerful, monochrome portraits of Oliver Stone, Ismael Merchant, James Ivory and a young, reclining Pierce Brosnan. These stark yet elegant photos are not only evidential of his earlier training with Irving Penn in New York, but illustrate an artistic individuality in their own right.

For a publication preoccupied with interlocking these images, there also remains a wonderful sense of symmetry between Kirkland’s earlier work and his experience shooting projects from 2000 onwards. On the set of Moulin Rouge, for example, peering from the wings of a hybrid cinematic-come-theatrical set, the composition of Ewan McGregor at centre given direction by Baz Luhrmann brings to mind Frank Sinatra adorned by stage lights in 4 for Texas in 1963. The culmination in utilizing a 1960s aesthetic in the new millennium was
cemented as a conscious decision with the advice given to Kirkland by his friend Steve Newman, the director of still photography at Twentieth Century Fox, who suggested that he work in a “tongue in cheek, early 60s style” with his work on the 2002 romantic-comedy Down with Love.

Douglas Kirkland’s work as one of the finest cinematic photographers from the mid 20th century, winning awards as
diverse as the Golden Eye of Russia and the Lifetime Achievement award from the Canadian Association of Photographers & Illustrators in Communication, isn’t merely exemplified in Freeze Frame; it’s contextual segregation coupled with Kirkland’s personal insights, documenting his experiences from over 100 film sets, paints a vivid light not only on a career weaved with startling portraits of actors and directors, but on the film industry’s ever changing aesthetic and succeeds in consolidating the qualities that make it timeless.

Ben Meagher

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