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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Monroe shoot launches stunning career

PHOTOGRAPHER Douglas Kirkland, 82, still remembers his first meeting with Marilyn Monroe. It was 1961, and the young staffer at Look Magazine was in Beverly Hills to photograph the famous beauty for the publication’s 25th anniversary.

The resulting images, which feature Monroe wrapped only in a white satin sheet, made Kirkland one of the most sought-after fashion and celebrity photographers of his generation. They also became some of the most iconic pictures of the legendary bombshell.

Recently the veteran photographer was in Shanghai for an exhibition titled “Meeting Monroe” on the 37th floor at Shanghai Tower. The show includes 31 images of Monroe, some of which are on view in China for the very first time. Naturally, the show also features pictures from Kirkland’s famous 1961 session with Monroe.

Discussing this legendary encounter, Kirland said: “We started shooting for a while and it went reasonably well. Then, at a certain point, she told everybody to leave the room, saying ‘I want to be alone, boy’ ... I kept shooting, thinking the real magic was going to happen now and indeed it did.”

Over the decades, Kirkland has also trained his lens on beauties and glamor stars like Coco Chanel, Angelina Julie and Sophia Loren. His fine art photography has been exhibited across the globe. He has works in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the National Portraits Galleries in London and Australia.

In addition, Kirkland has worked as a set photographer on over 100 motion pictures, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Sound of Music” and “Titanic.” Despite his advanced age, the master image maker continues to work today.

Kirkland says although he keeps coming to China to shoot stories since the mid-1980s, this is his first exhibition here.

“Shanghai is a magnificent and futuristic city. Visually, it never ceases to fascinate me,” he says.

Q: Although your pictures of Marilyn Monroe were shot about five decades ago, the charm of the photos and Monroe herself still enchants the world. When thinking of her today, what do you miss most about her?

A: There was a very unique quality about Marilyn. She was a sex symbol but there was a sweetness about her that was very compelling. There is no one like her. It was not only her beauty, but her vulnerability that made her special. It was often said Marilyn was great with still photographers — and she was. She didn’t see stills as being a waste of time. She enjoyed the still camera, perhaps more than motion.

Q: Usually there are two kinds of portrait photographers — ones who keep their distance from the subject and those who treat their subjects like close friends. To which category do you belong?

A: I love people and when I am photographing celebrities or regular people I’m interested in them and I want to find out about them. You create an intimacy for the duration of the shooting that sometimes goes beyond, but it is the moment of connection during the photo session that is important. So that puts me in the second category.

Q: The first time you picked up a camera was in 1944. What kept you attracted to it for all these years?

A: I see the world better through my camera. I cannot think of anything else I would ever want to be except for a photographer.

Q: You’ve photographed many celebrities. Did you ever encounter a celebrity that was difficult to work with, and how did you solve the problem?

A: Taking pictures of people is like a dance. I have to connect with my subject and I will do anything I can to achieve this. I coax, I cajole, I shout to energize or whisper to create the mood, I play music and get them to relax and feel good in front of the lens. If your subject feels good, you will get good images.

Q: Some say that being a portrait photographer is rather difficult, as you have to dig out the unfamiliar aspects of a familiar image. How do you find the other side of a movie star?

A: I try to let people be themselves and not treat them like objects. I want people to look good. I will not let unflattering photos be seen. Trust is very important. 

Q: Who’s your favorite photographer, past or alive?

A: I have had so many mentors and so many current photographers I admire. The list is too long and I can’t single out one person. It wouldn’t be fair.

Q: Because of technology, the techniques of photography today differ widely from the past. Have you adjusted to the digital world? Have you embraced these new shooting techniques?

A: I embraced the digital world very early on, from the early 1990s. As a matter of fact, some of my colleagues thought I had lost my mind ... I work with the latest Canon cameras and our archives are digitized of course. But I still love to use film occasionally. On special projects, I work with a large format 8x10 camera.

Q:  If you could say something to the young man who was about to step into Marilyn Monroe’s home to take her photo, what would it be?

A: Don’t let yourself be intimidated. Put your energy and your heart in the camera, and you will get wonderful pictures.


 

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