As a keen photographer, I was saddened to learn that one of the greatest names in photography, Douglas Kirkland, passed away on October 2 at the age of 88. Douglas was a legend in Hollywood, and during his long career, he photographed some of the most famous faces of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Douglas Kirkland was a ball of pure energy and creativity. He couldn’t take a bad photo and the secret to his skill was his uncanny ability to connect with his subjects in a unique way that captured the character and essence of whoever he was photographing.
Born in Toronto, in 1934, Douglas was raised in Fort Erie. He developed a love for photography by reading his father’s copies of Life Magazine. After high school, he emigrated permanently to the USA and ended up working for Look Magazine. In 1961, Douglas was sent on assignment to photograph Marilyn Monroe. That photo session sealed his reputation as a talented portrait photographer; from that day, he went on to photograph some of the biggest celebrities of the day.
Among the subjects who posed for Douglas’s trusty Hasselblad was Man Ray, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Dr. Stephen Hawking, Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Sting, Björk, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Morgan Freeman, Orson Welles, Andy Warhol, Oliver Stone, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Leonardo DiCaprio, Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich, Brigitte Bardot, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Jack Nicholson, Catherine Deneuve, Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton and Diana Ross.
It would probably be easier to list the celebrities that didn’t sit for Douglas. His portrait of Charlie Chaplin is now on display at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Douglas also spent much of his career as the official photographer for some of Hollywood’s best-known movies, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sound of Music, Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa, The Pirate Movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Romancing the Stone, Titanic and Moulin Rouge. He also captured the iconic shots of John Travolta in the famous dance sequence from Saturday Night Fever.
Douglas published his Titanic picture book in 1998. It was the first book of its kind to reach the top spot on the New York Times Best Seller list. He repeated the feat when the book was published in paperback and followed up with A Life In Pictures, in 2013. His talent for creating arresting images ensured Douglas was one of the most in-demand photographers and might explain why he worked way past the age that most of us would have considered retiring. In his later years, Douglas enthusiastically embraced digital photography and took to the medium like a duck to water. It didn’t matter whether he was shooting on film or memory cards, Douglas took the most stunning photos.
Some 20 years ago, I had the immense privilege of spending a couple of weeks, along with other photography journalists, soaking up some of the wisdom of this most genial and generous man. I remember that we were photographing some models in a swimming pool for one of his workshops. Douglas didn’t hesitate; he grabbed a camera from one of his students and waded into the pool, fully dressed, with a reflector in his other hand and started snapping away to show us how it should be done.
Finding a more engaging and giving person willing to share his knowledge and skill would be hard. I will treasure the kindness, praise and encouragement Douglas gave all his students. We bonded through our love of Macs because Douglas was a huge Apple fan. I learned so much about photography and life in the short time I spent with this true master of his art. Douglas was a hugely talented man who naturally saw life through a viewfinder. Thankfully we have his beautiful and iconic images to remind us of what a great photographer he was. Thank you, Douglas.
Douglas Kirkland passed away in Los Angeles on October 2, 2022. He leaves behind his wife Françoise and three children: Karen, Lisa, and Mark. You can explore more of Douglas Kirkland’s amazing archive of photos at: