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Career with a Camera

From: Creative Inspirations: Douglas Kirkland, Photographer

Video: Career with a Camera

(Music playing.) Douglas Kirkland: My first experience start when I was very young; ten years of age as a matter of fact. I come from the small town in Canada called Fort Erie, 7,000 people, very small town. I would come home from school for lunch. My father did too. He pick up the mail at the post office; we had to go and get it ourselves there and he would bring it home and we would -- a Friday afternoon was the day that Life Magazine came and that was a big deal.

Career with a Camera

(Music playing.) Douglas Kirkland: My first experience start when I was very young; ten years of age as a matter of fact. I come from the small town in Canada called Fort Erie, 7,000 people, very small town. I would come home from school for lunch. My father did too. He pick up the mail at the post office; we had to go and get it ourselves there and he would bring it home and we would -- a Friday afternoon was the day that Life Magazine came and that was a big deal.

And I remember so well that after we had lunch, he laid it out on the table and we were going through every page, as much as we had time for it before I had to get to back to school and he had to get back to work, but we looked at all the different pictures. And that was the beginning of my excitement for photography. It all started there and just think, here I am in this small town, where nothing special really seemed to happen. At that time, I looked at the pictures, which were from Europe and Asia, as well as United States and all of the world, Latin America.

And there was somebody out there taking those pictures and I wanted to know about those people and those were the coolest people in the world, men and women. The more I learned about them, the more excited I was and I just thought to myself, I want to be that kind of a guy. That's me, that's who I would love to be. That was the beginning of a career. I never thought I'd make any money in some ways or anything like that. That wasn't my motivation. That wasn't when I was driven by; it was just the idea of being able to capture images and show the world how I saw things.

That was really the deepest motivation for me about photography. Now, how did I move forward? I had many, many jobs. Quite frankly, I never kept a job that long, because I would become impatient. I would keep wanting to move forward and I had different jobs. I mean I had worked on a commercial studio at one point in Buffalo, New York, and another one in Richmond, Virginia. That was a printing plant, offset printing plant, and that was good because I learned a great deal about printing at the same time.

That was a photo studio and printing plant. So I learned more and I find as I look back, I kept collecting really an education in this. I got some traditional education, yes, but the best education was in the field for me. One stage after another and then I finally thought I have to get to New York and I did get to New York and I worked for the very prominent Vogue photographer named Irving Penn. I was very lucky. Some people say, how did you ever get such a job? You know how? Again, I sat and I wrote letters to him and finally he agreed to letting me come and meet him and he said, you know, I have no job, I have no job, but come by and I will talk with you.

And I did and what happened is he didn't have a job at that time, but about six months down the road, he did because the guy who had been there as one of his three assistants, one of them, had to go into the military, into the army. So it was an opening and I got that opening and so that's how it happens sometimes. You have to reach for it at each stage. So here I am working for Penn, which was an extraordinary experience. I learned a great deal there. I mean, watching the Vogue editors march in and seeing just how the whole system worked; how they used cameras, how they used lights, how people interacted.

I had never seen that in the small town world that I had grown up in. I mean, photography didn't represent that. So in New York, eventually, I had the most extraordinary thing happen. At, first, one of my first jobs was working for Popular Photography. How did I get that job? I got that job just by again making calls and I made notes of the editor's names who were in the magazine and called them and I got through the one of the top ones, a guy named Bob Schwalberg. He was one of my heroes, because I used to read his text all the time in Popular Photography.

And I went in with my portfolio and showed it to him and I remember very well, one afternoon about five o'clock, he looked at it and he said, hey, you're pretty good. He introduced me to some other people at the magazine and that got me started at working with Popular Photography. Then frankly, I went on through a series, again, of small steps. Before I knew it, I was called and asked to come in and try out for a job at Look Magazine. Now, the time I got to Look, I was just-- shortly I was going to be 25 and in couple of more months, I would be 25 years of age.

Here I am living in New York. They were respecting me, they think I can really take pictures. I mean, I sometimes thought it was a con. I said they were going to find me up, but they never did. They always trusted me and it energized me, just having these chances. And just let me shoot. I mean, I had never imagined I would be shooting the big celebrities that I eventually did, but I wanted to use my camera and I wanted to show people what I saw and I wanted to do it always as good as I possibly could.

In any case, that led to a full-time job at Look Magazine and that's when the world opened up to me. I mean I traveled all over, I met big people, small people and I learned how to communicate. I learned the essence of photo journalism at that time, which went on then to portraiture and other areas, but this is just the beginning and this is how my career began and then I got into photographing a lot of stars and that's a separate story which began with Elizabeth Taylor.

And I got started there and it went on to all of the pictures that I'm more known for, but my first star for me is photography itself. That's where the seed of it all lies and the interesting thing I must advise you that magazines come and go. We have seen a lot of that. I mean there isn't really a Look or Life today but they got me started and that's where I grew up. The part of the job, if you want to be a photographer, is falling on your feet, reinventing yourself and because it's constantly evolving and that's true of most professions of this type.

I am in what's frequently called a glamor profession or job and boy, it has been very good for me, because I have been able to go all over the world. I work with my wife Francoise here, who does everything with me. She is my agent, my lover, as we say dances with the clients. They like to have Francoise around. In any case, a lot of good stuff and this is where we live today and we live and we travel a lot. We have got a very good life and we enjoy ourself. I had been such a lucky guy, I really have. Small steps, but I did get to this place and I would never have imagined that I'd be siting here and talking with you today from this position.

I'm in my early 70's now and it's been quite a ride and a wonderful one and I enjoy starting each day in this job.

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