On a rainy November night in 1961, a young and green Canadian photographer named Douglas Kirkland found himself in a Hollywood studio with nothing but his camera, a bottle of Dom and the most famous woman in the world. The shoot, which one of Kirkland’s earliest assignments, resulted in some of the most arresting images ever taken of Marilyn Monroe, who posed for Kirkland the year before she died.
The photos, which feature a giddy, sun-kissed Marilyn wrapped in a white silk sheet, have endured ever since, most recently in Kirkland’s new exhibit Beyond the Lens, opening tonight in Los Angeles.
The show is a tour de force retrospective of Kirkland’s 50-year-career, which, in addition to photographing timeless icons, from Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, to Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol, has included nearly a dozen film and fashion editorial assignments for playboy. Kirkland’s relationship with the magazine began with a 1965 fire-and-ice-themed pictorial of French ingénue Jeanne Moreau, “the brooding, beguiling high priestess of French cinemactresses,” as the magazine described the star. Then, in 1975, Kirkland shot Margot Kidder, three years before the actress-writer-director catapulted to stardom for her depiction of Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve’s Superman. After the shoot, Kidder described the photos, which were taken on a beach near her Malibu home, as “the prettiest ever taken of me.”
Kirkland sat down with playboy in anticipation of his new show, which features photographs of Audrey Hepburn, Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier, Meryl Streep, Cher, Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and countless others, to talk about photographing iconic women, working for playboy at the height of the sexual revolution, and what really went down in that room with Marilyn.
Because this is playboy, and because you’ve photographed so many classic beauties, talk a little about what’s so special about shooting women compared to other subjects.
I like all photography, but frankly and in simple terms, I am very drawn to beautiful women. If I’m sitting face-to-face with a beautiful woman, I’ll probably be melting. That’s the way I was with Marilyn, and that’s the way I was with my wife, Francoise, who I met in Paris more than 50 years ago. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot some incredible women—Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Taylor, Angelina Jolie, Cher, Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau—as well as some men who I got along very well with – Robert De Niro, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole. I’ve had the chance to work on more than 200 movies through the years, and that’s how I connected with so many different people, both women and men.
How did you begin shooting for playboy?
I knew the photography director, Mark Kauffman. I worked mainly with Mark and West Coast photography editor Marilyn Grabowksi. Mark had been a photographer at Life magazine, where I had worked. When Mark got over to playboy, he invited me to come in and do some shoots. I didn’t go to the extreme that some of the photographers did, but I knew beautiful women and I would respond to her and we would obviously get images that Hugh Hefner seemed to like. I went to the mansion a few times. It was quite extraordinary for me as a young man to be there and see it. And then I photographed there on a couple of occasions.
So there I was alone with Marilyn Monroe, in a room with a bed and white silk sheets with Frank Sinatra records playing.
You did some of your earliest work for the magazine in the mid-1960s and the 1970s. What was it like to work for Hugh Hefner in the middle of the sexual revolution?
You know, in some ways it was strange, because I was married to Francoise, to whom I’m very happily married to this day, and here I was getting these assignments where people were comfortable removing their clothing. It was a different time. There was sexual freedom. You know, the Pill had come along. That doesn’t seem like anything big today, but back then, it suddenly meant that women had control over whether they would get pregnant from having sex. It was a very free period.
Talk about your night with Marilyn.
My night with Marilyn. It was a rainy evening in November. The year was 1961. I was a very young photographer for Look, which was a very big magazine at the time, with a circulation of eight million. The magazine wanted to do something special for its 25th anniversary, and had the idea of Marilyn. Marilyn was the superstar of all time. She was probably at the height of her career. I came out to California from Look’s offices in New York. I stayed at a suite at the Chateau Marmont, and Look’s editor Jack Hamilton and the magazine’s bureau chief and I went to see Marilyn at her new home in Hollywood. She had been sick for a few months, and she wasn’t anxious for people to know where she lived. She said people had been more or less haunting her. The first time I talked with her I felt in over my head. Here I am, a young guy from a small Canadian town of 7,000 people. I walked in, and she had only two chairs in the room. My colleagues, who were much older than me, immediately took the chairs, and so Marilyn said, “Oh, just have a seat here on the bed with me. I usually think of this as a couch,” and she slapped it and more or less giggled in a very wonderful way. We sat down and she started to talk, and she made it very easy. She had seen some of my work, and we talked about the last time she had been in the magazine; what we should do for the shoot. Eventually, she said, “I know what we need. All we need is a bed with white silk sheets and Dom Perignon champagne, and I will do the rest.” “And Frank Sinatra records,” she added. And that was the end of our first evening.
What do you remember most about the shoot itself?
We rented a studio in Hollywood, and I had the bed and the white silk sheets and the Dom Perignon champagne and the Frank Sinatra records all lined up and working. Marilyn was a couple of hours late, which she was famous for. I started to wonder if she was even going to show up. She finally did, and she had one lady with her with some wardrobe. I started taking pictures, but it wasn’t working at first because I was nervous. Then she said, “I know what we need. I need to be alone with this boy. I find it usually works better that way.” So there I was alone with Marilyn Monroe in a room with a bed and white silk sheets and Frank Sinatra records playing, and not much else. We started working and the pictures immediately got really good. And that was the beginning of the evening that resulted in the pictures that were instrumental in starting my photography career in Hollywood. I was nervous, but she made it easy.
How did she respond to the photos?
We took the pictures around midnight on a Friday night and she wanted to see them the next day. I had the film processed first thing the next morning and went to see her that Saturday at 5pm. I rang her doorbell and she didn’t respond. I rang it a second and third time. Suddenly Marilyn appeared in half-darkness. She looked like she hadn’t slept. “Come on in,” she said. She looked through 60 or 70 of the pictures, and at first she didn’t like anything that she saw. Then she left for a few minutes, came back, and said, "Let me look again.” After she looked the second time, she fell in love with them. She started to select the ones that she liked and pointing out how great they were, which was quite a switch.
What’s one of your most memorable shoots, other than Marilyn?
Elizabeth Taylor was always very important to me. She really was the person who got me started. Like with Marilyn, I came out to Los Angeles from my Look magazine home in New York to meet Elizabeth. She hadn’t been photographed for almost a year, because she’d been ill after one of the failed attempts to make Cleopatra. The shoot was a great success and what led to working with many people, a list that astonishes me when I see it even to this day.
Douglas Kirkland’s new show, Beyond the Lens, opens at Mouche Gallery in Los Angeles on April 28.