DPP Home Profiles Douglas Kirkland: From 8x10 to Digital and Back

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Douglas Kirkland: From 8x10 To Digital And Back

In an illustrious career that has spanned more than four decades, Douglas Kirkland has always embraced new technology. So why is he using an 8x10 view camera and film for some of his current work?


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Kirkland
Artist Don Bachardy with his portrait of Christopher Isherwood.
Canadian-born, Hollywood-based Douglas Kirkland began his photography career long before digital photography was even a concept. Yet when the technology became a reality, he was among the first prominent photographers to embrace it.

Kirkland’s 1961 photos of Marilyn Monroe taken for LOOK magazine’s 25th anniversary issue brought him international recognition, and he has stayed on top of the field ever since. Countless other notables have paraded before his lens, from Charlie Chaplin to Coco Chanel. That “lens” has been attached to every type of camera, from a 1942 8x10 Deardorff to state-of-the-art digital Canon bodies. But rather than utilize a linear progression of technology, Kirkland often returns to cameras of an earlier era to give us a unique perspective on a person in the present.

DPP: You recently did an amazing series of 8x10 portraits of Italian actors. Had a lot of dust built up on that camera since the coming of the digital age?

Douglas Kirkland: I actually had never stopped using an 8x10 since the days when I was very young, working in a product studio in Buffalo. Even years later, when I was working for LOOK and LIFE magazines, I would use it on occasion as well. In the 1980s, I did a series on bag ladies for the U.S. edition of GEO magazine. I would walk around the streets with an 8x10 with the 8½-inch lens.

DPP: Working in a product studio must have been a great education and gave you the ability to work quickly.

 
In his long career, Douglas Kirkland has been one of the most innovative professional photographers in the business. An avid advocate of digital photography, he’s one of the elite Canon Explorers Of Light. It may be somewhat surprising, then, that in some of his recent imagery, Kirkland has elected to use an 8x10 view camera and sheets of film to get a special look.
 


Kirkland
Nicole Kidman on the set of Australia.
Kirkland: It was. I spent every day working with a Deardorff and hot lights. We would stop all the way down and do 10- to 15-second exposures. We would go into the darkroom, develop the black-and-white film and do sometimes 50 contact prints a day. When I moved down to New York City, I was an assistant of Irving Penn, working with a Deardorff.

DPP: What does the methodology of using an 8x10 do for you?

Kirkland: Years back it was for sharpness. It was the only way you could get a real crisp image. It goes back to the days of Group f/64; that’s what they were doing.

Beyond that, and what I like to do with the 8x10 these days, it can give an extremely shallow depth of field when you shoot wide open. You can’t match the mistiness, the out-of-focus areas in any other way. I’m very into digital cameras. I’ve worked with Canon and have been an Explorer of Light for years. The Canon equipment is out of sight. But for a little more mystery, artistry, the 8x10 really does it for me. I like the feel of it; it feels older to me.

DPP: What’s the experience like for the person sitting for you? Is it very different from the rapid-fire D-SLR shooting that’s so prevalent today?

Kirkland: I find it creates a very different look in the eyes of the people and a different expression because they have to sit for a few seconds for the preparation and then the exposure. It just takes you to another place. I move pretty quickly when I need to. But even if you work very efficiently, the nature of the camera creates a different pace. The swings and tilts are very easy for me since I’ve spent a lifetime working with this camera. It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how to ride, you’ll always know. I usually work with one person. I take care of the front end of the camera and usually have an assistant on the back end taking holders in and out. We have a rhythm, a momentum going.

DPP: What kind of interaction do you have with your subject?

Kirkland: I talk with people to make sure they’re not moving around. That’s why you see that look in his eye. There’s nothing hurried. The photograph becomes a collaboration. It requires time, and talk is important. If anyone wants to do that, I recommend him or her studying how to smooth talk. It’s part of the process of keeping people comfortable while they have to wait.

 

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