Douglas Kirkland is a living legend. He has photographed some of the most iconic celebrities of the 20th century—among them, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe—and now he has published a book of portraits centered on an iconic piece of clothing: the parka. Woolrich, maker of the perennial American favorite in winter wear, commissioned Kirkland to make a series of portraits to celebrate the company’s 180-year anniversary. The photographer jumped at the opportunity.
"It was a very exciting project," Kirkland says. "How often does a photographer have something handed to him like this? They basically said, ‘Tell us what you think should be done.’ I wanted to use this opportunity in a very careful manner because so rarely where anything commercial is involved are we given this much license. Everybody wants to be sure; the art directors and this group and that group make sure that it all conforms to this rule and that. Nothing like that kind of constraint was imposed upon me."
Free to photograph as he saw fit, Kirkland quickly arrived at his ideal approach: two portraits of each subject, one made in a traditional manner on large-format black-and-white film—reminiscent of the portraits that would have been made when Woolrich was still a young company—and the other a high-energy contemporary color portrait made with a digital SLR. The series would serve to visually parallel the Woolrich parka through the decades.
"I thought, let’s reach back to the earliest days of photography and what it would look like," Kirkland explains. "When someone is photographed with a camera like this, it takes time. You have to set it up carefully; you look through the back, and the image is upside down, and you have to focus it carefully and have your subject stay in one place as they did in Mathew Brady’s time. Although we’re not flowing plates like he used to have to do, it’s a slower process than what most people think of as photography today.
"As a result of that," he continues, "I have learned that people have a different look on their faces. They look like they’re from the 19th century rather than the 20th or the 21st. And I saw a value in that, so I suggested that we reach to both ends: We do a portrait of each individual with that camera, a Deardorff 8×10, and then also use the latest digital technology, the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Each individual was photographed in two different ways."
Says Kirkland, "Woolrich allowed me to select most of the people. They made some suggestions, but the majority of them are people whom I know or I felt were appropriate. Among them is a friend of mine whom I’ve worked with through the years; her name is Erika Lemay and she’s been with Cirque du Soleil. On her black-and-white image, I had her hanging upside down wearing the great jacket, the sort of signature jacket, which is very warm and wonderful in cold weather. Everybody was using these jackets as a parallel throughout."
With free rein, Kirkland photo-graphed Lemay upside down in the traditional portrait, and he composited the digital image. The end results, much like the techniques used, are utterly different.
"I have a picture that I did years ago of the Milky Way when I was doing astronomy work in Chile," Kirkland says, "and I took that and put Erika essentially flying through the stars with the jacket chasing her like a satellite. They gave me carte blanche to do anything I wanted. How often does this happen?"
Kirkland didn’t always use digital compositing to create the color images, though the technique did come in handy a few times. He employed multiple exposures with the acrobatic Lemay, as well as when he photographed the music group Maxim Ludwig & The Santa Fe Seven.
"On that one," Kirkland explains, "it’s a very traditional image of the group done with the 8×10. Then you go back to them on the Strip where they play often at The Roxy, and I did some compositing there. I was going to take them out on the Strip without compositing, and I found that it was nearly impossible because of police regulations. It would have cost a fortune; it would have stopped traffic. I photographed them knowing I would put them in this; I went over to the Strip on three or four busy evenings just to get a feel for it before I photographed them. That’s their favorite place, so that’s why it went there."
The high energy in this image contrasts decidedly with the subdued, timeless quality of the group’s black-and-white portrait. This is the subtle message Kirkland was hoping to send throughout the project. No matter how trends change, the parka itself—much like a classic portrait—always remains in style.
Kirkland used a multitude of techniques in the making of the images, although the lighting approach always remained minimal. With the Deardorff and Kodak TRI-X sheet film, Kirkland relied on soft, ambient light to evoke the timeless feel of 19th-century portraits, though he did employ a decidedly 21st-century accessory.
"I have a Litepanels LED light," says Kirkland. "I love it. I just dial in a slight fill. That’s the only thing I do on those shots. If I can keep it simple, I do. I do the elaborate setups, too, for certain clients, with multiple strobes and everything. Sometimes it’s overkill and sometimes it’s to please a client and make them feel comfortable. But I always start simple and build from that. Don’t bring in too much."
Though working with the 8×10 camera allows less room for spontaneity, the DSLR and a handheld flash are built for improvisation. That’s what Kirkland employed when he photographed Dominik García-Lorido, and it again translates directly into the image content.
"Dominik is a very good example," he explains. "In her 8×10, she had to sit still and she looked wonderful. There’s one look of her there, and then, of course, you get the total contrary with the motion and movement. It’s like two different people, and that’s the contrast that I love. Sometimes I sketch things out or I’m given sketches to work to, but I love having an edge. I didn’t have the idea of her leaping in the air—I just knew I wanted to get a strong picture. And, boy, did she do it well. She looks spectacular midair.
"You have to look at your subject," Kirkland continues. "You have to respond to them as an individual. This isn’t cookie cutter. I don’t think photography should be. I think it’s sad when creativity and originality and expression from the subject can’t go into it. That’s what’s so important. I say to my subjects, ‘We’re going to do this picture,’ because I can’t do it alone. And if they feel good or energized or serious, I feel that should be reflected in the picture. That’s who they are. I can’t say now you’ve got to smile and do this or look sad. I can make suggestions of that kind, but I’m not compelling anybody to do anything. I want them to look good. If they’re slouched down, I’ll say, ‘You know it would look a lot better if you sit up a little higher, could you lean on this…’ I will make that type of suggestion, but I really want them to have a constructive input."
Adds Kirkland, "There’s less opportunity for that with 8×10 because they can’t move around a lot. You need to have a good relationship with them and explain clearly what you’re doing. I like to shoot wide open because I like that incredible shallow depth of field it gives. In doing that, they only have, like, half an inch they can move forward or backward, or they’ll be out of focus. So I have to have that conversation with them. That’s where part of that wonderful mistiness, almost coming from a different century, comes from."
The parka project typifies Kirkland’s life in photography. With a career spanning more than 50 years, he has worked with traditional large-format film as efficiently and effectively as digital capture and postproduction. Incorporating these varied techniques not only made this particular project more successful, but it’s part of what makes Kirkland such a talent. He chooses the technique, any technique, to serve his vision—no matter how new or old that technique might be.
"It’s really exciting," he says. "We’re very lucky as photographers today. This allows us just to stretch even more. The possibilities we have with digital are exceptional. It’s a very exciting period, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of creativity. And the liberty I was given is such that I didn’t have restraints. I was inventing. I love that. That’s what photography should be. It should be an expression."
Of the creative freedom entrusted to him, Kirkland says, "You can always hang yourself, but I wasn’t worried about that. My greater concern was using it well, realizing the value of it and making the most of it. I wanted to treat every image with great sincerity and seriousness because this is an opportunity that we don’t very often get, and I just wanted it not to slip away. I wanted to give it truly my best shot.
To see more of Douglas Kirkland’s photography, go to www.douglaskirkland.com.