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Douglas Kirkland exhibition

  September 12, 2010

Douglas Kirkland's enthusiasm is infectious. 

I went to see American-based Canadian photographer Douglas Kirkland talk about some of the images in his retrospective exhibition that opened at GoMA in Brisbane over the weekend and - despite interviewing him on the phone a few weeks earlier - was amazed at how enthusiastic he is not just about his images, but photography in general.

He literally got up and jumped up and down at the end of his hour-long talk because he was so fired up. And that wasn't the only time the 76-year-old got out of his chair to emphasise a point.

“You are seeing my life in fun!” he exclaimed half way through his talk.

Even though he is most famous to taking images of some of the world’s biggest celebrities for Life and Look magazines, Kirkland made it clear he loves photography, any kind of any subject shot with any kind of camera.

When he talked about his first celebrity assignment - going to Las Vegas to try to convince Elizabeth Taylor to let him take photos of her - he made a point I think photographers sometimes forget about under the pressure of deadlines and constraints.

“I had very few resources; I had me and honesty,” he said.

The relationship with your subject is paramount, even if you are shooting as an objective photojournalist your passion for the story and your drive to tell it as honestly and accurately as possible still convey a message to your subject, particularly in long term projects.

If your vibe, aura, energy, whatever is rushed or condescending or careless, then your subject (assuming it’s a person and not an inanimate object) will pick up on it.

“A studio is a state of mind,” he said, “ because it is a relationship with a person.”

Weeks and sometimes months went into getting some of Kirkland’s iconic images and even though most of us, or the people we work for, can’t afford that kind of time nowadays we can abide by the same principles of how we approach the story and the subject.

“There is a time to talk and there is a time to be quiet and respectful,” he said about taking this image of Judy Garland.

But there were heaps of funny and lighthearted images too, such as Roman Polanksi jumping off the deck of a boat surrounded by cast in costume during the filming of Pirates and a series of images of Peter Sellers spoofing the paparazzi in Italy.

Kirkland says “we made this picture” not “I made this picture”, acknowledging the roles many of his subjects played in getting the shot.

It was so endearing to see his wife Francoise, seated in the front row, constantly reminding him of the names of people, places, movies throughout the talk. Kirkland's archive of 1 million images are her life and work too.

And he made another good point later when asked about the digital revolution and Photoshop. 

He pointed out how he wasn’t overly concerned about digital manipulation because photographers have always been able to fake images. 

How in the darkroom as a student he learned how to merge two images together as seamlessly as in Photoshop - make a fisherman's catch three feet instead of 30cm.

“Photoshop is only as dishonest as you make it,” he said.

And a photographer is more than his gear.

“The technology has changed but I have not changed, my eye has not changed,” said Kirkland.

“The most important camera is in your head.”

If you’re in or near Brisbane, Australia check out Douglas Kirkland: A Life in Pictures at GoMA in South Bank. It’s free and runs until October 24.

See images of Kirkland's talk and read another perspective at photojournalist and teacher Heather Faulkner's blog.

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