Douglas Kirkland has been passionate about images since he was a child. Coming from Canada he started working for a small photo studio in Virginia. A few years later he met the photographer of whom he was an admirer and went to New York for the position of Irving Penn’s assistant. Despite the prominent position he obtained, Douglas Kirkland needed better salary to live, but Irving Penn refused to increase it. He then gave himself some time to make himself known, later he joined Look Magazine for which he got a first photo session with Elizabeth Taylor. This photo session was the origin of his reputation as a star portraitist. It is 1961 and it is also the year in which he photographed Marilyn Monroe.
“The first time I met Marilyn to talk about the shoot, my colleagues and I went to her home on Doheny Drive – right on the edge where Beverly Hills and Hollywood connect. She was very disarming because she didn’t seem like a big superstar; she seemed more like the girl next door. I wanted to get some hot pictures of her, but in my shy Canadian way, I didn’t know how to say that. In the end Marilyn was the one to take charge. She said, ‘I know what we need. We need a bed, and we need white silk sheets – they must be silk. Frank Sinatra records, and Dom Pérignon champagne.’ She totally pre-empted what I wanted to go for on the shoot, and I was so relieved. We scheduled it to be done about three days later, at 7.30pm on a Friday evening.”
“The day came and I arrived promptly at the studio, which we’d we rented in Hollywood. I waited and waited, and 9.30pm came and she had not yet appeared. I said to myself, ‘If Marilyn doesn’t show up, it’s going to be a disaster. I’m still new at the publication, I’ve been sent to California, and if I don’t take back pictures it will be very difficult to explain.’ Just at that moment, at the other side of the studio, I heard the door open and in came Marilyn, with a lady carrying some clothes – ultimately she didn’t use them very much. She came in a completely different person to the girl I’d met last time – I saw the real Marilyn, the Marilyn we all think of. She seemed to move in slow motion to me; she had a luminescence about her and she didn’t step, she almost floated. That’s my memory of it, that’s the impression she left me with.”
The artist suggested to Marilyn to show how she wanted to be remembered 25 years later. It was a very delicate, sensual and joyful series that emerges. The photographer managed to produce and capture a very intimate moment between him and the star.
The most famous photos in this series are images of Marilyn taken vertically from a balcony in the photo studio. The decor is entirely white. Out of time and space, Marylin is plunged naked into a cloud of sheets. The star plays with the fabric and the cushion, with a seductive look. She rolls in the sheets, smiles and has fun, she seems happy and fulfilled. The atmosphere is bright, fresh, Marilyn’s blond hair, her fair skin and the white of the bedding, everything is immaculate and pure. Douglas Kirkland used a very special grain here.
“She had a robe on, and she took that robe off and got in under the white silk sheets. I just want to tell you, I was 27, but I was mentally 17. As I say, I’d had a very small town background and here, the superstar of all superstars was five feet away from me; I could reach out and touch her, and as she slipped into the bed I saw parts of her body that I couldn’t believe I’d ever see.
“Marilyn was so sexual, very sensual. At one point she suggested that we should do something more than just talk, in other words, embrace each other. This is where my small town boy came in, I acted like I didn’t understand, I was embarrassed. I looked down into my camera and just kept shooting pictures, over and over, as quickly as I could. I think that’s why the pictures are so strong, because that sexual desire was channeled into the camera instead of into action.
“I got overhead so I could shoot directly down on her. I started to take pictures, but I didn’t need to direct her – I just talked with her. It was like flirting, both ways, it became very hot, the charge in the air. I had one assistant, and she had her woman who worked with her. We took a break, and then she said, ‘I want to be alone with this boy, I find it usually works better that way’. So everybody left the room, I heard the door close, and I realised I was alone with Marilyn. Then I came down from up above, and she said, ‘why don’t you come down and do some close-ups down here’. I came down from the stairs that I was up on, and I was a little over one metre away from her.”