Douglas Kirkland recently passed away. His photographs are a celebration of beauty, and will live on. His death was widely noted, as he was a true legend of this industry. Below, a story in DP Review. The banner pic above was the group shot from the book, A Day in the Life of Hollywood, which of course was Douglas’ home turf. The formidable and kindly photographer Henry Groskinsky was given the daunting task of photographing 75 other photogs, all antic and impatient.
In the late seventies, I was a copy kid at the NY Daily News. Lots of rambunctious and unfounded hopes about becoming a “New Yawk photographer.”
Bob Clive was the art director at the News’ Sunday Magazine and saw a glimmer, somewhere, in the morass of my largely student portfolio, and gave me a couple of assignments, which eventually, over time, resulted in my first-ever cover of a real magazine. The Daily News had over 50 regular staff photogs, and the fact that a copy kid/apprentice knocked out a cover of the legendary Sunday News Magazine did not endear me to them. Except the confident ones, who congratulated me and told me to keep pushing. Those possessed of frail skills and a smallness of spirit looked at me sideways. A threat.
I took a vacation to the west coast. No money, cheap airfare, couch surfed while I was there. Clive gave me a few numbers to call to show my work around. One of them was Douglas Kirkland. I had studied his work in school. Summoned the guts and rang him up. My opening line was something along the lines of “Mr. Kirkland, my name is Joe McNally and I work at the New York Daily News. I’ve always admired your work and I’d like to come over and show you my portfolio.” (At this point, “stalking” had yet to enter the popular vernacular.)
He told me to come over.
He had a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, and his walls were adorned with dye transfer prints of some of the most legendary actresses in the movies. He sat with me, and, ever the gentleman, told me my stuff was fantastic. He was irrepressibly positive about my efforts, and described a bright future. I was elated.
Later that same day, I had an appointment with Con Keyes, then the director of photography at the LA Times. He flat out told me I’d never make it.
I recall driving out on the Pacific Highway to a pullover and sitting on a rock staring at the ocean. I knew neither assessment was completely true, and the answer was somewhere in the middle. I also knew the devastating review I had received at the Times was really more about the egoistic power of the reviewer, and therefore not so much about me. Later in that trip, I drove north to San Francisco, and once again spooled up my stalking personality and called legendary Magnum photog, Paul Fusco. He gave me a measured overview, critical where it was called for, but in the wasteland of my early work, he found sprouts of hope, and a smattering of promise. He told me to take those small positives and work on them.
But Douglas, at the height of his rightful acclaim, with huge magazines and movie companies beating down his door, took the time to see a nobody and encourage him. No pretense, no barriers, no waxing of ego. Just a “Come on over.” I remember walking on air out of his house. His review of my work really reflected an attitude he had about this whole endeavor.
“I have a genuine philosophy. I do not want to make negative pictures about people, and so I do everything I can to help make them feel comfortable in front of the camera. That is what is going to control your picture, because you are alone if your subject is not with you. And that’s the simple answer to getting a good picture,” says Kirkland when describing how he was able to get the personalities of his subjects to shine through.
The power of mentorship. The power of simply taking the time. The joy of looking at pictures. The soul healing effect of engaging with someone who had an open heart and an open mind, and lived joyously. And, fueling this, an unalloyed confidence in his own skills, confidence enough to pass it on, and encourage, not destroy from on high. He gave me a lifelong lesson that day. He will be missed. Certainly his eye, and his boundless enthusiasm for the next photo or the next assignment. But also, his gentlemanly ways. We will not see his like again.
Joe Ownbey says
Thanks for your comments about Douglas Kirkland – quite inspiring! Back in 1980 I had a chance to spend a day with Peter Gowland, thanks to Leon Kennamer. It was a great learning experience and gave me great confidence. Looking foward to meeting you in Oklahoma City soon.
Michael Rubin says
Words from the heart, they enter the heart. Douglas was a wonderful person and I never knew about this mentorship. Glad you got 3 opinions!
Then again, you have a been a quiet mentor (and not so quiet) to so many up and coming photographers. Thank you Joe.
Judy sillen says
Thank you for sharing these comments. So wonderful of succ ssful photographers to mentor and encourage young people. It makes all the difference. Young people today have many advantages but also disadvantages and having positivity towards them and their potential means everything.
Joe McNally says
Thanks back to you, Mike for all that you do. And for stopping by the blog!
Joe McNally says
Absolutely agree, Judy.
Ken Byrne says
You speak of Douglas from the heart. Both simple and elegant prose that reflects the encouraging spirit I have met when taking your workshops. Thanks Joe
Don Risi says
I have often noted that regardless of the industry, be it the world of entertainment, photography, or whatever, the higher up the ladder of success someone actually is (as opposed to where they think they are or where they think they should be), the more generous, encouraging, and forthright they seem to be, and it certainly sounds like Mr. Kirkland was one of those “on the top rung” people. Likewise, as with your experience with the staffers at the Daily News who congratulated you on your Sunday News Magazine cover, those who are not afraid of losing their positions will almost always help and encourage up and comers. Teaching and mentoring is one of the most rewarding and worthwhile endeavors, and adds so much to life.
Great post. Thanks, as always, for sharing. Looking forward to next week here in OKC.
That’s what I’m missing, someone to look at my work and tell me there is something there. I’m glad you had the chance so early in your career to have that opportunity, that was a true blessing, and that little push is made you to keep shooting and become a better photographer.
Joe McNally says
Very true, Jorge…we all need that. Photography can be a very isolating thing to do, unless you have mentors, or are shooting for an editor.
Joe McNally says
Looking forward, Don!
Joe McNally says
He was a heartfelt guy. For all his accolades, very down to earth. Good to hear from you, Ken. All the best, joe
Norma Grieve says
Unforgettable philosophy to ensure the subject is truly comfortable and, so, never take a negative image of someone. What a wonderful shot-in-the-arm to have his encouragement some time age.