If anyone in the history of photography deserves a large book it’s Douglas Kirkland. Yet his new book “A Life in Pictures” is relatively small in the grand scheme of modern publishing. However, I’m referring to only the physical imprint. When it comes to what is inside this book, well, photographic life doesn’t get any bigger. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. If you don’t know Douglas Kirkland you are clearly one of those unfortunate souls abandoned on a South Pacific island, still hiding from passing ships, convinced the war is still going on. There is no other credible explanation. Kirkland is simply one of the most important, and prolific image makers in the history of modern photography. Other than that, he’s a nobody. All of you have seen his images, whether you knew it or not, and if you actually ARE one of those souls trapped on an island, Kirkland probably shot the images in your survival guide. If you are asking yourself, “Is he the guy that shot ______.” I’m just going to say “Yes, that’s him,” because when you open this book you will see what no longer really exists in our little world of light-tight boxes, which truly is a life in pictures.
I know some of you are hung up on the awards and prizes, so I’m going to just say this. He was won more awards than I can count. His work lives in more archives than I can count. He’s had more shows than I can count. He’s had over 2000 assignments, and he’s photographed over 600 different celebrities/figures over his career. And when I say “photographed” let me explain something to anyone who is thirty-five years old or younger. Douglas began his career when a “portrait” might involve following a dignitary around the world for an entire month to make your “portrait.” I’m going to say this was a time of class, of professionalism, that far transcends the “You have two minutes with so-and-so” world of modern celebrity photography. This was a time of mutual respect, and over the years, with his expanding archive and experience range that respect awarded him unprecedented photographic opportunities. What? Who you ask? I truly don’t know where to being but will just toss out “Marilyn.” Yes, he’s the guy that made those images. Told ya!
I’ve been in photography since 1988 when I made images during a “flood down in Texas,” to pull from a Stevie Ray Vaughan tune. I was given a scholarship to be a photographer and the rest, as they say, is history. I can honestly say, I’ve never met a more kind, gracious, professional, caring and positively gung-ho photographer than Douglas Kirkland. My wife told me Douglas has a birthday coming up, as do we all, and he’s getting up there (sorry Douglas), and STILL to this day, during those random chances I get to see him, he is as excited about showing me his recent work and sharing tales of life on the road as I’m sure he was back when the camera still felt new and foreign in his hands. It is remarkable.
But wait, there’s more, and this is where we separate the photographic men from the photographic boys. During those random times when I get to see Kirkland, he’s open and shares what his life on the road is like, but he is also interested in what my photographic life is like, and I don’t just mean the random, “So what have you been up to?” Kirkland makes eye contact. I’ve never seen him with a phone in his hand, so when he talks to you there is clarity and meaning in his questions, which translates to one thing…he actually cares. He really wants to know.
Know how I know? Because I once got a glimpse.
Upstate New York, a small town on a wintery day. A small diner. Just he and I. How we got there, or why, doesn’t matter. I got a one-on-one with the guy that paved the way for so many photographers. I equate it to a young trumpet player having Miles Davis walk up on stage with him or her. There was no pretense, just honest talk. As the flakes gently fell outside the foggy glass of the diner I was given a glimpse into the world I had not yet been able to enter. Douglas cracked the door open and gave me a look inside as well as an encouraging push. This was one of the definitive moments in my photographic life, something I filed away in the deepest recesses of my brain, something I use from time to time as an anchor when I feel my photographic life beginning to drift.
So when my wife brought this book home my life stopped for a moment. I couldn’t open it right away. It’s too important to browse, and when you see the range of imagery you will know what I mean. Photography is not what he does it’s who he is. I’ve viewed the book three times now, and it sits to the left of my computer as I write this. This book is a testament to a photographer, and his equally remarkable wife, Francoise, who was and is with him every step of his journey, but also a testament to what is possible in modern photography. This book demands respect and undivided attention.
I’ve never been a fan of cloning, but with Kirkland I will make an exception. Kirkland, and his book, are proof that things are right in the world when you work hard and don’t settle or compromise. I wish I could take him with me as I travel to schools around the world, unveiling him as the students begin to doubt my words about what is possible in the photographic world. But I have the next best thing. I have the book.