In Douglas Kirkland’s new book, A Life in Pictures, ASC members will recognize a kindred spirit. Douglas’s passion for cameras and lenses, composition and light will be familiar to cinematographers. Of an estimated 1 million of Douglas’s images in print, transparency, negative and digital, about 720 are reproduced. But what surprised me about the book was the text, in which he recalls his childhood and earliest attempts to build a career. This poignant biography traces a path that roughly parallels that of so many ASC members.
Here we see our friend Douglas during his boyhood in Depression-era small-town Ontario, his less-than-stellar school career, rejuvenated by his discovery of photography, and some of his earliest images, including one that won a $50 prize and another, his first magazine cover, for the Buffalo Courier-Express. He works briefly at various camera shops, and soon makes his first visit to 1950s New York City, to further study photography. There’s a brief apprenticeship in Irving Penn’s studio, an idyllic road trip to California, his return to Canada, and his realization that he must follow his star.
We glimpse a turning point. Douglas is playing his clarinet when his wife, sensing his frustration, asks him what he really wants. He’s had a taste of freelance success, and seen the possibilities in New York. He’s feeling trapped in a dead-end job in Ontario. He answers that what he wants is to go back to New York City, the only place a photographer could really make it. His wife’s reply: “Then put away that damn clarinet and go to New York City.”
A week later, after scraping together a few pennies, Douglas was on a bus to the city, where he began pounding on doors. He targeted smaller, less prestigious publications, figuring that this was the way to build a portfolio — and pay the rent. Nine months after arriving in New York, in July 1960, he got a call from Look magazine, and according to Douglas, his real education began. We know the rest.
Of course, the most fundamental difference between Douglas’s work and that of the membership of the ASC is his pursuit of a single transcendent moment, very often a moment that reveals something of the subject’s true personality. Hundreds of ASC members — notoriously uncomfortable on the “wrong end of the lens” – have submitted to Douglas’s gentle attentions for Kodak’s On Film campaign, overseen for many years by Judy Doherty and masterminded by ASC honorary member Bob Fisher. The On Film campaign is the main reason Douglas found his way to the ASC Clubhouse, became an associate member, and discovered a warm, easy camaraderie that he cherishes today.
Recently the ASC hosted an event where Douglas showed a 25-minute film that includes footage of him at work and chronicles the making of the book. In it, he also talks about a few of his favorite cameras, starting with his parents’ Box Brownie 116, the camera he used to take his first photo, on Christmas Day when he was ten years old. The film can be seen here. (hyperlink - http://vimeo.com/78387338)
“I’m not normally a club type of person,” says Douglas. “But the ASC is not your typical club. I feel great comfort and closeness there. I really care about these people. They are family to me, and I mean that in an honest way.
“I’ve worked on 161 movies, and there was a brief time when I made films,” he says. “I gained a lot of respect for the people who make films for a living. I realized how complex it is — much more complex than people on the outside realize.
“We have all come up step by step,” he says. “It’s never simple. There is always uncertainty. We freelancers are only as good as our last gig. But our passion is what drives us. We care about images. In the book, I recount all the small steps that led to where I am. It’s told from the heart. The probability of me being here today was most unlikely.
“Unlike magazines, books have permanence, and that’s why they are important to me,” he says. “This is my 16th book, but it’s the first one that tells the whole story. It’s quite overwhelming when someone says, ‘Show your life’s work.’ This book is really the ultimate expression for me.”
(Shopkeeper’s note: Signed copies of A Life in Pictures are available through the ASC Online Store.)