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THREE WEEKS WITH COCO CHANEL

A Look at Photographer DOUGLAS KIRKLAND”s New Book

By Sarah Heikkinen

Winter 2014-2015

Coco Chanel was, and still is, one of the most influential powerhouses in the world of fashion. Her brand revolutionized the way men and women dressed in the mid-20th century. Photojournalist Douglas Kirkland was given the opportunity to live with and photograph Chanel in 1962. With his journalistic approach to photography, Kirkland shows the world a different Coco Chanel: a Chanel free of any glorification, being her most honest self. With Kirkland’s new photojournal, Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962, Chanel is brought back to life in a new, more personal way.

Sarah Heikkinen: When did you first realize that you were meant to be a photographer?

Douglas Kirkland: I decided I wanted to take pictures at the age of 14. I was taking pictures while I was in high school at a job I had after school, at a local photo studio in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. That’s where it began: with photographs of weddings, babies, and anything they’d let me photograph. It was tremendously exciting for me.

SH: Who influenced you in your pursuing of this artform?

DK: Arnold Newman and Irving Penn influenced me. Arnold Newman was quite a genius. I realized a lot from watching him work. When I got to New York, I got a job with Irving Penn.

SH: You’ve taken portraits of celebrities like Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, and Marilyn Monroe. How have those experiences compared to your time with Coco Chanel in the ’60s?

DK: I had Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, and Marilyn Monroe available to me and I always felt that I had to glorify them and make them look good, young, and attractive. I met Coco Chanel when I was 27 and Mademoiselle was 79 years of age. That’s a big difference. What I wanted to do was have a journalistic look to the photographs. I wasn’t trying to glorify her. I was fascinated to watch her mold a sleeve or a lapel with her hands. When she created, it was like watching a sculptor. It was the essence of who she was. I wanted to show her as she was, rather than beautify her and she understood that. She was an enormous influence on me at that time in my life. She would always tell me, “You can do it. You have capabilities beyond what you know if you keep pushing yourself.”

SH: In your three weeks of living with Chanel, was there a particular moment where you realized you had reached the level of intimacy that made your portraits so unique?

DK: I was doing reportage, rather than portraits of Mademoiselle. I didn’t speak French at the time and she encouraged me to learn it. She always spoke French, and one day she said to me, “Salut.” I didn’t understand what she said then. She spoke to me in perfect English for the first time and said, “I just said ‘Hello’ to you.” From that point on we got along. She said, “Do whatever you like,” and I was allowed to be in any room around the clock.

SH: How has your perception of photography and art changed since you first started your career?

DK: When I first started in photography, picture magazines like Life and Look were big and that’s where we got most of our information. Now, the print media has shrunken enormously and that has effected how I express myself. I used to do photojournalism but not anymore. If I was to begin today, it would be much more difficult.

Photography has changed so much. Back then, we had to know about film, about shutter speeds, et cetera. Now I can push a button on my cell phone and send it to the other side of the world in seconds. However, there are still certain photographs that are done on a level that is valuable, informative, and moving. I have a love affair with photography and that never changes.

SH: What do you feel you”re trying to achieve with each of your photo shoots?

DK: To begin, they all vary but to make a generalization: When I pick up a camera, it’s a device that is a recording machine. When I see someone, I see an image in my mind before the camera comes to my eye. I see a framing. I talk and I watch. I speak with people; it’s comfortable that way. I try to be sensitive to them. It goes back to the camera in my hands and working essentially automatically.

SH: Do you believe that your photos of Chanel will change the world’s perception of the fashion icon? Will we see her in a different way? What do you want the take away from these photos and this book to be?

DK: I am now 80. I was with Mademoiselle when she was my age. I was young and inquisitive. I learned a great deal from her. There aren’t many people living today who can speak of her. More than anything else, the photographs and stories in the book are honest, open, and one-on-one. I hope to bring her to life on a personal basis, and not in a history book. I quote her often in conversation, as though we are still seeing each other on a regular basis. There is a Mademoiselle and she is alive some place. When I’m talking with people I can almost feel her spirit in the room

Douglas Kirkland is a US-based photographer, born in Canada. At age twenty-four, Kirkland was hired as a staff photographer for Look magazine and became famous for his 1961 photos of Marilyn Monroe taken for Look“s 25th anniversary issue. He later joined the staff of Life magazine. He has photographed everyone from Michael Jackson to Man Ray, from Stephen Hawking to Marlene Dietrich. His book Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 is published by Glitterati Incorporated.

LINKS:

BUY COCO CHANEL: THREE WEEKS/1962 NOW!

Douglas Kirkland”s Official Site

Written by Sarah Heikkinen

Photography by Douglas Kirkland & Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated

Design by Francesca Rimi

Captions:

Photography by Douglas Kirkland & Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated

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