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Douglas Kirkland <br><i>Michael Jackson, Thriller, Los Angeles</i><br> 1983

Janeva Zentz reviews Douglas Kirkland: A Life in Pictures at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art.

‘Douglas Kirkland: A Life in Pictures’ was recently presented at GoMA. The show was
a testament not only to the enduring career of a skilled photojournalist but also to a
tremendous cultural shift in the standard of beauty over the course of the last fifty years.

A large portion of Douglas Kirkland’s portfolio frames a perception of aesthetic perfection
that retains a softness that current trends in creative production tend to disregard, i.e.
the sheer dominance of Photoshop tactics used in the pursuit of the ultimate image where
every micro detail is manicured in some way. Sometimes, more has been sacrificed than
gained by certain technological advances. The question is where do we go from here? How
can the media and its manifold branches return to the middle, to a view of the world,
our bodies, and what we make that is sustainable? Certainly, Kirkland operated from this
center field and the retrospective provided an opportunity to reflect on the effects of a
new global appetite for designed hype.

Upon passing through the grand entrance to the retrospective, you are immediately
welcomed in by the iconic faces of two Hollywood starlets, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth
Taylor. You are also hit with pangs of nostalgia and the bittersweet realization that
perhaps what made them unique in their time would not hold our attention now, current
standards of beauty are delusional at best. In the photo of Hepburn, a large black and
white print, her skin is palpable, with the texture and wrinkles around her eyes visible
despite the blown out high contrast. The color print of Elizabeth Taylor is extremely
intimate. Her make-up can be deciphered and her blue eyes sparkle like jewels, and her
gaze is pregnant with wisdom as she endures yet another one of her life’s challenges.
Kirkland captures the subject’s state at the time of the photograph and then some,
retaining the glitz and glory of Hollywood while somehow bringing that floating house one
shade closer to the earth.

The following space features Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, both subjects consciously
choosing to reveal a bit more about themselves to the public with Douglass Kirkland’s help.
Kirkland traveled with Garland extensively and through such a bond produced a set of black
white images. Garland is seen shedding a tear in one image, a false tear that Kirkland and
the actress decided to stage, but the tear indeed became a real one. Together the artists
are portraying the sheer emptiness of the limelight, being bliss at one time and utterly
bland at another, but always bearing potential fruits. The series of Marilyn Monroe pictures
is breathtakingly gorgeous, almost eerie. She appears to be floating in white clouds with
Kirkland shooting her from high up; there is an image of Kirkland hanging off the banister
of a balcony to provide such context. We also learn that her photo-shoot with Kirkland was
the last before her death.

In the exhibition, the image of Jane Fonda at the The Oscars cuts to the core of Kirkland’s
merit as a documentarian. The perspective captured in the photograph is not of someone
looking at Fonda, nor is it of a Fonda self-aware and posing for the camera, rather
the snapshot is from the vantage point of a friend. Standing beside the ‘movie star’,
the viewer senses the ease with which Fonda responds confronted by a whole slew of
paparazzi. Jane Fonda even seems to be looking at the viewer out of the corner of her
eye, generating an even more inclusive experience, the antithesis of ‘celebrity spotting’.

Kirkland was capable of warming up to the stiffest of subjects. Text explains that at first
he was unsure of how to behave around the fashion queen Coco Chanel yet he managed to
generate a positive impression as she ended up inviting him to continue shooting by joining
her entourage and traveling to her villa. He would have gone, only Life Magazine, whom
he had been working for, requested his return to the States. The images he garnered from
his stay with Chanel, a designer who created wearable high fashion, was of a dedicated
magician. Thin and gaunt, wearing pearls that appeared heavier than she, the designer
delegated, shared her technique to students, socialized and walked the streets of Paris all
with a cigarette perched at the end of her lips.

There is an abrupt shift in the tone, quality and content of Kirkland’s work as the
exhibition leads into its last phases. A whole room is dedicated to the behind the scenes-
making-of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The series includes MJ getting into character for the
epic music video, which required an intense amount of cosmetic application, and he is also
seen actively working with the film director of the video. There are location shots among
the mix. Equipped with the knowledge of Michael Jackson’s death just this past year, the
presentation of these images is quite poignant in emphasizing a theme seen throughout
Kirkland’s work, the continuous rise and fall of celebrity. Kirkland truly recorded artists
that are etched into the books of pop-culture as well as the hearts of generations that have
witnessed their flickering.

After being teleported to 1983 with MJ, it would almost take a revolutionary set of
images to provide a proper conclusion to the retrospective. Instead, we are thrust or
rather dropped into the dullness of contemporary tastes. Waking up from a dream, what
closes the exhibit are Kirkland’s photographs of overly composed and overly funded and
commercially driven productions like Titanic, and due to the richness of the earlier works
these images buzz loudly like an alarm clock preempting what was a long needed siesta.
Trite in comparison to the decades of relationships Kirkland often unexpectedly developed
with the historically significant icons he had interacted with, a few deep breaths are
needed in order to leave the gallery not too chagrin.

Kirkland has adapted himself to survive as a photographer. A conflux of circumstances,
like the economy, can mold an artist and we cannot underestimate the importance of
artistry that challenges those junctures. At the beginning of his career, when perhaps few
expected greatness from him, Kirkland was able to get close to celebrities and reveal the
vulnerable underbelly of Hollywood, glamour and persona. As the industry of print media
encouraged thorough photojournalistic and documentary inquiry, Kirkland’s photographs
flourish. As printed matter continues to decline in a profitable sense, Kirkland has had to
shift gears. Thus the portfolio of work presented at GoMA moves from a Kirkland looking
into glorified beauty, one on one with his subjects, to a Kirkland recording choreographed
and highly produced imagery. The photographer’s later work appears an accessory
to cinema and large stage performance rather than the feature. The retrospective
successfully displays a body of work that lives true to the quote by Judith Thurman: “The
people who have understood and represented Hollywood best have not been the insiders
or cynics. They have been the provincial dreamers, and more specifically, the one’s who
acquire a double vision of the place… You can’t convey the power, the absurdity, evil or
poignancy of an illusion if you’ve entirely ceased to experience it.”

Douglas Kirkland: A Life in Pictures
11 September – 24 October 2010
 Galleries 3.3 and 3.4 GoMA

Janeva Zentz’s website is

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