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The stories of Douglas Kirkland, An Irving Penn assistant


On the occasion of the Irving Penn Centennial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, today we present an interview with Douglas Kirkland, a prominent photographer in his own right, who talks here about his experience as an assistant working for Irving Penn. This is the first column for the Patricia Lanza Chronicles.

How did you come to work for Irving Penn and what was the time period? 

When I was working in a small photo studio in Richmond Virginia, doing commercial photography, one of the art director’s I was working with made me aware of Irving Penn’s work and I became fascinated with what I saw, which was entirely different from what I had been exposed to previously in Buffalo and Richmond. Penn worked in all formats from 8×10 to 35 mm and his 8×10 work was alive.  He photographed  drinks and food in motion lit with powerful strobe lights. It was a complete revelation for me and my dream was to get a job  with him. I sent him a series of letters and eventually on the third letter he replied telling he had no openings but inviting me, if I came to New York, to call him and visit the studio at 80 West 40th street in mid- town Manhattan opposite the New York Library. As part of my vacation I decided to go to New York and take the chance to  attempt to see him.

He was very nice and looked at my work and after having told me there was no work for me, he thought for a moment and said “Well possibly, we may have something coming up, one of our assistants has to go into the army to serve his 6 months, maybe you could at that time”. This was August 1957 and by November I had moved to Far Rockaway with my wife and son Mark. I rode the subway one hour and half in the morning  to work and in the evening to the very end of the line to get home. I was paid $50.00 a week and even in those days in New York it was not too simple. But I was with Penn and I was quickly learning.  One of the reasons Penn hired me was that I could  print type C color which I had learned in a studio in Buffalo and was new at the time.

What kind of assignments did Penn produce when you were his assistant?

I was very fortunate because I saw many styles of photography. He would work any size of cameras.   Vogue editors came and went with the top models of the era and I had never seen a Christmas trees decorated  with fresh roses before.  Even though he had been constantly busy before, work was slower and even Penn was worried about his expenses, feeling “the wolf was at the door”

What was Penn’s favorite kind of assignment? If you could give a short description of a particular shoot that was memorable…

There was a memorable trip to Florida for promotional pages for Life Magazine.

I offered to drive down with the equipment and took my wife, my son Mark. My mother from Fort Erie Canada came along as well. Penn accepted all this but I had to get there at my own expense., I drove my 1955 red and beige Ford hardtop convertible! Gasoline averaged twenty-five cents a gallon at that time. I remember Penn’s wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, was less than thrilled with our motel “The Silver Sands” in Key Biscayne. I thought it was splendid.

What did you learn from Penn that helped you succeed at photography?

His influence was enormous. I gained a relative amount of sophistication as a result of being around him. I got comfortable and familiar using all formats in photography and learned how to deal with clients and editors. I feel that having spent only 6 months with Penn totally changed the course of my career and I knew from then on that I had to get back to live in New York  if I wanted to get to the top of my field.

I want to tell you an additional story: Penn had two studios, one for strobe and one for daylight. There is an “urban legend” going around that a particularly zealous assistant once cleaned the large north light windows to Penn’s studio when Penn was out of town, feeling he had made the glass sparkle. When Penn came in, his reaction was “it took years to get them sufficiently dirty to get the right diffusion…” Well that young assistant was Douglas Kirkland!

Interview by Patricia Lanza

Patricia Lanza is a talent and content director at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles and a former National Geographic photo editor and photographer. She lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.


Irving Penn : Centennial
April 24 to July 30, 2017
The Met, Gallery 199
1000 5th Ave
New York, NY 10028

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