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Chatting with Mr Mademoiselle

Legendary photographer Douglas Kirkland remembers with Dazed Digital the beautiful summer of 1962 when he took unique portraits of Coco Chanel in Paris.

In the Summer of 1962 a young Canadian photographer called Douglas Kirkland was sent by the American magazine he was working for on a three week-long assignment to Paris. His job consisted in taking pictures of Mademoiselle Coco Chanel. Equipped with two cameras, a rudimentary knowledge of haute couture and practically no French, but a great respect for the main photojournalism principles, Kirkland took unique portraits of the maison’s founder during her last summer as the queen of fashion. The pictures have recently been collected in two volumes, Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 (Glitterati Inc) and Mademoiselle - Coco Chanel/Summer 1962 (Steidl), the former features a revealing text by Kirkland himself, the latter includes an introduction by Karl Lagerfeld.

Coco Chanel is portrayed in the pages of the volumes as she walks in the street, among her models during a fitting with a cigarette hanging from her lips, sitting on the famous mirrored staircase and smiling at the camera, her personal vision of fashion reflected in her perfect style and steely elegance. “Through Kirland’s images we can imagine what the famous Coco had been all about before she became the formidable Chanel,” Lagerfeld writes in his introductory essay to Mademoiselle. In a way it’s difficult to disagree: Kirkland’s iconic photographs are vital pieces for anyone who wants to complete Coco’s life puzzle and understand a bit better what Mademoiselle was really about.  

Dazed Digital: Do you remember when you got the assignment and what was the first impression you got of this iconic designer?
Douglas Kirkland: At the time I was a very young photographer and had been working at Look magazine for three years. I had been taking pictures since I was 14 and, after I moved to New York, I had started working with Irving Penn and managed to get a job at Look. In July 1962 Chanel had become very big in America. Typical Americans always thought of Chanel in connection with the perfume and people in the provinces weren’t really aware of her work as fashion designer. Yet in the early 60s something changed: Jackie Kennedy started wearing Chanel designs at the White House and, suddenly, Americans became very aware of the fashion house and the Look fashion department assigned me a story about her. I knew my work very well, but I did not speak French and I did not know much about couture at the time, yet I remember that Chanel was somehow more uncertain than me. When I arrived she asked me to photograph her designs and her models. I took pictures of her girls in the streets and in the atelier and, after I developed the material, I took it to her and she decided I could do the job. From then on, I started spending 5-6 days a week following her. Chanel could be cold, but to me she was exceedingly intimate. At first she wouldn’t speak to me at all, even though she could speak English. Then one day she started chatting with me and eventually she became more caring, telling me ‘You must study the language, it will be very important for you to speak French! Learn a few words every day; get a dictionary, keep it in your pocket, read the newspapers!’
DD: In some of your pictures Coco Chanel is portrayed smiling at the camera: the designer wasn’t known for smiling a lot, how did you manage to take such intimate portraits?
Douglas Kirkland: Mademoiselle – that’s what she liked to be called then, not ‘Madame’, but ‘Mademoiselle’ because she maintained she had accomplished importance and everything in the world without the help of a man – became very open after working with me for a while and I could come and go freely. I was 27 at the time and Coco Chanel was 79, there was a big age difference and I was never certain why she was so pleasant with me. I often wondered if she considered me the son she never had or if I was a vision of some previous lover she had had many years before. What I know is that she was very kind and warm with me and that’s where those smiles came from. Karl Lagerfeld has a theory: he says that she saw this young boy and she somehow fancied him even though there was a big age difference, that’s why she’s smiling at the camera. I think he may be right since a while back I gave a presentation at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and, when I told the audience I was surrounded by Chanel and her models and everybody was very friendly though I never understood why, a voice came up from the balcony of this huge theatre room we were in and said ‘I was one of the models…it’s because we all thought you were so cute!’ I naively never realised it and it was very funny to hear about it, especially after all these years and in front of 300 people!    

DD: Did you understand at the time how important was the work you were doing?
Douglas Kirkland: I knew she was a great force and I was very pleased I had been assigned the job, as I knew it was a privilege, but I don’t think I could understand the magnitude and importance of it. I think I have realised much better how important that assignment was only in more recent years, seeing how Chanel has grown and how the fashion house is even bigger nowadays than it was while she was alive. What I knew at the time was that it was important to historically record everything that I could see. We were in the early 60s and the emphasis in those days in photography was to get a journalistic look with as much honesty as possible. You had to almost tell a story. I was very passionate about my job and desperately wanted to tell this story in the best possible way, getting as intimate and true a reportage as I could. Recording images with honesty was the essence of photojournalism in those times and it has been lost in these days since people are afraid to show too much about themselves and there are many barriers in place. Everybody is more frightened to show themselves nowadays, but, at that time, giving an intimate look was the priority, so I approached Mademoiselle with the hope of being able to record everything with as much honesty as possible. I also think that such an assignment wouldn’t be possible anymore because no publication would send you away on such a job for three weeks, but it was not uncommon then to spend a month on one story.

DD: What kind of equipment did you have with you?
Douglas Kirkland: I used two 35mm cameras, one was a Canon Reflex, and I must admit with hindsight that my instincts with the camera were amazing for a young man. I wanted simple equipment so I could work quickly and make sure that reality and truth could come out of the pictures. Nowadays you have strobe lights or floodlights and you get a lot of material quickly, say in a couple of hours, but specific photo shoots are not done with the same intimacy I was able to achieve with Mademoiselle.

DD: What does this book represent to you and what do you think it will represent for its readers?
Douglas Kirkland: This material gives people the chance to discover this 20th century icon from a privileged point of view. The images collected in the volumes reflect a time and a place and a very important period of history, not only in fashion, but also in the way this grand dame lived her life and passionately worked. There are unique details recorded in the pages of these volumes, for example a picture of Chanel working with her hands, an image that is linked in my memory to her telling me once ‘My hands look old, I work too much’.

DD: Will there be an exhibition of your Chanel images in Europe? 
Douglas Kirkland: I expect it will happen sooner or later. It’s interesting because, so far, I often thought that people in America found this material more interesting than people in Europe, though this may change now that Karl Lagerfeld has done his own book with my work. We recently did a show featuring my images in the Chanel boutique in Honolulu to celebrate its 25th anniversary. It’s a very successful Chanel boutique and it was quite an amazing event.

DD: How did Karl Lagerfeld discover your photographs?
Douglas Kirkland: Lagerfeld saw the material at a gallery in New York. He walked in and said right on the spot ‘I’ve got to have this’. I imagined he would buy 30 or 40 prints, but then he decided to get the images published in book format. Lagerfeld saw the book I had done in America and fell in love with it. Coco Chanel – Three Weeks has been very successful here and it’s already in its second edition, and I was very happy with Lagerfeld’s book. It’s interesting how he highlights in his text that this was a happy and very important time for Mademoiselle because she was getting a lot of attention both in America and in Europe. Three or four years later, jeans and mini-skirts became very fashionable and she detested them, so this was the happiest time she lived towards the end of her life.                 

DD: Chanel was just one of your subjects, you also took pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, what’s the secret behind a beautiful photo?
Douglas Kirkland: When I started working as a photographer the camera couldn’t automatically guarantee a great image, but it was the photographer or the journalist behind the camera who made the image, projecting in it their soul. I took Chanel’s images in black and white and gave them a journalistic angle; Audrey was wonderful and I loved spending time with her, I was with her for a couple of weeks while she was making a film with Peter O’Toole, and I was with Marilyn Monroe on three different occasions. These experiences allowed me to understand that you must adapt to every situation and to different personalities and get the maximum out of every situation you get in. In a nutshell, I became a different person while working on different assignments. Another thing that always helped me is that I like people and try to interpret them as they should be interpreted, without hurting nor destroying anybody. 

DD: Do you feel that modern photography is missing out on honesty because of all the digital devices employed nowadays?
Douglas Kirkland: It depends on the individuals: I use all these modern devices, in fact I was one of the first people to use them because I care passionately about my work. The problem nowadays is how you use such devices. My Coco Chanel book wouldn’t exist without the help of such tools. When I had the idea of doing it, I had a booklet printed with all my scanned negatives and took it to my publisher in the United States, and she accepted the project. In other words, such means helped me to design a page and even a book, but some people misuse them.     

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