The Digital Journalist
A Life Well Lived

by Douglas Kirkland

April 2006

There are few individuals who stand out over the passage of time. Among them for me, there have been John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Stephen Hawking and Marilyn Monroe. But of all the people whom I have been exposed to, I personally was most moved and affected by my friend Gordon Parks.

I became aware of Gordon when I was still a teenager in high school, in the small town of Fort Erie, Canada. I bought a book titled "Flash Photography" by Gordon Parks and was fascinated by his ability to work with the cameras and flash bulbs of the early '50s.

Gordon Parks and Douglas Kirkland in Parks' apartment overlooking the East River in Manhattan. 1999.

Jon Simon
My first meeting with him was in 1964 when I was a rising photographer at LOOK magazine. For me, Gordon had become the most significant photographer of all time. He was at LIFE magazine and I admired his versatility, which allowed him to move from photojournalism documenting poverty and racial injustice to brilliant fashion in Paris.

I attended a lecture where he showed a LIFE story of Flavio da Silva in the slums of Rio and was incredibly impressed by the power of the work and the message. I also learned that he was starting to film a documentary with a 16mm Arriflex he was taking back to Brazil to shoot with. I approached him at the end. He said, "Let's have lunch." I was thrilled. I was going to have the opportunity to be alone with my hero! At that lunch, I told him that I'd like to move over to LIFE magazine since I felt limited at LOOK. He said, "Don't do this; you are doing so well at LOOK, just stay there." But when I told him that they were paying me $220.00 a week, low even then, he raised his eyebrows and said, "I knew it was bad there, but I didn't know it was that bad."

Thanks to Gordon, I was offered a contract at LIFE of $18,000 a year to do three stories. When LOOK heard this, they jumped and essentially matched the deal and, with my new contract, I was permitted to work for anyone other that LIFE. By the end of the first year, I had made four times my previous salary and my career had a new thrust, which all started with that meeting. Gordon became my mentor, my friend and I aspired to be like him.

In 1983, I was involved in the "Day in the Life of Hawaii" project and asked for his help as an accomplished filmmaker. He directed the documentary of the photographers at work. We all had such a great time and his contribution was significant.

In more recent years, I learned never to call him before 2:00 in the afternoon because like most musicians, he preferred to live and work at night. I never failed to see him when I was in New York and always called him on his birthday, November 30.

On one occasion, he invited Pete and Reine Turner and my wife Francoise and I to visit him at his U.N. Plaza apartment, at 11:00 in the evening. By 3:00 in the morning, after dancing and consuming a few bottles of red wine, he started to cook spaghetti for everybody. We finally excused ourselves in the wee hours after a most enjoyable "evening."

Gordon Parks: A portrait at home in his apartment at the U.N. Plaza, New York City. 1999.

Douglas Kirkland
He was such a dandy, always impeccably groomed and dressed. I never knew a woman who didn't at some point fall in love with Gordon. One of my married friends confessed that one evening with Gordon, she almost slipped and got seduced even though she had no intention of being unfaithful to her husband.

Gordon was always very generous with his time. More than once, I took students to meet him and he was as welcoming with these beginners as he had always been with me.

In the mid-1990s he was anxious to show me his latest work, which eventually came out as "Glimpses Toward Infinity," created in his apartment in such a simple but eloquent manner, all made with one camera and macro lens, daylight and house lamps, paint brushes and Gordon's special inspiration. He would examine a feather or a piece of paper and turn it into a work of art. Total genius.

Another project he did in his later years was a book of female nudes, "A Star for Noon: An Homage to Women in Images, Poetry and Music." He once talked of working late into the night and being inspired to write poetry to go with the images. He so loved women! Then he said that he looked at it all and was moved to write music to go with it. What a wonderful individual! I have never ceased to be inspired by him.

His was an extraordinary journey! His possibilities at the beginning of his LIFE were exceedingly limited but he turned it into this exceptional world of accomplishments. He was the creator of endless stories from his early childhood, his numerous occupations, the FSA, and on to LIFE magazine days, deal-making in Hollywood and an endless list of doctorates, 43 as I last recall. He seemed to sense no limits. He once said, "The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed."

When I spoke with him on his last birthday, he said he had been feeling well and was excited about his latest book, "Hungry Heart." He always had a positive outlook on life.

Gordon made me a different individual than I would have been had I never known him. He showed me that I had much greater possibilities that I realized.

Thank you Gordon. Happy journey.

© Douglas Kirkland

Douglas Kirkland started his career at LOOK and LIFE magazines in the '60s and '70s -- the "golden age" of photojournalism. He has worked on the set of over 100 motion pictures ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Out of Africa," "Moulin Rouge") and his iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas, among others, are known all over the world. Some of his books include "Light Years," "Legends," "Body Stories," "An Evening With Marilyn" and the best-selling "James Cameron's 'Titanic.'" He has received numerous awards, including a Lucie for Outstanding Achievement in Entertainment Photography in 2003. His work has been exhibited worldwide and when he is not traveling the globe on assignment with his wife and business partner Francoise, his home and studio is in the Hollywood Hills.