In 1961, Marilyn Monroe told 27 year old photographer Douglas Kirkland to come into bed with her.
The evening he spent with Monroe 51 years ago was sensual, intimate, and spontaneous, and it produced the famous series “An Evening With Marilyn Monroe.” The series consists of Marilyn posing sensually in bed, with only a silk sheet between her and the camera. Kirkland was a novice photographer at the time, nothing compared to his prolific career today, but according to Kirkland, the two of them shared a tension-filled shoot that helped create the stunning photographs. Thinking back on the evening today, he describes their time together as though they “were in a beautiful dance,” with Marilyn leading of course.
Decades after her passing, young starlets today still recreate Monroe's iconic portraiture, often taking a page from Kirkland's book. Take Lindsay Lohan, who in 2008 was photographed by Bert Stern reproducing his iconic Monroe images 46 years prior. In 2002, Kirkland himself photographed Angelina Jolie for her film "Life Or Something Like It" in a blonde hairdo posing as Marilyn.
Kirkland’s photographic memoir "With Marilyn: An Evening/1961," tied to the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s passing, is out this week. We caught up with him to discuss the tension on the set that night, and how he feels about young starlets imitating his images today.
There is such a vivaciousness that Marilyn has in the shots -- what direction did you give her, or did it just come organically?
She suggested ultimately how we should do it. Because honestly, I was a kid, a new kid on the block more or less, and I wanted to get very steamy pictures of Marilyn but I didn’t know how to say that politely. These are images that she almost produced in a way, or created. The pinnacle moment [was] when she said for everybody to leave the room. I mean, I wouldn’t have dared say that. It was her idea. And that’s when it just kept getting into a higher and higher charge after that. So I think that it’s very important for me to give Marilyn the credit for what these are. I never said, put your hand here, turn this way or that way. I was talking with her and we were talking rapidly back and forth, but it was a seduction, a two-way seduction really. With everything except the final sex at the end, but the sex really went into the camera, and that’s why these pictures are what they are.
What was the most unforgettable moment?
Truthfully, I’ll go back to, “I wanna be alone with this boy. I find it usually works better that way,” because it was tremendously exciting and it suggests that she had confidence in me. I had grown up in a tiny town in Canada and I hadn’t been in the city that long and suddenly here’s the superstar of the world saying she wanted to be alone in that room with me.
What did you think of the film “My Week With Marilyn”? Did you find Colin Clark’s experience similar to your own?
Truthfully, I was not expecting very much from it. I went to it with certain trepidation. To begin with, “My Week With Marilyn,” it was almost this derivative of "My Evening With Marilyn." Not that that mattered, but you know, I didn’t know what to expect and honestly, I liked it much more than I expected to. Some elements have similarities, but the difference is I had one. My evening with Marilyn was really all in that one room. So that was quite different than the elements in the movie which was a progression -- a young man introduced to her and finding his way into it. It was an almost impossible role to play, but [Michelle Williams] did it astonishingly well in my opinion, but you know, there’s only one Marilyn. Too bad Marilyn couldn’t have played it.
What do you think of young starlets today like Lindsay Lohan posing as Marilyn in photographs? What do you think is so compelling about that?
Well I’ve been asked to photograph people like that many times and normally I haven’t. I did photograph Angelina Jolie up in Vancouver when she was making "Life Or Something Like It," and they gave me the drawings they wanted me to photograph of her up there, but she didn’t really care for them that much and ultimately they weren’t even used. But she said I’ll do whatever you want if I can do my version of Marilyn with Douglas. The interesting thing is she created different images of Marilyn and she was superb, she didn’t try to match them, she didn’t try to lie the same way or anything. She put her head into it -- very, very good acting there. She imagined herself to be Marilyn and did it very well.
And Lindsay Lohan, I can see why people want to try it and Bert Stern’s photographs, they did emulate very much what I had done, but you know I suppose I should feel happy about that. As for Lindsay, I think she also loves the image. I don’t want to deny anybody the right to do it, it’s up to the individuals who look at the pictures to make those judgements.
You said both in your book and in interviews that there was nothing romantic between you and Marilyn, but you felt that something could have developed. What made you feel that way?
She said, “Come into the bed with me.” How clear can that be? Honestly, it could have happened but in that moment something clicked in my head. It was the small town me, the kids who went to Sunday school all that sorta thing and I had a wife and two kids back home in New Jersey. And at that last instance -- I mean the cowboy side of me was ready to jump in because I had been seducing her and she was sending those same vibes back. But at that last instant, I didn’t. And the interesting thing is it almost embarrassed me that I wasn’t moving on her, on what she said. What I did was bury my head into my Hasselblad camera that I was shooting and almost acting like I didn’t fully understand, which was absurd of course. But that’s where the edge of these pictures comes from.
How do you reflect on the experience with Marilyn today?
Well, always of course at the top of it, even many years later, to say, you know, should that have happened? I’m glad ultimately it didn’t, with age I see more and more logic of how it worked out that we had pictures. One of my friends many years later said, “Yeah it would have been magnificent for 20 minutes or a half hour but there wouldn’t be pictures like those.” So ultimately I’m happy what is there is there. Honestly, the bottom line-- and I’ve had radiant, wonderful experiences with numerous people--but the most important in my career was that one evening with Marilyn.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Douglas Kirkland was 24 years old when he photographed Marilyn Monroe. In fact, he was 27.