In the summer of 1962, Douglas Kirkland was just a young buck when Look magazine shipped him off to Paris to shoot Coco Chanel for a photo essay. With the upcoming release of Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962, the renowned lensman is offering what feels like a peek-through-the-keyhole of the designer at work and at ease in her Rue Cambon atelier. The book coincides with the 125th anniversary of the designer's birth.
The photographer and his subject took a shine to each other. All these years later, Kirkland is still at a loss as to why Chanel warmed up to him. Even Karl Lagerfeld was said to have been taken by the shots of Chanel smiling and looking so full of life. "That really pleased me to hear that," Kirkland says.
Even at age 79, Chanel's impeccable posture and commanding gait are unmistakable in the black-and-white photos that flow from one shot to the next like a flip book. Of course, the strands of pearls, the hat, the dangling cigarette and scissors-on-a-string lassoed around her neck are other telltale clues. But it's the images of her hands at work-fixing, clasping, adjusting-that stay with Kirkland. "To me, that's a picture," he says.
A former assistant to Irving Penn, Kirkland has photographed numerous luminaries over the years- including Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich and Angelina Jolie-but his stint with Chanel stays with him. Standing outside Versailles with arms crossed and his coat draped over her shoulders to fend off the afternoon chill is the lasting image he has of her. It is also the curtain call for his journey and the book.
And the European adventure has never faded for Kirkland. "It truly did change my life, and I don't throw words like that around."