An Afternoon with Douglas Kirkland

I’ve always been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. There’s this attraction, or charm, that has always caught my full attention towards her. Which is strange since we’re complete opposites: she was a Hollywood bombshell with hair like white gold and had a playful yet sensitive personality which pictures of her during her career seem to emit with their gorgeous aura. I’m a brunette Kurdish woman (of Finland) whose significant features aren’t as delicate compared to the graceful physique of Monroe and, while in my early twenties, already carry years’ worth of dark circles under my eyes which, I’m afraid, might signal more a tired person than a bright personality. But there was at least one thing that connected me and Marilyn – we both like Sinatra.

A little while ago I visited the photography exhibition “Douglas Kirkland: Coco & Marilyn” in The Finnish Museum of Photography’s new space called K1. I knew about it in the summer and almost became ecstatic because I love pictures of Marilyn. I waited, though, not wanting to take any risks of being in a crowded space. One day a few weeks ago I was walking along Pohjoisesplanadi and remembered that the gallery space had opened in Kämp Galleria with pictures of my favorite pop culture icon. In all my excitement about Marilyn, though, I had forgot that the exhibition also displayed Kirkland’s pictures of the legendary Coco Chanel, giving a glimpse into the designer’s life. It was early in the week, in the early afternoon and I had time to kill. As a student you get a nice discount and see the exhibit for six euros. While I was buying my ticket and leaving my belongings, I was already absorbed because I started to hear Frank Sinatra…

The second I walked into the exhibition space, Sinatra started playing from the start. It was a lovely coincidence. This first space has a piece of furniture resembling a bed, like the one Marilyn lies on in Kirkland’s iconic photos, and a mirror in the ceiling resembling Kirkland’s position as he took them. “How about trying to channel this Marilyn, gazed by the camera, while the mood is set by Sinatra’s music?” Inspired. (I didn’t do it, though. Like I said, complete opposites where miss Monroe would naturally pull this off.) The photo series with Marilyn, done by Kirkland in 1961, is called An Evening with Marilyn. I entered the second space and there she was.

Surely, I had seen, like others, many pictures of her before – even these taken by Kirkland. I also have posters of the actress. But I don’t think anything will compare with what I experienced in this little elegant gallery. Actual pictures – and some of the most beautiful ones – taken by a young photographer who became famous because of this session. It feels different because you’re in the same physical space with the original photographs taken with Kirkland’s camera, and you see up close the actual quality of the photos. Monroe looks ethereal in the white silk sheets: she gives a playful yet sensual vibe, also appearing delicate and calm. While she is the object of the camera’s gaze, Marilyn seems to embrace this by getting comfortable in the silk sheets, changing her position constantly and looking like she’s having fun with it. As if she enjoys creating this comfortably sensual image of the beautiful and playful Marilyn. All this achieved merely by careful lighting with the mood set by Sinatra and Dom Perignon. Simplicity at its best.

I loved all of the photographs, so it is difficult to select a few favorites. I can say I particularly loved the ones where she smiles so broadly and laughs. I also remember looking at the ones taken closest, from the bedside, for a long time because they were taken very close. While this beautiful narrative of photography tries to build a certain image of miss Monroe, the Hollywood actress, you can’t help but feel that there is also some of Marilyn herself in them, a beautiful sensitive woman. Moving along the gallery space, you also move across the Atlantic to Paris, where Kirkland in 1962 did a photo series on miss Chanel called Coco Chanel. Here I realized that I hadn’t really seen any proper images of the designer. As a teen I was hugely interested in fashion history in one point but had never actually seen photos of Chanel. (I even bought a book to pursue this amateur interest. It went nowhere.) So here I was, in 60s Paris through Kirkland’s pictures.

Kirkland’s photos present a very elegant Chanel who, even though 79 years old, still actively participates in her artful work and goes about in Paris with her signature look of having many pearl necklaces and a pretty hat. She carries herself with stylish confidence while walking the streets of Paris to go to work in some of Kirkland’s most impressive photos. This photo series brings a significant contrast to Monroe’s since Kirkland was asked to follow Chanel to capture her at her profession. You see her doing fittings, putting her skills to work, preparing for a fashion show and Kirkland has even taken pictures of Chanel while she observes the show. She looks very calm and confident in her creations, arms crossed nonchalantly in one, while also interested to see the viewers’ reactions. After the show, you see a modest celebration of the designer with the models and other staff.

Chanel is also seen merely passing the time. In some pictures she gives a broad smile which, for me at least, takes away a bit that intimidating vibe the French designer seems to emit. Then there are those that are most elegant of all: photos, giving a closer look of Chanel, from the waist up, where she is just sitting and having a conversation with someone. Kirkland makes Chanel particularly chic in these, where you focus not only on her manner of being but also her style, the signature outfit. The pearls appear even more exquisite, the hat becomes prettier and significant and the jacket – well, there’s no Chanel suit without the jacket. Chanel becomes unimaginable without these. In every photo she wears the “Chanel suit,” the originator of the two-piece made timeless among wealthy consumers who wanted to channel that sophisticated Parisian look. Here you see the woman who actually created that look which is reimagined even today.

I’m not an actual fan of the French designer or the brand. I can’t really identify with their vision, but I still see Chanel historically as a trailblazer in the fashion world. In early 20th century, she wanted to liberate women from the pompous and uncomfortable fashions and trends of the 19th century and create a style for the modern woman that not only feels comfortable but it also elegant. In Kirkland’s photos, you see the designer still in 1962 pursuing that stylish simplicity. So, concerning Coco Chanel, there was still something to go away with from the exhibition.

Kirkland’s renowned photo series’ of iconic women is worth seeing by anyone who is interested in culture defying women of the 20th century – in this case Marilyn Monroe and Coco Chanel. And if you’re like me, your fascination might make you stop and stare particular pictures of these ladies for a long time. Kirkland’s beautiful photos of Marilyn show a more delicate and playful beauty compared to her pin-up images. The images seem to finally make her into the Marilyn Monroe – a unique talent whose bright personality creates a mesmerizing aura where the gazed realizes her position, but still gives the gazers her best performance because that’s what she desires in the end – to perform. The photographer’s series of Coco Chanel exhibits a wonderful narrative of the fashion guru’s day-to-day life. She is still pursuing her vision at nearly 80 and looks as elegant as ever thanks to Kirkland’s skillful photography. His is what can be called effective photo journalism that creates this certain unique image of its subjects. 

The exhibit is open till 20.12.2020 in gallery K1 – while a small space, still quickly becoming a little gem in the center of the city.