ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

The stories of Douglas Kirkland, An Irving Penn assistant

Irving Penn in his studio, 1958, New York © Douglas Kirkland
Editor’s note: ASMP Life Member, Douglas Kirkland, details his experience working  as assistant with Irving Penn in interview with Lanza below.
Cross-posted from
On the occasion of the Irving Penn Centennial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, today we present an interview with Douglas Kirkland, a prominent photographer in his own right, who talks here about his experience as an assistant working for Irving Penn. This is the first column for the Patricia Lanza Chronicles.

How did you come to work for Irving Penn and what was the time period? 

When I was working in a small photo studio in Richmond Virginia, doing commercial photography, one of the art director’s I was working with made me aware of Irving Penn’s work and I became fascinated with what I saw, which was entirely different from what I had been exposed to previously in Buffalo and Richmond. Penn worked in all formats from 8×10 to 35 mm and his 8×10 work was alive.  He photographed  drinks and food in motion lit with powerful strobe lights. It was a complete revelation for me and my dream was to get a job  with him. I sent him a series of letters and eventually on the third letter he replied telling he had no openings but inviting me, if I came to New York, to call him and visit the studio at 80 West 40th street in mid- town Manhattan opposite the New York Library. As part of my vacation I decided to go to New York and take the chance to  attempt to see him.

He was very nice and looked at my work and after having told me there was no work for me, he thought for a moment and said “Well possibly, we may have something coming up, one of our assistants has to go into the army to serve his 6 months, maybe you could at that time”. This was August 1957 and by November I had moved to Far Rockaway with my wife and son Mark. I rode the subway one hour and half in the morning  to work and in the evening to the very end of the line to get home. I was paid $50.00 a week and even in those days in New York it was not too simple. But I was with Penn and I was quickly learning.  One of the reasons Penn hired me was that I could  print type C color which I had learned in a studio in Buffalo and was new at the time.

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