The alphabet is a source of inspiration for many creatives, past and present. From calligraphy to hand-drawn letter art, our familiar abcs are often transformed from standard typefaces to eye-catching works of art. Hollywood photographer Douglas Kirkland and his wife Françoise are two of the latest contemporaries to artistically interpret the standard alphabet in a new way. Taking inspiration from Erté’s iconic Art Deco-style Alphabet Suite (created between 1927 and 1967), the duo has created the stunning Physical Poetry Alphabet book.
Kirkland is one of the most respected portrait photographers in the film industry, having worked on more than 150 movies, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sound of Music and Titanic. Just like Erté, the Kirklands reimagine the 26 letters of the alphabet in human form. However, rather than hand-paint each design, the creative pair worked with circus performer and physical poet Erika Lemay who posed in front of the camera. The dream team also includes legendary costume designer Simone Guidarelli and element designer William Thoren.
The Physical Poetry Alphabet celebrates film, dance, poetry, typography, and design. Each letter is beautifully represented with dramatic poses, extravagant costumes, and accessories. After Kirkland took the photographs, Thoren then worked to arrange each letter digitally on Photoshop.
We recently caught up with the Kirklands to find out more about their fascinating Physical Poetry Alphabet project. Read on for My Modern Met’s exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for creating a human alphabet come from?
This was Françoise’s idea. She grew up in Paris on the left bank and was fascinated by Erté’s Alphabet Suite. We always have personal projects in between commissions and this was one of them.
Can you tell us a bit about the team and process behind the Physical Poetry Alphabet series?
The creation of Physical Poetry Alphabet was an epic adventure and labor of love. The perfect subject was Erika Lemay, a circus performer and physical poet. I had photographed Erika a number of times for various publications and even made a short film about her called “Objet de Désir.” In the summer of 2015, the stars aligned to get the project underway. This was my 81st birthday present from Françoise; she knows that being creative with my camera is the greatest gift I could be given! Erika flew in from Québec, fashion director Simone Guidarelli flew in from Milan with suitcases of costumes and accessories, we assembled a dream team with Jenna Garagiola doing hair and make up, and our assistants. We had no idea what we were getting into!
What was an average day in the studio like?
We found a circus performer studio downtown with high enough ceilings so Erika could hang in different poses and every morning for a week we would spend the day there. Erika would warm up and we had all the images of the letters pinned on the wall so we would decide what letter would be next. We were able to photograph 3 or 4 poses per day to get the skeleton on what we were aiming for. Then we would all go back to our house in the Hollywood Hills—everyone was staying with us—and they would jump in the jacuzzi while Françoise prepared dinner. It was a summer full of excitement and joy.
What was your process for transforming Erika Lemay into each letter design?
This was an endless process. Françoise, myself, and element designer Will Thoren spent months deciding on the final look of each letter. Will photographed numerous elements in the studio, from family heirloom pieces of jewelry to flowers and feathers. He worked tirelessly in Photoshop on each letter. We would print tests and rework and refine and refine, over and over. In the end, when it was all over and done, we were almost sad to let it go but we are all very proud of the results.
What is your favorite camera to shoot with?
My principal cameras are Canon. I currently work with a 5D Mark IV. My lenses of choice are 24/105mm, 70/200mm F2.8 and 70/300mm. I also still work with film with my 8×10 Deardorff on special projects.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start a career in photography?
My advice is that you have to be passionate if you want to become a successful photographer. You can’t give up. You have to constantly question yourself and your work. I still do and I am still busy shooting. I am turning 85 this summer.