By Leah Shafer
For Dallas photographer Kent Kirkley, a passion for astronomy and love of the skies motivated him to shoot the stars.
“I built a telescope and eventually got around to taking photographs through it,” Kirkley said. “I adapted an old Argus camera my father had to the telescope, set up a darkroom in my closet, and off I went—my first photograph was published in Sky & Telescope in about 1962.”
But the math requirements for an astronomy major had him rethinking his college plans, and looking closer at his camera. Soon this hobby became a profession.
“Over the years I’ve tried just about every different kind of photography there is—I photographed the 1966 UT tower sniper incident, the first mass killing in U.S. history and sold them to Paris Match magazine,” he said. “Even though I was in college, I was worried about being drafted, so I enlisted in the Navy Reserve as a photographer, assuming I’d be on a ship or naval air station. When it came time for my active duty service in 1969, I was sent to Vietnam…surprise.”
One thing he says he learned from Vietnam was that photojournalism was not his forte.
“I was brought up to follow rules and to be a successful photojournalist, you often have to break the rules,” he said. “I also wanted to ‘make’ the photograph, not just take it. This led me in the direction of advertising because more than anything, being an advertising photographer is being a problem solver.”
Kirkley and his wife landed in Dallas, where he started at The Photographers Inc., moving onto Francisco+Booth as a principal photographer.
“I worked there for four years shooting fashion, still life, some travel, food, and jewelry,” he said. “That studio produced a lot of the best photographers in Dallas.”
In the spring of 1977, Kirkley hung his own shingle and took on clients like Texas Monthly, D Magazine, Neiman Marcus, Braniff Airlines, The Horchow Collection, The Richards Group, and Saks Fifth Avenue. “It was a little scary, but mostly I felt fortunate to be doing something I really loved,” he said.
The need to save money for his daughter’s college led him to make a slightly different move with his career.
“I discovered that there was a niche market in Dallas [because] most photographers didn’t like to shoot jewelry,” he said. “Jewelry requires patience and calm nerves, so I began a twenty-or-so-year career of photographing beautiful jewelry for clients that paid well. I did other types of assignments, but the majority was jewelry.
When Kirkley arrived in Dallas, he says there wasn’t much cooperation between photographers and studios. In fact, they treated each other as enemies to be watched.
“Little by little this changed, and a loose organization called the APA of Dallas (Advertising Photographers Association) was formed, held monthly meetings, and this led to more cooperation,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but ASMP came calling and their objectives were the same as ours and in 1980, the APA became a chapter of the ASMP.”
Back then, Kirkley recalls, the Dallas chapter was quite active with well-attended monthly meetings, bringing in out-of-town speakers, having holiday parties, and more. The meetings covered all kinds of topics from copyright and equipment, to assistants and legal. He was ASMP Dallas membership chairman several times.
“I think the digital age had a lot to do with [the changes at ASMP], resulting in fewer assignments at lower fees and many photographers holding on by their fingernails,” he said. “Most meetings now are at a bar or restaurant where it is often too noisy to do any real communicating.”
Other ASMP members have mentioned this shift, noting that the old culture of running into each other at photo shops has changed into an atmosphere where every photographer works alone in the studio with a computer.
“Change is inevitable and often results in improvement, but I’m glad to have been part of the golden age of photography in Dallas, the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” Kirkley said. “Although we all know a camera does not make a successful photographer, this concept [has been] embraced in the marketplace. All this led to a reduction in assignments/jobs, along with more competition between photographers and [exploitation] by photography buyers.”
These days, Kirkley is focusing on his health. Last year, he was diagnosed with vocal cord cancer and his biggest project is healing and getting well.