Born on a coconut plantation in Jamaica, British West Indies, Wallace William Kirkland was the second child of Scot William Dixon and Brit Emma Elworthy. Kirkland lived in Jamaica for fourteen years with his four sisters until 1905 when a hurricane destroyed the family's farm and home. Kirkland's childhood, which he recounts later in his life in a manuscript entitled Jamaican Boyhood, was steeped in Jamaican culture. While he claims that he was not class conscious as a child, Kirkland's mother forbade him from playing with "coolies," the indentured servants his father employed from India. After the hurricane Kirkland's parents separated. His mother moved in with her parents and opened a small general store while his father declared bankruptcy and attempted, unsuccessfully, to maintain a home. Kirkland initially lived with his aunt and went to work as an apprentice in a fitters shop for the railroad where he crushed his little finger on his left hand. After months of struggling to survive, Kirkland's mother borrowed money from her brother and determined to take Kirkland and her youngest daughter Elsie to the United States. The three left Jamaica without telling Kirkland's father. After five days at sea, they landed in New York on August 4, 1905, Kirkland's fourteenth birthday. Kirkland's father died in Jamaica two years later.
Living first in New York and then in New Jersey, Kirkland labored for the next decade at a variety of jobs. He worked initially as a pipe washer at a rubber factory and later as a clerk for a grocery store. Eventually Kirkland secured a job with the YMCA in charge of its Boy's Club. This opportunity led Kirkland to his first career, though it would take almost a decade before he could devote himself to it full time.
Kirkland began his journey to becoming a social worker in 1913 when he entered the George Williams YMCA College in Chicago. He also secured a part time job working for the Boys Club at Hull-House. Kirkland's first distraction to his work occurred in May 1915, on a visit back east, where Kirkland met Ethel Freeland at the First Baptist Church of Passaic, New Jersey. The two began a romance that included Sunday afternoon canoe trips and daily letters when Kirkland was in Chicago. The major interruption to his work was the Great War. During World War I, Kirkland delayed his schooling to travel to Texas where, through the YMCA, he assisted troops in the U.S. Infantry and the U. S. Calvary. When a rumor circulated that the regiment Kirkland worked with was to be sent to Europe, he wrote to Ethel asking her to come to Texas and marry him. Eventually winning her parents permission, Ethel and her mother made the journey and on May 27, 1918, she and "Kirk" wed. They were married for sixty-one years, until Kirkland's death.
After the war Kirkland was eventually able to fulfill his desire to become a social worker. Initially he was transferred to Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, where the couple's first child, Wallace "Buddy" Kirkland was born, but by 1921 the family moved back to Chicago where Kirkland completed his degree in sociology. His thesis on "Utilizing Gang Control in Boy's Work," argued that the most effective means to influence the behavior of working boys is not to separate them based on categories such as age, size, or ability, but rather to use their own groupings, by gangs, and allow them to determine their activities based on their interests. Kirkland was able to apply this theory in his own work with the Hull House boys club.
In 1922 Jane Addams invited the Kirklands to become residents at Hull-House. She carefully informed them of the meager salary available and the expectations that both Wallace and Ethel contribute to the life and activities at Hull-House. Ethel worked in the Mary Crane nursery while Kirkland was director of the Hull-House Boys Club. During this time the couple had three more children, Jane, (birth date unknown) who died as an infant, Judy, born April 1, 1926 and Don, born November 8, 1929. For the next fourteen years, through the prohibition era and into the depression, Kirkland worked with teenage boys who lived in neighborhoods near the Hull-House complex. Additionally in 1929 Kirkland was commissioned as a probation officer for the Juvenile Court. Through his work Kirkland confirmed his belief that the settlement house was the most effective means available to assist teenage boys because it allowed a social worker to live and mingle with life in the community, learning first hand the needs and desires of individuals and their families. Further, Kirkland was able to act on his belief that it was important to expose the boys to new experiences, both for the body and the mind.
A devote lover of nature and the outdoors, one of the signature activities Kirkland developed for the Boys Club was a variety of camping trips. Initiating the boys with weekend camping trips to the Indiana Dunes, every summer for fifteen years Kirkland took a group of boys on a three-month long camping trip in northwestern Ontario. He asserted that the trips gave each boy, "strenuous exercise, plenty of sleep, [and] new things to occupy his mind." Kirkland also took occasional winter snow-shoe trips through northern Canada, including one trip in January 1930 with his nine-year-old son, Buddy. The two traveled 250 miles through Canada by dog team and snow shoe.
The beginnings of Kirkland's second career occurred when Eastman Kodak Company gave him a 5 x 7 view camera to teach photography to the Boys Club. He taught himself to use the camera and transformed a Hull-House closet into a dark room. Kirkland and the boys began taking photographs of their surroundings, everything from the Hull-House athletic teams to the wild life at the Indiana Dunes. Kirkland's interest in the art of photography and his experiences photographing the people and activities of Hull-House as well as its surrounding neighborhoods gradually convinced him to leave social work and become a professional photographer.
In 1935 the Kirklands departed from Hull-House and moved to Oak Park. Wallace Kirkland opened a small studio in a carriage house, which housed four other artists' studios as well, near the Chicago Water Tower and Rush Street. He described the area as the center of Chicago's Bohemia. Kirkland's first professional assignment was to take photographs for a promotional booklet for the Howie Military Academy in Indiana. The following year he was hired as a staff photographer by Life magazine in its founding year. Throughout the next thirty years Kirkland photographed countless significant historical figures and events. One of the assignments he described as his most meaningful was his1940 trip to India. Kirkland was dispatched to cover the all-India Congress meetings where Life believed that the Indian Congress might vote to break away form England. The Congress decided not to seek independence at that time, but Kirkland was able to meet with Mahatma Gandhi. Kirkland wrote that it was his association with Jane Addams, whom Gandhi admired, that ultimately convinced the leader to allow Kirkland to take his photograph. During World War II Kirkland was assigned to follow General Douglas MacArthur in Australia, though he never got a photograph of the general worthy of publication. Extremely confident in his work, Kirkland exhibited his ability to admit his shortcomings when he described his coverage of MacArthur as his "greatest photographic flop." He also worked for several months as the White House photographer during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's tenure in office.
After World War II Kirkland spent some time in New York as an instructor in Life's School of Photography for its New York correspondents. This assignment, like so much of his work, caused Kirkland to be away from home for lengthy periods. He had spent eight months in India, probably his longest stint away. During these times Kirkland wrote many letters home to his wife Ethel, whom he addressed as "Darlint," and his children, often closing his letters with the phrase "keep the old chin up...I will be back."
When Kirkland returned to being a photographic reporter he focused on many of his life-long interests. First he shot a nature series for Life magazine. Between his work for Life and his independent projects, Kirkland photographed the vast duck population in Canada, porcupines, mosquitoes, otters, moose, turtles, among other living creatures, and published an intricate series on the scientific insemination of bees. His photographs of moose resulted in a children's book, Shenshoo, the Story of a Moose (1930). The otter, however, was perhaps the animal Kirkland photographed most throughout his life. After an initial assignment for Life magazine where Kirkland photographed the birth of four otters, he photographed the lives of two of the young otters who became TV and movie actors. The otters' mother had been caught in a steel trap and the two babies were raised by the Beechmans, a human family, that trained them to perform. Kirkland was one of the cameramen that filmed the otters for a Walt Disney television movie, Flash, The Teenage Otter produced in 1961. Through the years Kirkland amassed enough otter photographs to write a book, Obie the Otter, though the book was never published. After his retirement from Life Kirkland did publish a series of photographic children's books that featured many of his nature photographs, including A Walk By the Pond (1971), A Walk by the Seashore (1971), A Walk in the Fields (1971) A Walk in the Woods (1971).
Kirkland also drew on his experiences as a social worker, his childhood in Jamacia and his world travels in his work. In 1950 he shot a series for a Life article on people on pensions and those in the poor house. Throughout his career Kirkland photographed events and scenes in Lima, Peru; Cuba; Oaxaca, Mexico; and his boyhood home in Jamaica. His work for Life earned him the Page One Award for outstanding newspaper work. In a desire to record some of these events with his own slant, Kirkland published two books, Recollections of a Life Photographer and Lure of the Pond.
Kirkland retired from Life Magazine in 1956 at the age of sixty-five. While his colleagues joked about his fondness for women and rum, Kirkland held the professional respect of a great number of his peers. After his retirement Kirkland continued to work independently for over a decade. In 1963 he agreed to photograph the demolition of most of the buildings that comprised Hull-House. In a widely publicized photo he recorded the wrecker's iron ball as it hit one of the buildings. Four years later, Kirkland published a series of photographs of nude women in a Gallery Series One booklet, Poets, that featured a series of poems as well. In 1969 a stroke left Kirkland paralyzed. He lived for the next ten years in a nursing home in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife. Kirkland died September 14, 1979 at the age of eighty-eight, survived by his wife and three children. Kirkland's legacy lives on in his photographs that continue to be displayed at institutions throughout the country. Exhibitions of Kirkland's photographs include: the 1952 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition of 50 of Kirkland's photos, the 1965 Smithsonian Institute exhibit "Profile of Poverty" that included some of Kirkland's work, the Illinois Bell exhibit in the Lobby Gallery of its Chicago Headquarters that celebrated the 90th Anniversary of Hull-House, the 1989 exhibition at the Montgomery Ward Gallery at the University of Illinois at Chicago that featured Kirklands' photographs, and the 2003 exhibition The Early History of the Arts at Hull-House and the Photographs of Wallace Kirkland at the Hull House North Side Center for Arts and Culture. -- Biographical Sketch by Gwen Hoerr Jordan.
All images © William Wallace Kirkland /National Geographic Society/Corbis
All images © William Wallace Kirkland /National Geographic Society/Corbis