Having left school at fifteen with no qualifications and at the peak of Thatcherism, Luchford had little idea of what lay ahead, though he did know that he was done with education. A few years on, he was spending much of his time hanging out with skateboarders, who he began to photograph, and as his interest in photography developed, Luchford tentatively set about getting himself known. ‘At that time in London there was Blitz, I-D and The Face, they were the three interesting new magazines. I’d done a shoot with the help of a friend who was studying fashion at Brighton University and took the pictures along to Kim Bowen, the fashion editor at (now defunct) Blitz Magazine, and she said ‘The pictures are good but the fashion in them is really terrible; you need to resolve that’. I was unemployed so I would get £25 a week and I’d cash in a percentage of that into 10 pence pieces so I could call photographers that I knew of in London – David Bailey, people like that – until one of them of them gave me a job as an assistant.’
This tactic paid off, though it wasn’t quite plain sailing from thereon in. ‘I worked with Eamonn McCabe for about five days; he fired me because I didn’t really know what I was doing. Then I met Norman Watson and I lied to him, saying that I’d been Eamonn’s assistant for two years, and he gave me a job based on that. I worked with Norman for about six or seven months, on and off, before he eventually fired me and I thought I’d just go it alone. I saw him a few years ago in New York and mentioned my time working for him. I remember every single day in the studio but he doesn’t remember it at all.’
Luchford went back to knocking on doors and showing people his work, which eventually led to him getting his big break. ‘I took some pictures in to show Phil Bicker at The Face and he said ‘I’ll give you something along the way’. I thought he was lying and I didn’t even have a telephone so I gave him the number for the Escape club in Brighton because that was the only number I had. A few weeks later he rang up and said they had a job for me to shoot The Stone Roses.’ Luchford looks back fondly on those years as a time when, with a little hustle, aspiring photographers could find themselves granted an audience with the people that mattered at magazines such as The Face. ‘The difference then was that the doors were always open; you didn’t need to phone up and book an appointment. If you had the balls to go and knock on the door of the old laundry where their offices were, they would actually let you come in and see the art director. Neville Brody was there at the time doing Arena, and Phil was there, it was an interesting bunch of people. Another thing is that there weren’t that many photographers at that point. I knew all of the upcoming people in London at the time because they all used to hover around the same dark rooms; there were only five or six really good dark rooms in London. There was one under Holborn Studios called Browns; I remember going in there and Nick Knight was there, Craig McDean was assisting Nick at the time, then I’d go next door and David Sims and Corinne Day were there, Nigel Shafran, Neil Davenport, just this endless stream of people coming in and it was always the same people. You knew who was trying and who was coming through – it was a very small industry at that point. I never thought that it was something I’d make money out of though. I remember my careers officer offered me a job at Beecham’s chemical factory and I was like ‘If it’s a choice between that and working once a month for The Face, I’ll take the latter’. When they paid me a hundred pounds for some of the photos they used, it was like a miracle, getting paid to do something that exciting.’
If being paid a hundred pounds made a lasting impression, Luchford’s fortune(s) would soon take a far more impressive upturn. Around the early nineties, having by then shot for the likes of Harpers Bazaar in New York and Italian Vogue, Luchford was commissioned to shoot a series of pictures for American magazine Mirabella. However, Mirabella didn’t like the results and decided not to run the pictures – something which would later prove extremely fortunate for Luchford. ‘I asked if I could give the pictures to Italian Vogue, which I did. Italian Vogue ran them and the editor, Franca (Sozzani) told Miuccia (Prada) to take a look at them. Next thing, I was asked to jump on a plane and go and meet her. That was interesting because I was still flat broke at the time and sleeping on a friend’s couch, then this contract came along and I bought a house straight away and started living a normal lifestyle.’
The resultant images that Luchford produced for Prada proved hugely successful, winning numerous awards and being exhibited around the world. Luchford enjoyed the experience of working with Prada, for two distinct reasons. ‘It was the nineties and there was a huge amount of financial freedom – budgets were very high, they felt very confident and we were given a lot of time to shoot the pictures. It was also the first time I’d ever done that and whenever you do something like that for the first time it’s always very exciting. I’m not one for over-romanticising the past, I’m more about looking forward to what’s coming next, but for those reasons I found it interesting.’
Whilst she was happy to allow Luchford a reasonable amount of creative freedom, Miuccia Prada’s presence was still very much felt throughout the process. ‘She was very involved in what she thought the campaign was going to be, so she’d explain the fashion to you then leave you with it and you’d have to go off and come back and present them with an idea. Then she’d reject the idea until you gave her something that felt instinctively right, and once she was happy with the idea she’d then let you go and do it. David James, the art director, would take Polaroids then scan them and lay them out – it was the first job I’d ever done where we had a computer on set – and we would scan the Polaroids, trim them out, put the logo on them and then put them on the wall so we could see what we were doing. We’d then have them sent by courier to Milan so that Miuccia could check them the next day and if they met with her approval then we’d move onto the next shot. As we were working, there was always the possibility that we’d have to shoot the same thing all over again the next day.’
Luchford’s emergence as a major talent in British fashion photography coincided with the major visual trend of the time, heroin chic, a style in stark contrast to the rich, cinematic feel of Luchford’s imagery. This contrast was far from deliberate though, merely a case of Luchford working in his natural style. ‘I can’t think of any time I’ve ever sat down as a fashion photographer and intellectualised or thought it through on any grander scale than ‘This is making me excited today’. I never sit down and think of it in terms of where it might go, what it might react to or anything like that; I’ll just find something that I’m drawn to and I’ll run with it. If it happens to resonate or people are excited by it or attracted to it then that’s a bonus. Growing up, I was always a cinephile, really into movies, which was tough in the late seventies/early eighties because there wasn’t that much on television. My mum was always up at 5.00am and she’d go to bed around 8.30pm, so there was this period between 8.30pm and 10.00pm before my dad came back from the pub when I’d have the TV set to myself, a precious couple of hours where I could try and catch different things on TV. The BBC put some really good things on and I would always try and catch any movies. On a more unconscious than conscious level, I guess all of those experiences permeate the pictures that I shoot. I can’t seem to help myself – even if I go out of my way to make something that’s not cinematic, it still comes out that way. It can be quite annoying actually.’ Much has also been made of
Luchford’s use of lighting, particularly in recent years during which he has moved away from shooting on location to shooting in a studio where he is able to apply more control. ‘When I started in the nineties, I used to go looking for places that felt interesting, so I’d find locations that had a quality I was drawn to but I wasn’t lighting anything. Then I became very frustrated by the inability to change things to the way I wanted so I started doing things like using colour gels – if I went into a motel in California or Vegas, I would start gelling the lights in the room. Then I started to bring my own lamps and putting them on dimmer switches, but that didn’t give me enough control so I started to introduce film lights, and that’s grown and grown to the point where sometimes I’ll be on set with 50 people and a truck full of lights; it’s kind of crazy. I was on holiday in Africa recently and for the first time in a long time I got a camera out with a roll of film in it, an old Leica, and started shooting with that, and I got so excited by the freedom of it. Then I went to shoot something for Vanity Fair and I thought ‘F…. it, I’ll do the same thing; I’m not taking any lights, just a camera and some rolls of film’. I’ve got really excited about doing that again; it feels like I’ve gone round in a full circle.’
In 2000, Luchford branched into filmmaking when he directed the feature film Here To Where, a mockumentary based on the true-life story of Iranian refugee Merhan “Alfred” Nasseri, which is said to have inspired the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal. More recently, Luchford has returned to filmmaking with the 2008 short film Dark Yellow, based on a play by New York playwright Julia Jordan.
‘I find it hard to only take pictures; I get stuck and it starts to get really stale, so I always try and find other things to go off and do. In the nineties I was working on a few art projects with Jenny Saville and doing some shows, which was good, then in the late nineties and early 2000 I was working on the film, and recently I’ve been doing more reportage stuff, just me and a camera again. I’m always finding new things, but generally speaking I’m 90% a fashion photographer. I find film work easier than fashion work, but I find I don’t want to make the kinds of films that most people want to see. I don’t find it easy to make commercial movies, but the actual process of filmmaking I find fairly easy. I remember doing my first television commercial in the nineties and I was telling my dad that I didn’t know how to do it. He said ‘Well what are you going to do?’ and I said ‘I’m just going to turn up and blag it’. He was getting very nervous, but I just thought, if it doesn’t work out then it doesn’t work out, but I’ll turn up anyway’. So the next day I arrive and there are five trucks of lighting, it’s a huge television commercial, and they led me up to the top of this house on location and were like ‘Right, go! Direct!’. Interestingly enough, it’s a bit like being thrown into a swimming pool; instinctively, you just kick in and get on with it, and it worked. I think if you sit in front of a television obsessively watching movies unfold in front of you like I do, you do absorb a lot more than you think in
terms of process.’
The aforementioned collaboration with artist Jenny Saville came about when Luchford was commissioned to take her portrait at a studio in Connecticut where Saville was working. ‘I went there and we had such an interesting day that we didn’t actually end up taking the picture. I called the editor who asked how it went and I said ‘It was fantastic! I just didn’t do what you asked me to do’. After that, we started taking pictures and playing with some Perspex and she mentioned an idea she had, but didn’t know how to do it. They decided to ‘have a crack at it’ and spent the next couple of years getting together from time to time to produce what would eventually became the acclaimed ‘Closed Contact 1995-1996’, a painterly series of portraits of Saville lying on a sheet of Perspex.
So what does Luchford make of the current state of fashion photography? ‘If you’d asked me that a year ago, I’d have told you that it’s over because it feels like it’s in a steady decline. It’s an over-saturated market, it’s not replenishing itself, it’s not mutating in new and interesting ways. It’s just repeating itself and becoming less and less interesting. My feeling was that the new generation of potential photographers would probably look to go into something else. I don’t know what that is -if you asked me who the Mozarts of the last 20 years are, I’d tell you they’re probably working at Pixar – but I don’t know where the young, interesting people are going to go. I couldn’t imagine them being drawn to an over-saturated, over-inflated fashion industry; it just wouldn’t make sense. I’ve experienced photography students though whose first question is ‘What day rate can I expect to get?’ and I’m like ‘Well, show me your work’ and they’ve showed it to me and I’m thinking ‘You’re not going to get a day rate; you’re not even going to get in the door’. They don’t care about photography, they care about how much money they’re going to make, but anyone who was going to make it wouldn’t give a shit about that. The crash of the economy is good because it’s forcing people to work harder and try harder; you can’t be lazy anymore. You can’t just show up to the studio and shoot ten pictures against a grey background, it’s not enough.
Everyone’s upped their game, we’re all in trouble and it’s not a moment to be fucking around. If you want to be in this business then you’ve got to work hard and earn it, actually produce something. If that goes across the board, with all the new photographers coming in as well as established photographers, then maybe magazines will start to look a bit more interesting, which they haven’t been. I’m quite excited by it. I read something about the sculptor Henry Moore who said that his output between World War I and World War II was phenomenal, but that once Fascism was under control it dropped off dramatically. When we don’t know where our lives will end up, it really stimulates people. I’m hoping that maybe eight years of Bush, Iraq and now the economy crash will produce something really exciting that might give people like me a kick up the arse. The industry is going to change, there’s no doubt about that. Fashion companies are going out of business, magazine advertising has dropped down to a point that people haven’t seen in decades and the industry is changing so fast at the moment that none of us know where it’s going to be in two years time. In a way, the challenge of that is suddenly quite exciting.’
Glen Luchford was interviewed by Philip Goodfellow