Glen Luchford's best photograph: Amber Valletta modelling Prada in a sinking boat

‘The owner of Prada was standing on the riverbank shouting at everyone. When he asked me if I’d got the shot I said, “No!” and stormed off in a huff’

We had to shut the river Tiber in Rome for this picture. It’s expensive to shut down a whole river, but this was for the Prada 1997 autumn/winter campaign, so we had the budget for it. You can’t see them, but there are about 10 people in the water, setting fire to bales of hay covered in kerosene to try and make it look misty. We had to shoot it in the last 10 minutes of daylight, so that the colours would be just right. I wanted it to be more than dusk – you could call it the gloaming.

We’d painted the boat the right colour. Everyone was lined up, ready to go, about four hours before we were due to shoot. But right at the last minute, the stylist decided to change the dress to a red one. That proved too vibrant. Then the boat started to sink and one of the guys throwing the bales of hay in the river forgot to let go and disappeared into the water after it. I’d been planning it for three months but in the last five minutes of daylight, the entire scene descended into utter chaos.

Mr [Patrizio] Bertelli, the boss of Prada, was standing there on the riverbank shouting at everyone. When he asked me if I’d got the shot I said, “No!” and stormed off in a huff.

We went back the next day. We closed the river again and worked on everything we’d done wrong to get it right the second time around. When the film was developed it was exactly what I had wanted to achieve.

I’d seen two films growing up that influenced this shot: one was Andrei Rublev, by Tarkovsky, and Time of the Gypsies by Emir Kusturica. Both have religious scenes of people floating down the river in the mist. I decided to do a homage to both films. I was also thinking a lot about Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. (If I were to choose a soundtrack for this shot, it would probably be Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte.)

Back then, film stock was really oversaturated, because it was developed in the amateur market, so you gotthese bright, vivid colours. I was trying to achieve the opposite – I wanted everything to be underexposed and muted, sombre.

We found tiny lights used for car shots in movies to illuminate people’s faces. We had just one, attached to the side of the boat; that was our only lighting. To get the shot, we had to aim for this one moment when there was a perfect balance between the strength of that artificial light and the strength of the dying sun. Two months later, I discovered Photoshop, with which I could have done the whole thing in just two minutes.

A photo from this shoot ended up on a Giles Deacon dress. The Museum of Modern Art and the V&A had already asked to have the photos in their permanent collections, so they were elevated above just magazine shots.

What you’re looking for, working with anyone from Beyoncé to David Beckham to Björk, is a moment of spontaneity. You don’t want the photograph to feel staged. To do that you have to read each situation. Over the years you develop a bunch of skills. With this picture, Amber Valletta, the model, had been sitting so still for so long, I think she got a kind of rigor mortis. She was probably also anxiously hoping the boat wasn’t going to fill with water. Looking at some of the things I’ve done, I remember the technical difficulties, the problems. But you create problems to overcome the boredom. Your parameter is basically a girl in a dress, and you do it every day. So you have to find a way to make it more interesting.

Glen Luchford’s CV

Glen Luchford.

Born: Lancing, Sussex, 1968.

Studied: Left school at 15, and worked at a hairdresser. Started shooting for the Face at 19.

Influences: “When I was young I studied every artist and film-maker I could find. Tarkovsky is a favourite, Chris Killip as well.”

High point: “The Prada pictures were fun. It was the first time I had the budget and the crew to do something like that.”

Low point: “The financial crash of 2008. I’d just had a son, so had responsibility right when the industry went into meltdown. I remember walking into the agency in New York and it was completely silent.”

Top tip: “Don’t procrastinate.”

• The Agony and the Ecstasy: Jack Webb by Glen Luchford is out now through Idea publishing


Interview by Nell Frizzell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sade electrifies a New York party: Maripol's best photograph
‘The singer came to my loft for a party. She was quite a presence. I gave her those earrings. People always thought I was a stylist – but I was just stylish’

Interview by Dale Berning Sawa

17, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Rankin's best photograph: a supermodel in a cow mask
‘I didn’t think models were being treated as people. So we borrowed a farm, put some in masks – and shot them in a cow barn then a pigsty’

Interview by Nell Frizzell

08, Nov, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
David Lynch smoking: Chris Saunders' best photograph
‘He came out on to the balcony, picked a half-smoked cigarette out of a plant pot, lit it, and then it was click, click, click’

Interview by Daniel Dylan Wray

28, Nov, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Visage outside Blitz nightclub … Sheila Rock’s best photograph
‘Blitz was where all the New Romantics hung out. If you didn’t look good, you didn’t get in. Steve Strange is at the front of the shot – with big hair’

Interview by Graeme Green

24, Aug, 2022 @3:11 PM

Article image
Joseph Cultice’s best photograph: Marilyn Manson with prosthetic breasts
‘I wanted to make Manson look beautiful. But people found this image haunting and grotesque’

Interview by Henry Yates

16, Sep, 2020 @3:29 PM

Article image
The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet: Michael Joseph's best photograph
‘When I told the caretaker of the house the Stones were a bit wild, he asked if there would be any naked ladies – because they charged £10 extra for that’

Interview by Henry Yates

17, Oct, 2019 @5:01 AM

Article image
Tom Cruise fist-bumps a rising star: Misan Harriman's best photograph
‘When Tom Cruise appeared, I walked over and said, “Listen, this kid just got nominated for an Oscar.” Tom came over and said, “Tell me who you are”’

Interview by Amy Fleming

27, Jan, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
A niqab and balloon shoes for a Moroccan basketball fan: Mous Lamrabat’s best photograph
‘We recreated a pair of Nike trainers and I used Michael Jordan’s number on the niqab. It’s as if, in a parallel universe, this is the uniform for basketball’

Interview by Amy Fleming

27, Jul, 2022 @2:07 PM

Article image
Rihanna mobbed in Paris: Dennis Leupold's best photograph
‘A huge crowd surrounded the car. It was quite eerie, almost scary. Even for her that moment was crazy’

Interview by Tim Jonze

24, Oct, 2019 @5:01 AM

Article image
Richard Young's best photograph: Jerry Hall parties at Annabel's
‘You had to earn your way into the club. But once the celebrities got to know you, they realised you weren’t such a bad old fruit’

Interview by Morwenna Ferrier

14, Nov, 2018 @4:33 PM