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’

I was a student working part-time in a video shop and I took Twin Peaks home to watch. It was a revelation. I became completely hooked, and watched as much of David Lynch’s work as I could.

I was studying photography and fell into portrait work almost by accident. I saw the comedian Bill Hicks on TV and he blew me away like Twin Peaks had. I spotted he was performing in Manchester and I knew I had to go – I was like an autograph hunter but using my camera instead of a pen. I stood backstage and introduced myself and asked if I could photograph him. He said yes, and I spent 45 minutes with him in his dressing room. Coming away with something I’d created gave me a massive buzz.

I showed my Hicks photo to the manager at the local Waterstones and asked if I could have five minutes with people at book signings to take portraits. I photographed everyone from Joseph Heller to Vic & Bob – and also directors such as Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway at the local art cinema. I built up a portfolio through blagging, basically. I finished university in 1994 with a wishlist of people I wanted to photograph and Lynch was top.

I found the address of his production company in Los Angeles and wrote to him. I didn’t hear back. A few years later he launched his own website and I’d send him emails that way, about once a year, asking to shoot him when he was next in the UK. Eventually, around 2006, I got an email from his assistant saying he’d seen my work and he would be happy to meet me.

A year later he was in London and needed some new headshots. I was offered 30 minutes with him at the Sanderson Hotel. In the lobby they have all this weird Philippe Starck furniture – a sofa shaped like a pair of lips – and in the billiard room there was a chair with antlers against red curtains. I planned with military precision how I would photograph him in all those spots. However, when I arrived I was told I could no longer use the lobby, and that he was running behind schedule and I could have just five minutes with him in his hotel room. I was panicking on the way up there.

It was a tiny room and a TV crew were setting up to do an interview – there was nowhere to shoot so I suggested the balcony. It was getting dark, there were plant pots everywhere. It wasn’t ideal at all. He was really friendly though, and apologised for us having less time than promised.

I have a trick that I use on people when I know my time is limited: I try and find something that we have in common that is nothing to do with work. I knew Lynch liked American Spirit cigarettes – organic tobacco. They were difficult to get hold of in the UK but I had found some for him and he was really chuffed. I remember putting the camera up to my eye and looking through the lens and thinking: “After all this time, I’m finally here.” I was really nervous beforehand, I knew I had one shot at it and I couldn’t fuck it up.

Telling him what to do was quite something for a fanboy but the shoot went great. We wrapped up and he went back inside but then I realised I didn’t have a picture of him smoking, and that’s very much part of his character. So we started packing away really slowly, waiting for the TV interview to wind up, and as soon as it did I asked if we could do one more.

He came back out to the balcony and picked a half-smoked cigarette out of the plant pot, lit it up, and then: click, click, click. This is my favourite shot because of who it is, the relationship I have to his work and the years of effort that went into making it happen. It was quite a moment.

Chris Saunders’ CV

Photographer Chris Saunders

Born: Sheffield, 1966.

Training: Manchester University.

Influences: Arnold Newman, David Bailey, Irving Penn, Rankin, Kevin Westenberg.

High point: “Overcoming shyness to ask Bill Hicks if I could photograph him. If that had gone any other way I might not have become a portrait photographer.”

Low point: “The American Film Institute asked to use one of my Lynch photos for their 50th anniversary celebrations, but it wasn’t used. I sulked like a dumped teenager.”

Top tip: “Tenacity – and treat people as you wish to be treated.”


Interview by Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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