Wednesday, January 21, 2015


David Lynch, Toronto, Sept. 1986

THIS PORTRAIT OF DAVID LYNCH HAS BEEN IN AND OUT OF MY PORTFOLIO since I shot it, almost thirty years ago. I took it at the Toronto film festival where Lynch was premiering Blue Velvet, the film that would ensure he'd be in the business of making David Lynch films for the rest of his career.

It was the first Festival of Festivals I covered as both photographer and writer, and a landmark of sorts for me - the first shooting I'd do outside of the world of indie rock bands and my own friends and family. Working for Nerve magazine, I was probably near to the bottom of the media ladder, but in the early days of the film festival access was easier to get, but even then Lynch had been a hot item ever since Blue Velvet was a critical hit at the Montreal film festival a month before.

Access at the festival was still controlled almost entirely by festival publicists - a room full of mostly young women who were worked into exhaustion for the ten days of the festival. I was lucky, though, that Lynch was being handled by a particularly pretty publicist whose good side I'd contrived to land on when she told me she collected Godzilla memorabilia. I was working in a wind-up toy store at the time, so I came in the next day with one of each from our range of walking, rolling and spark-spitting Godzillas.

I had been a fan of Lynch since high school, when I'd drag only occasionally grateful friends to see rep cinema screenings of Eraserhead. A photo and interview with Lynch would be my festival prize, so I put in my request early and hoped that whatever charm I had - and a handful of cheap toys - would get me a slot.

Lynch's schedule had filled up fast, but the pretty publicist said that if I was willing to do the interview in a limo on the way from the Park Plaza to the Windsor Arms - a distance of about two short city blocks - she'd see what could be arranged. I was happy to get anything, and agreed.

I met Lynch in the press office where introductions were made, and we got in the elevator to the lobby where he got into an animated discussion with what I remember as an elderly British lady dressed in what looked like gardening clothes. After he said goodbye to her and we walked through the lobby, he told me that he couldn't believe who he'd just met. "Don't you know who that was? " he asked. I confessed that I didn't have a clue.

"That was Julie Christie."

I squeezed into the back of the limo with him and his manager and stumbled through an interview comprising all of two or three questions when we pulled up in front of the Windsor Arms. I remember him being friendly, and in a great mood. He had a hit film on his hands, after all, and this wasn't an Elephant Man or a Dune - it was his own movie, and after years as an outsider he had arrived.

We got out of the car and I pulled out my Spotmatic; Lynch rooted himself on the pavement between the car and the front door of the hotel and I knew that I had to work fast.

I shot a total of six frames of David Lynch, in the middle of a roll that also contains the whole of my portrait shoots with director Jean-Jacques Beineix and screenwriter Horton Foote. I was parsimonious with my film back then. The portrait at the top - the one I've featured for years - is the first frame of Lynch I took. The next five photos are the balance of the shoot, printed for the first time since I took them.

I began with some vertical frames, crouching below Lynch as he stood next to the limo...

David Lynch, Toronto, Sept. 1986

...and then I turned the camera around and shot some horizontal frames, from one side of his face, and then the other...

David Lynch, Toronto, Sept. 1986

...and I was done. I thanked Lynch for his time, he walked into the Windsor Arms and I never saw him again. Except for that photo which I printed over and over again, trying to get the best possible version. I'd sell it a few times, and since his celebrity has never really waned, it was always being considered for some iteration of my portfolio.

My instincts were sound - get up close, concentrate on the face - but my technical shortcomings, understandable but undeniable barely a year since I'd bought my first camera, have forced me to struggle with a troublesome negative since then. It's a given that the lens on the Spotmatic wasn't the best, but I made the mistake of shooting Tri-X outside on a cloudy day, with my subject silhouetted against the cloudy sky.

The result was a negative that's both thin and flat, and pulling detail and contrast out of it was an ongoing test of my darkroom skills. The shot at the top of this post is the last, best version I could make in the darkroom, as full of detail and good, rich blacks as I could summon from that lucky first frame. Of course I wish I'd pushed my luck a little and moved Lynch just a few feet away from the car and shot him with a dark wall behind him and the light behind me.

David Lynch, Toronto, Sept. 1986

The shot above is the latest version - produced with a flatbed scanner, Vuescan and Photoshop. It's the first time I've put light through this negative in over a decade, and it helps make a great case - one I'm hesitant to endorse - that something is being lost as we shut down our darkrooms and toss our enlargers away.

But I still have a lot to learn about digital printing, so maybe one day my learning curve and digital technology will meet up and unlock whatever it is I've been trying to dig out of this photo for so long.


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