Artist spotlight

Interview with photographer Danny Clinch

[ June 22, 1999 ]   Words may convey the sound of music, but as Danny Clinch has proved, pictures tell a biggers tell a bigger story. Over the course of the past ten years, the 35-year-old New Jersey native has carved a niche for himself by fleshing out unforgettable images of artists ranging from David Byrne and B.B. King to Tony Bennett and Metallica. Says Clinch, "Although I do a lot of portraits and covers, I'm really not a conceptual photographer. I'm much more spontaneous and usually go for the outtake moment. I love that type of image."

More on Discovery Inn
This past November, Clinch published his first book of photographs, "Discovery Inn," a stunning collection of intimate portraits and captured moments guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. In addition to recently doing some commercial spots for MTV, the constantly-in-demand photographer has also shot album covers for LL Cool J, Luscious Jackson, Hanson, Redman, John Popper and Jeff Beck, and he's been published in Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Bikini, Raygun, New York Magazine, Sport, Esquire and GQ. According to Clinch, his road to success started with, of all things, summer bible school and a fishing pole.

He explains: "When I was 13, I entered a contest to contest to see which student could bring the most guests to class. The winner got to pick from various prizes and I had my eye on a brand-new fishing pole. Unfortunately, I came in second and the winner took the pole, so I settled for the camera. As it turned out, I really got into it. As I got older, I became inspired by early photographs of musicians by Annie Leibovitz and Jim Marshall, and wound up taking all sorts of art and photography classes. Eventually, I combined my love of music and photography into a career. However," he laughs, "Sometimes I wonder where I'd be today had I won the contest and picked the fishing pole."

Your resume reads like a "Who's Who in Rock & Roll." Is there anyone left on your wish list? It's funny that you ask. I've always wanted to photograph Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and last March, I sent a copy of "Discovery Inn" to one of Bruce Springsteen's people with a note saying that I was from Jersey and a big Bruce fan and would love to photograph him. A few mornings later, Bob Dylan's manager called and asked if I'd do Dylan's photo shoot. Apparently, Larry Jenkins, Columbia Records' VP of Media, suggested that he call me. I couldn't believe it. It was one of the few all-out photo sessions that's he's done over the course of the past few years. Then, a few hours later, Springsteen's people called and asked me to come down to Asbury Park to shoot Bruce and the Ehe E Street Band. Those pictures wound up being used as the whole tour book for his European tour. I had gotten two of my top three "wish list people" in one day. That was absolutely amazing.

Do you think there are any similarities between making music and creating these images? I think so. Both involve spontaneity, as well as simplicity and taking chances. All those things overlap.

You mentioned being inspired by the early work of Annie Leibovitz - did you ever get to meet her and tell her that?
Well, about twelve years ago, after attending the New England School of Photography, I went to the Ansel Adams Gallery Workshop in Yosemite National Park and Annie was one of the instructors. After talking, she invited me to intern for her, and I eventually worked my way up to being her second assistant, traveling around the country and working on photo shoots. I was with her for exactly one year and it was the best thing I ever did. Annie is a real doer and she knew what she wanted and never took "no1 for an answer. That experience taught me a lot and opened many doors for me.

What inspired you to do the book?
I thought about doing books as soon as I got into photography. A lot of the people that I admire, like Annie, Robert Frank and Danny Lyon, all went out and published books on their own. I wanted to do a classic book of photographs, not the kind that ends up in the $2 bin because it outdates itself. I think "Discovery Inn" looks like it could've been done in the "60s or the "90s - it has a timeless feel to it.

Razorfish, a company not exactly known for being book publishers, put out the book. How did you hook up with them?
Razorfish is a multimedia company that develops ideas. I've been friends with Jeff Dachis, who is the CEO/President of Razorfish, for many years. This is the first book they've produced, and they actually have a couple of other books coming out as well. We're also working on producing another book of photographs that I've taken at the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. It'll be a coffee-table style book of portraits and should be released within a year or so.

Let's run through a few of book's images. I'll choose the picture and you tell me what you remember most about that session.

Larger version
Let's start with the "Metallica poker game shot."etallica poker game shot." My idea was to have them playing cards and smoking, so I went out and bought four $25 cigars. Originally, I was gonna shoot them in some mafioso-looking place in Little Italy which I had scouted. It was a really cool-looking spot with plaid tablecloths and checkered floors and low lights. The band was into it, but then a half-hour before the shoot, someone called and said that the guys couldn't leave their studio and that I'd have to shoot them there, which totally threw a wrench into my plans. Luckily, their studio had chairs and a table and I had brought a lamp of my own, so we were all set. Finally, I presented them with my $25 cigars, confident that I would be looked upon as a big hero. Instead, they very non-chalantly said, "No, don't worry about it, we got our own cigars. And with that, they busted out a humidor and produced these Cuban cigars that probably cost more than $125 each. Naturally, I had to put my cigars away. I wound up bringing them home and smoking them with my father (laughs).

What about the picture of David Byrne in the garbage can? David is the kind of guy that participates in the photo shoot, as opposed to just standing there and making me do all the work. As we were setting up, he walked over to this garbage can, took off the lid, peeked inside, and then climbed in
David Byrne
Larger version
- and never said a word to me. It was perfect. That guy in the photo just happened to be hanging out, so I asked him to come over and took a couple of shots with him just standing there. With one or two frames left to go, I said, "Okay, I'm done" just to see what might happen. David was savvy enough to realize that I wasn't done shooting, and he hung in there. All of a sudden the guy started yelling to all his buddies, "Hey, check out this guy in the garbage." Meanwhile, I just clicked the shot off. I really don't think he knew who David was.

Larger version
The J. Mascis photo looks like a shot of Tiny Tim. Everybody says that (laughs). This shot was for Entertainment Weekly. He's the kind of guy who shuns the limelight, so they offered to buy him a Brooks Brothers suit in exchasuit in exchange for doing the interview and the photo shoot. We all went to Brooks Brothers and I took this shot as he was being fitted for the suit. If you look closely, you can see the tailor's little chalk lines. I think this picture is kinda funny because the suit is so ill-fitting and he's just sitting there whistling with those stodgy portraits next to him.

Tupac Shakur
Larger version
What do you remember most about the Tupac Shakur shot? I did that for Rolling Stone. He was very professional, he showed up at my studio on time and he rolled a couple of blunts. He did whatever I asked of him and was very good at presenting himself for the camera. Then while he was changing his shirt, and I saw his "Thug Life" tattoo and I asked if I could photograph him shirtless and he agreed. I love that whole image of his tattoos, scars and pants that look like they're falling off. I always take the Polaroids from each session and put them in a book, and ask the person I'm shooting to sign it. I remember Tupac wrote, "If a photograph is worth a thousand words, then you're woru're worth a million."

Related pages:
>> See more work from Danny Clinch
>> See an interactive version of this story using Macromedia Flash
>> Find out more about getting your work on altpick*com

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