Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
Danny Clinch has photographed some of the most celebrated musicians in the business. We're talking Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Phish and Tupac Shakur. His photographs have appeared in such prestigious publications such as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fare and The New York Times. He was even profiled on 60 Minutes, which is where we start our interview with Danny Clinch.
Q - I saw you on 60 Minutes awhile back. What did that do for your career and what did it mean to you personally?
A - I don't think it added a lot to my career. It just tipped people off to who I'd been taking some of these photographs that they were really familiar with. I felt like a lot of people came back to me and said, "I'm familiar with your work, but I didn't know you took the cover of the Springsteen "Risin'" record or that you had done that Tupac photograph." It was really great for me to get some of that sort of out there in the world and got people to see how busy I've been. It was really, really cool that Bruce Springsteen and the guys from Phish allowed them to come in and follow me around while I was photographing because my style is usually very quiet and I move around when I'm doing a documenatary type thing and shooting the show. So, to have someone trailing a guy who's trying to be invisible was a challenge, but it was cool. (laughs) And what happened was I was with The Foo Fighters down in Austin City Limits and they had taken over a hotel down there called Saint Cecilia. So, they were recording a little record. They had just done a big tour. They were recording an EP they were going to give to their fans. I was down there and they invited me to take photographs. It was just the band and their crew, and Taylor Hawkins invited the gentleman who is the producer of 60 Minutes. I didn't know him and he didn't know me, but we were the only two guys there, other than the crew. When there was a little bit of down time or when I was stepping away to give the band some room, he and I started chatting. He said, "Oh, you work with The Foo Fighters a lot?" I said, "Yeah. Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam," going down the list. The next day we came to the hotel again for another session and he was, "Man, I went online and checked out your work and to be honest, you have such a great body of work and you're such a good story teller. Have we ever done anything on you on 60 Minutes?" I was like, "No. It would be an honor to do something like that." Before you know it he was calling me back to New York and saying, Anderson Cooper is going to be the correspondent and that he's going to come to your studio. So, it was kind of crazy.
Q - You actually went to a school to study photography?
A - Correct.
Q - Is that something you almost have to do in order to achieve the level of success you've had?
A - I don't think there's any rules. I was never much for following rules, but I think you have to take your opportunities and you have to start somewhere. I went to New England School Of Photography in Boston after going two years to a community college in New Jersey, Ocean County College. I went there and I just had teachers who were really encouraging to me. I love the photograph as a document. I liked journalism and I like realness in my photos. I was really grateful that because I was trying to translate that into photographing musicians that my teachers were on board with that. They understood. One of my instructors, Susan Smith, who was my journalism instructor, had photographed musicians as well. She photographed for The Phoenix and The Globe in Boston. She understood the historic value of the photograph as a document when it came to music and photography. So, that was cool because I was a little nervous about that. She embraced it and encouraged me. So, that was cool. And then the other thing that was important for me was after I got out of school I saved up my money and went to do a couple of photographic workshops. I did the Ansel Adams workshop in Yosemite and two of the instructors there, one was Annie Leibovitz and one was David Hawking. Those two artists were really important to me at the time and still are. I ended up really getting along with Annie and her assistant at the time, David Rose. They invited me to be an intern at her studio. That was really important. I think workshops are important for young artists and people who are like-minded. You surround yourself with people who like photography. You just sort of bounce ideas off of each other. You see where you stand amongst those people, amongst your peers. Then you hopefully get a mentor that you can look to for help. Although Annie wasn't a mentor to me, so-to-speak, I certainly learned a lot from her and then moved on from there and found some mentors along the way.
Q - What did you do as an intern for Annie Leibovitz? Are there a lot of people vying for that internship?
A - I started out as an intern and that meant doing anything, sweeping floors, running to the lab, going to pick up props, running film back and forth that was sent to the lab, picking up equipment, getting people coffee. All that sort of stuff. I was happy to do it. I worked my way up from that to being basically like her second assistant in command, below the main guy. That was my first job, as an assistant. I felt really, really honored and grateful to be able to do that and just to be learning what to do, what not to do. Annie, as people know, is very passionate about her work. She is unstoppable. She does what she wants to do, how she wants to do it, most of the time. I learned a lot from that, just being determined and having ideas, going through with it. Then I also learned I wasn't Annie Liebovitz. It was, "Wow man! This is incredible." When I see her photographs, especially as a young man coming up, it was like magical to me. Those photographs are magic. There are things that you can't even believe that someone perhaps directed John and Yoko to lay around the bed that way and actually snapped that photo. You're like, "Did that really happen, or has that photo always existed in the world?" It like blows my mind and always has. Then to be on the set with her and to see that, there's definitely some magic there, but there's also a lot of hard work and determination and a strong vision, and she had all that. I was able then to take that experience and it opened a lot of doors for me. I worked with Steven Meisel, who's a great fashion photographer. I worked with Mary Ellen Mark, who's a great documentary photographer. Timothy White, who's a celebrity photographer. And so taking something from all those things and realizing at a certain point that I'm going to pull things from those experiences that work for my personality and turn it into my own thing hopefully.
Q - And the second part, are there quite a few people vying to be Annie Leibovitz's intern?
A - Yeah. Well, I don't know. At the time I think she was doing workshops because David Hawking was doing it and she wanted to be a part of it. She was like, "If he's doing it, I'm going to do it." At that time they probably had some turnover where they needed an intern. And she just happened to say to Dave Rose, "Hey, keep your eyes open. If you see anybody that's got a good vibe, let's see if they're interested in interning." He and I hit it off and to be honest, I saw an opportunity there. There were four different photographers there. One being Annie and one being David Hawking and the others I can't recall off the top of my head. But I ended up skipping some of those classes. One was like an architectural photographer I think. I just ended up doubling up on Annie's classes and went over and tried to help them out and just tried to create an opportunity for me. I heard somebody recently say, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I love it! People say (to me) "You're so lucky! You worked with Annie." Well, I wasn't sitting at home with a bag of Doritos, watching TV. I made opportunities for myself and I went out there and put myself in a position to win.
Q - It didn't fall into your lap.
A - No, it didn't.
Q - Did you need an agent to get your photos in publications like The New York Times and Rolling Stone or did you do all the leg work?
A - It's a combination. Sometimes I had the photos that were important enough to get them in the magazine. Other times it was an assignment from the magazine. A lot of times it starts out by getting the assignment from Rolling Stone let's say, or Spin magazine and them saying, hey, we want you to photograph Green Day for Spin magazine or Rolling Stone. Then I go out and meet the band and it turns out we get along great. We do a really great session that everyone's happy with. Then down the line they end up hiring you for publicity or you see them somewhere and you photograph them for something else. It becomes like your circle of comrades, your circle of peers, of friends. Some of them are friends of mine and some of them are just people I know. It's important to have that kind of relationship with, not only the artists but almost more importantly the people around them, like their managers and their publicists and their guitar techs. If they trust you they're going to help you get the most out of the artist. They're going to make sure you have the best opportunity to do the best job. My goal has always been to be respectful of everybody, not only the artist but also the people that surround them, so that I get the best opportunity.
Q - After photographing someone like Bruce Springsteen or Tupac Shakur, did you go on to become friends with them? Did you got out to dinner with them for example?
A - I only did one photo session with Tupac. So that was the only time I spent any real time with him. It just so happened it was an epic photo shoot and his life ended soon after that and there's not a lot of photography like that on him. My relationship with Bruce Springsteen started in 1999 when he got The E Street Band back together and we got along quite well. Then I was invited down to photograph while he was recording "The Rising" and "Magic" and "Workin' On A Dream". I think I've done the last six out of seven records of his I think, starting with "The Rising". I did not do the "Devils And Dust" album cover, although I made a short film about Bruce for that. But, I did "The Rising", "Working On A Dream", "Magic", "Wrecking Ball", "Seger Sessions", "High Hopes". So, that's been really exciting. I have a lot of friendships with a lot of people and I appreciate that. I don't take it lightly. I also don't want to believe I'm friends with someone when maybe I'm not, but certainly acquaintances with a lot of people, but there are some I call my friends and I'm pretty psyched about that.
Q - You also started a film company. Is it your intention to move into the film making business?
A - Well, I've been making films since 1997. My first film was on Ben Harper. It was called Pleasure And Pain. It was a documentary about him, where he was from and where he was going. The photographers that I admire, the documentary photographers I admired growing up like Robert Frank and Danny Lyon all started to make like these little art films. I was like, "I'd like to make some moving images." So, I was photographing Ben Harper for a guitar magazine and I thought man, this guy is really cool. What an interesting background he has, growing up in California, Claremont. His mother's side of the family, his grandmother and grandfather had a music store, world instrument, folky museum type place where they hosted living room concerts growing up. David Lindley would come through there. Taj Mahal would come through there. All these people would come through and just like hang out with his mom and his grandparents. I thought this guy is born to make music and there's just no doubt in my mind that he's going to continue to make music for a long time. So, I asked him if he was interested in me tagging along for a little while and do a little documentary on him and he said yes. So, that was my first one. Then I did some music videos here and there. I started doing like EPKs for Citizen Cope and some other bands, creating these cool little films. And then Bruce asked me to make this short, little film for him, Devils And Dust film and I was surprised by it, that he actually asked me to do it. I ended up doing the music video for that song as well for Devils And Dust, but I also made this short, little film about the recording of the record, and what he was trying to say on that record and where he was musically and how he wrote these particular characters. That was really, really cool. I was psyched that he offered me that. I even said to his manager, I kind of waited until the project was over, I said, "Man, I'm surprised he asked me to do that." She said, "Yeah, I am too. I asked him the same thing." (laughs) I didn't really have much under my belt, film wise. She said that he told her that he thought I could do it. He said, "I think Danny's got soul. I think he'll do something cool." And so, I did, and it was really exciting. I'm like a little boutique company called Three On The Tree, which is my little boutique film company and I do things with that imprint now and again. I haven't been doing a lot lately under it. I also work with my friend Lindah Narvaez, who has a company called Milk T Films. I also am working with a company and I have a bit of an ownership in this company called Tour Gigs. Tour Gigs is a company that produces content and short films and does live streaming for concerts. We've live streamed a bunch of shows from Red Rocks with the Alabama Shakes and My Morning Jacket, Brandi Carlile. They were also the executive producers on the Pearl Jam film I just made. So, we do everything from creating concert films for the theatre and DVDs and streaming to live streaming a small concert here and there or a big concert. So, we have a bunch of cool relationships that we work on. I do enjoy the moving image. I enjoy story telling. For me, I think my photography informs my film making and I think my film making informs my photography. I got one closing statement I'd like to make if you don't mind. I'm a huge fan of (the late) Jim Marshall and a huge fan of Annie, especially her early work, the stuff that's really a pure document, and people like Bob Gruen, who I know you've interviewed, and Henry Diltz. I'm a big fan of the honest capture, the document and how important music is to people. To be asked to capture the artists who are making the music that is the soundtrack to people's lives and is helping people celebrate, helping them get through hard times, is super important to me. I love the document and I love the artfulness and freedom that you get working with musicians. If you wanted to do something very simple and elegant in a simple portrait, that's acceptable. If you wanted to do something that has so much emotion in it and abstract qualities, you can do that as well. I feel like that's what's great about working with musicians. They're so open minded and there are no rules. They're open to any sort of creativity that you can bring conceptually or visually type stuff. So, I just wanted to say that. I would also like to mention something that would be really important to me; I did this Pearl Jam film called Let's Play Two, which is out in theatres all over the world at this very moment and also I have a gallery called The Transparent Gallery, Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery and it's in Asbury Park at the Asbury Hotel. It started as a pop-up shop and they just gave me an extension of like another year. It's a really great spot to come and hang out. It's not a white glove gallery. It's a hangout. There's furniture there. There's a back line. There's a drum kit, amplifiers, guitars. On Saturdays or Sundays, depending on the time of year, I think we're going to move into Sunday now, but on the weekends we have 'live' music. Local bands playing and sometimes whoever might be playing at The Stone Pony. Gary Clark Jr. wandered over the other day and played some music, Robert Randolph. It's really a great place to come and hang out. I pretty much do all my social media off my Facebook page and my Instagram. The gallery is pretty important and pretty cool I must stay. Springsteen came in the other day and hung out for like two hours and watched the bands play.
Q - Doesn't Bruce Springsteen worry about creating a mob scene when he's out in public like that?
A - He wanders around Asbury Park all the time by himself. He just knows how to handle it. If it's getting out of hand he just leaves. Apparently he was comfortable because no one was bugging him. Every once in a while, selfie click. "Would you sign this?" He wrote the forward to my book Still Moving. People were buying the book and having me sign it and having him sign it. So, he was more than happy to do that. Everybody was very respectful of him and I think that's what's great about Asbury Park these days. They know Springsteen wanders around there and they know if they bug him too much he won't do it. (laughs) So, it's pretty cool.