Danny Clinch is responsible for some of the most captivating and impressive photographs in music. He's graced the cover of Rolling Stone and has traveled with the stars. Everyone from Phish and Dave Mathews to Johnny Cash and Radiohead trust him enough to be the man behind the shot. Clinch has made it--and then some--he's a legend. On the other side of the lens we have a young buck who's just starting to make his mark, Jeremy Jones of JamBase fame [well maybe not fame, but hey, it's the holidays, let's live it up]. In this special Thanksgiving Day feature we paired these two working men up in hopes of finding out just how one makes it in this competitive photo world, and how to get David Byrne in a trash can. We figured Jones could craft the questions all your fledgling photo geeks would want to know, while unraveling the beauty of Clinch's work. So let that tryptophan settle and cozy up to the computer. Come along as we go to lens to lens with the amazing Danny Clinch.
Jeremy Jones: So Danny; do you think the chicken or the egg came first for you in the world of music photography? Did you love music before or after your love for photography came about?
Danny Clinch: I guess I always loved music and I was surrounded by photography in the sense that mom and my grandfather were into taking photos. My grandfather was sort of an amateur photographer, but he always took everything real seriously and he also took good care of his things. So even though he was an amateur he bought really nice cameras, took care of them and found out as much as he could about photography. My mom was always the snapshot type and there were always cameras around and I was able to pick them up. I was really into drawing and art.
Jeremy Jones: Were you schooled professionally?
Danny Clinch: I went to the New England School of Photography in Boston for two years. I went to a community college in New Jersey for two years, Ocean County College for visual communications, and then I went to a couple of photographic workshops, which I highly encourage people to do, they were really good for me. I did the Ansel Adams gallery workshop with Annie Leibovitz and David Hockney and then I did Friends of Photography workshop in Parnell, CA with Sylvia Plachy.
Jeremy Jones: Wow Great.
Danny Clinch: I don't know if you are familiar with her work...
Stray Cats by Danny Clinch
Not hers but Annie Leibovitz and David Hockney..
I got to know Annie at the workshop and I started interning for her and I worked for her for like a year as an assistant and that turned into working for Steven Meisel and Mary Ellen Mark. And that was really good for me to get in and work with Annie and see where and how things were done right.
Yeah, I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity.
Well, then the music thing was something that was just there, I mean, everybody likes music right?
My dad didn't have a lot of different music, but the music he had he played all the time. He'd listen to the radio a lot, so did my mom, and then we had a bunch of 1950's compilation stuff that we listened to over and over. As a kid I can remember listening to the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly, Elvis. And I just got sucked up into Neil Young and Van Halen and stuff like that...
Neil Young by Danny Clinch
Back in the David Lee Roth years?
Yeah the David Lee Roth years. And I started to sneak my camera into shows. You know, it was easier back then believe it or not to sneak it in. In the 60's it was like, you could go wherever you want with your camera and nobody cared.
If you could get your way backstage with your camera, it wasn't a big deal.
Access wasn't the same as it is today?
No, and then it turned into you couldn't get your camera in, no cameras allowed but if you got it passed the security guards then, you know, then you could pretty much shoot pictures and I used to do that a lot.
Great! That's how I have kind of gotten myself going as well. What type of shows were you trying to shoot back then? Did you go after everything you could or just music that you were listening to?
I would go to everything I could. I was not necessarily happy unless I could get my camera in. You know Neil Young, Van Halen, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, I remember getting into a Ted Nugent show, it was really funny. Who else? The Strays Cats, I used to go to The Stone Pony a lot, and they used to let you bring your camera in...
David Lee Roth by Danny Clinch
Where was your home base back then?
I was in New Jersey. So I would get into The Stone Pony or I would go to the Spectrum in Philadelphia and stuff like that.
Do you have a certain plan going into a live show that you put together prior to the start that helps you determine what shots you will capture, kind of like a choreographed dance or do you let the performance happen around you? For instance, I know that a lot of times I never shoot the drummer, so before the show I will try to put together a plan to get something of that person.
If somebody hires me for a specific reason, then I try to think about why they hired me, for what particular reason, what are their needs basically. But, I really try to shoot as naturally as I can, I am waiting for a moment. I am waiting for a framing, like when things are moving really fast and you're waiting for that moment when it just feels right, you know, and you just grab that moment. After a while, if I've done that and I feel that things are going really good, I think to myself, "what can I shoot that's just different then what anybody else is shooting?" How can I separate my self from anybody else? You know, I shoot people's feet, or I shoot somebody in the foreground and throw them out of focus and shoot the person behind them, or I get down really really low and try to wait for something to come into the edge of the frame. Sometimes its cool, sometimes its not.
When you are shooting live shows, are you shooting 35mm, digital or have you shot medium format?
Everything live really. I've shot Hasselblad live, I've shot half frames a lot, I shoot my Diana live sometimes, I shoot with those four frame cameras, you know those Lomo's or whatever you want to call them? I've shot with those live.
Iggy Pop by Danny Clinch
So you get real experimental then?
Yes, I've even gone so far as to take one of those four frame Lomo cameras and drilling out the F-stop. I tried to drill it out to make it F 5.6 and get some action with that.
Do you remember when you got to stop serving tables, or whatever you did to make ends meet and start shooting film for a living?
Yeah I do, assisting other photographers really helped me out. I felt like I wasn't just waiting tables. I was assisting other photographers; I was getting by with the pay that I was getting. And I was doing photography, and I was learning. I wasn't waiting tables and doing something that was completely contrary to what it was that I wanted to be doing. I really think that assisting is the way to go, you will learn way more assisting then you will in school. Not that you shouldn't go to school. You should go to school, and there are several reasons why you should go to school, to get the solid background and to get information on the technical stuff. But you got to get your foot in the door. I have people here that do internships, and I try to get them on shoots. I started as an intern and I think that is a really, really good way to go. You give up your time for free, you hopefully work on some jobs, you get to know what's going on, you get to know how things are done, and if you work really hard and put your self out there, by the time it comes for you to leave, the person you are interning for will hopefully say, "you know what, I'm not sure I want to go without you. Why don't you stick around and I'll pay you!"
So it's kind of like learning by doing instead of reading a book or something?
There is enough work out there for that. That's how you're going to learn. Everybody's different, I couldn't say that you can't do it without that but I guess to get back to your question, I think there was a point when I was assisting and I started to get work and if I could get somebody to pay my film cost and processing expenses, and I could make as much money that day taking pictures as I did assisting, I considered that a victory. Back in the day I was making $125 assisting a day. And now they make double that, assistants make about $250 a day. But they live in New York City or Brooklyn.
That would be good money down here in Atlanta!
[Laughs] Oh, Yeah!
If you're passionate about something and you go after it full force, hopefully you are going to find like minded people and they are going to hire you to shoot stuff that you love to shoot... Let people follow you into your passion, and then your rockin'. Then you're walking in the woods at Moby's house.
Photo of Danny Clinch shooting Blind Boys of Alabama
So would you say your big break was gradual? Or can you go even further and pin-point a time and place?
I would say there were gradual breaks. But for instance, I started shooting for Scholastic Magazine, which is a kid's magazine, and I started shooting for them because my roommate worked there and she took my portfolio over there and they started hiring me. At that point I started to make money; I started to make real money. Like $300, $500, $750 a day, shooting pictures, and I was really psyched. And it allowed me to experiment and pursue the music stuff. One of the biggest jobs I got was with Spin magazine to shoot the band 3rd Bass, the hip-hop band from the era of Public Enemy and LL Cool J and stuff like that. The shoot went really well and I took those photographs and I brought them to, I called Def Jam Records and said, "Look, I just photographed 3rd Bass for Spin and they turned out really good and I'd like to come over and show you my portfolio." And the guy said, "Well uh, we don't meet with people, you can drop it off and pick it up." And I was like, "No, no, no, I really want to come in and see you." He said, "Well we don't do it that way." I said, "Well, I got pictures of 3rd Bass that I shot for Spin." He said, "Do you own them?" I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well come on in!" So he probably saw the opportunity to buy the photos for cheap and I saw the opportunity to get in and meet these guys. Look, I'm an OK guy; I take good pictures, so that's what happened. I went down and met the guys and they really liked me and I liked them and they started to hire me on these hip-hop jobs. Which at the time hip-hop was just coming into it. And people weren't paying a lot of money to their photographers. They were paying low fees. But for me it was a great opportunity, low fees were good fees for me, you know. So, I started to shoot for them and that was really, really cool, that was like a real big deal for me.
3rd Bass by Danny Clinch
And I started to get a lot of work in hip-hop. And then, hip-hop all of a sudden became this big deal and even though people weren't getting paid a lot of money to shoot it, it still held a lot of clout in the music industry. I remember I was going after bands like Jane's Addiction, and when they see in your portfolio that you got Public Enemy, LL Cool J, people like that they became more receptive to your work, because they knew who all they were.
Ahmir ?uestlove and Danny Clinch
Tell me how you are dealing with the technologies of the industry. Are you still shooting 35mm or digital and are you getting into the darkroom pulling prints?
Well, I used to be into it. I always had a darkroom in my studios in the city and then it came to a point where it wasn't paying off for me to be in the darkroom when I could be out making money. Getting better fees and making other opportunities for myself and I just found a lab that I like that knows how to print for me.
Does that mean more digital?
I don't do any digital still photography, but I do my portfolios digitally.
And you have a digital website (www.dannyclinch.com) so that is a little bit more...
Yeah, and I shoot digital moving images. Mini DV, High Def.
I would like to talk specifically about a few images of yours if we could. I just got the Rolling Stone's 50th Anniversary of Rock: The Photographs-The Fifty Greatest Portraits and the Stories Behind Them. Congrats on being included in that issue with your portrait of Tupac.
Tupac Shakur by Danny Clinch
As I was thumbing through the magazine several things came to mind that I was inspired to ask you about during this interview. First of all, do you feel that portraiture is your strongest format or is live action more suited to you?
I like to think that I am good at both of them, but I feel like in the purest sense of everything I feel that I am in the zone and in my element when I'm documenting a backstage or something's going on, and I'm there and I'm not necessarily asking people to do things, but I'm capturing moments and hanging out backstage or with people working on songs, or recording in the studio, that's the most beautiful opportunity for me.
I agree with that, there's something like an adrenaline rush or a high to it almost...
Yeah, people are creating music and you are there...
I've got a great relationship with the Dave Matthews Band. I've been down in their recording studio a bunch of times. I recently went down there and they were so jazzed to be working with a new producer, they were completely psyched, and for me just to be there while they were making the music was just super cool.
Dave Mathews by Danny Clinch
Another thing about the Rolling Stone issue was your photographic relationship with Annie Leibovitz. She just recently released a book, American Music with many of the great musicians and musical places of America. Did you have a hand in any part of the production of that book? What are your thoughts about her work?
Everybody pretty much knows her story, she came up through San Francisco with Rolling Stone magazine in the early days, she got conceptual and did a lot of that conceptual stuff. Her early work is my favorite. But I did not have anything to do with the book, although I probably assisted on a couple of the shoots in the book, I'm not sure.
So she was shooting music and musicians throughout those years that you worked for her?
Yeah, we shot Springsteen, INXS, Ella Fitzgerald.
Phish by Danny Clinch
Another photographer that was included in the issue and one that has become a big hero to me is Jim Marshall. His work is recognizable to everyone, even if they don't know the name, they would know the work. I just read an article about him in Mojo, a British rock magazine, and he was quoted as saying, "When I take a photograph of my subjects-whether they know it or not-to me that is a covenant. There's a trust given and a trust received, and I will not allow that trust to be violated, or the pictures to be used in an improper manner." Does that covenant ring true with your work and your clients?
Yeah, I know Jim real well, and I know what kind of person he is and he definitely has rules that he lives by. And I think that we started to talk earlier about how different it is these days then it was back when he was shooting and the access that he had, people just don't get that kind of access any more. But I manage to, and I think its all because of the relationship that I have with people and the trust. They trust that if I am in the inner sanctum, I'm not going to go out and put the images in the press or to the media without their consent. All the books that I have done in the past, I've gotten everyone's consent, I don't necessarily have to but I feel if I want to keep my relationships going then I should do that. And there have been occasions where for whatever reason someone didn't want me to use that picture in a book and I didn't.
Yeah, I think that covenant rings true through your website as well. Everything on the site is well designed, the images are handled properly and especially on photographers websites where the design is usually a secondary thought. Yours has a nice aesthetic to it which really rounds out the treatment of your work.
Obviously the photo of yours that was included in the Rolling Stone issue was the Tupac shot of him with no shirt and "Thuglife" tattooed on his stomach. The story accompanying the shot talks about how his persona was tough and gangsta, and you were quoted saying that you remember it differently. What was that photo session like?
Danny Clinch at Bonnaroo
By J. Holdren
What I remember from the shoot was that unlike every other hip-hop artist that I photographed at the time there were two or three differences. One was that he showed up on time. He wasn't two to three hours late which happened all the time. Number two, he came with one other guy, he didn't come with a whole group of people. And number three, he was very professional, he was ready to work, ready to do it, he was ready to participate in the shoot and subsequently I got a lot of good opportunities with him... that's what I remember.
Great. Well the shot came out nicely as well.
Yeah, actually I remember when I shot it; the other thing I remember was that it was one of my first assignments for Rolling Stone. And I was like WOW! This is cool. Imagine if this record printed number one and they decided to use it on the cover instead of the inside. So I shot it like a cover shot. So I was shooting for the cover of the Rolling Stone, that's how I shot it. And what ended up happening was they only ran it a quarter page initially, but when he died they ran it on the cover.
I'd like to take a minute to talk about your recent work with moving images. I own Pleasure and Pain, the Ben Harper video that you put together, and I was not a big Ben Harper fan but since it was your first film I bought it. Was that your first attempt into video or had you been experimenting with things in the past?
That was my first attempt. I basically went out on my own for a couple of weeks, month, with my Super 8 camera and digital camera and just learned as I went along. And then I slowly brought on my still photography assistant, Gary Ashley, a good friend of mine that's been working with me for years. And basically it was him and I going out shooting shit up. And once the story started to formulate we started to do some editing and started to do a bit more shooting. Also, Sam Lee, my editor and co-director, was very instrumental in pulling the story together in an interesting way.
Ben Harper Pleasure and Pain by Danny Clinch
Did you find it difficult to go over to video?
Yeah, it was difficult, the framing wasn't. I know I have a good eye, but it was the idea of holding the shot, because as a still photographer you feel like oh I got that shot, let me do a different shot, let me get a different angle, whereas in cinematography you have to commit to what you think is a good spot to be in and the angle and basically stay there. If your going to do documentary style shooting, you can't be moving all over the place, you get dizzy as the viewer. I had a lot of that problem with Pleasure and Pain and we just cut around it when we edited it. The more I shoot the more I learn to be patient and just hold the frame and move slowly. You got to eyes behind your head, you know, your looking around while you're on one thing you're looking for where you're going to go next. As a documentary film maker you got to put it in your head that I want to make these moves, and I want to be able to not edit this film, I don't want to cut, I want to go from here, to there, to there and tell the story without bumping into something, without having to put a cut away in somewhere, you want to tell the story, one take.
In looking at your work, I wanted to believe that it was the artist that was so comfortable, like David Byrne in the trash can from your book Discovery Inn, or Ben Harper with his mom, but then I looked at your work again and there is a consistency in the comfort level, so I felt that you definitely had something do to with it.
David Byrne by Danny Clinch
Yeah, you know I spent two days with Moby. He's a great guy and he's one of the guys that really participates in the photo shoots. Last time we took a two day trip into the desert and we brought a stylist out and we did all the stuff. And this year, for this record he was just like come up to my house upstate and we'll just hang out and we'll go down to the Lower East Side and shoot pictures. It was really just like hanging out with a friend, just wandering around shooting pictures, it was really cool. When I have moments like that I really am grateful for what I get to do. Funny enough, we were walking around by his house, he lives up on this mountain or whatever, and we started to walk through the woods and he turned around and looked at me and said, "Well this is pretty cool, this is what we do for a living, go take a walk and take some pictures." [Laughing] I was like, "Hell Yeah!"
That's great, and that's when you get the best shots too... In closing, could you leave a little bit of inspiration for the thousands of people that are going to read this [laughter from Clinch]? Especially for the many photographers that are down in the pits shooting photographs next to 20-25 other people all trying to get the same shot, all shooting digital, something that could help them stay motivated and inspired to continue doing what they are doing so that one day they might be able to get a piece of the artistic pie?
There's the cliché that's always said because it makes sense; that you have to shoot for yourself and don't think about shooting what you think whoever it is you want to sell your photo to wants, shot what you think is interesting, look for a moment, shoot for a moment and try to discover your unique point of view, your perspective, what makes you different from other people. When I get bored with something and its not happening and the bands not interesting or even if they are, you have to take chances. Blow the shutter speed out, pan along with them; pull the camera out, shoot from under their feet. Give yourself the opportunity for something exciting to happen. Some of the times when you're down in the pits, it's discouraging, you have three songs, and you don't have a lot of time but if you're standing where everyone else is standing try going where nobody else is standing. Everybody else is standing in the good spot because it's the good spot, the sweat spot.
Eddie Vedder by Danny Clinch
There are definitely a lot of people in that spot.
But if you go down the line and you choose to shoot all the way stage right or stage left and shoot down the line, you have less chance of getting a mic in someone's face. Just try to do something that everyone else is not doing. Experiment. My feeling is that everybody is trying to search for their style and I feel like everyone should just let their style happen. I love old cars, old motorcycles, shit like that. I came across this guy and this book that he made, I can't remember his name. But it was a book that this guy made and he basically went out to the Salt Flats where they race these really cool hot rods. He went out to the Flats and befriended these sort of greaser motor-heads, and he just spent his time photographing it and to me, that told me a lot about the photographer. You know, and he didn't do it because he thought you would like it, he didn't do it because he thought I would like it, he didn't do it because he thought some art director was going to like it, he did it because he loved it! And when you see those pictures you can tell that guy has a love of that stuff. And that's why I did music, because I love music, and I love musicians. I'm grateful that there are people out there making music because it means so much to me on several levels, it means a lot of things to me at different times, like I'm sure it does to everybody else, so I went after that cause I love it. If your passionate about something and you go after it full force, hopefully your going to find like minded people who love music or love hotrods and they are going to hire you to shoot stuff that you love to shoot instead of you going out and saying "Well alright I'm going to shoot this boring shot of this egg, because I know someone who might hire me to shoot an egg." Then you end up getting hired to shoot that, and you don't even like shooting that. Let people follow you into your passion, and then your rockin'. Then you're walking in the woods at Moby's house.
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