From the earliest days of rock, photographers like Jim Marshall, Baron Wolman, Henry Diltz and Herb Greene got up-close and personal with the “stars,” shooting them in the backseats of cars, backstage at gigs and generally just hanging out between performances and on the road. The best music photographers do not just document a band, they become participants—more than a fan and less than a member—integral components of the scene. Danny Clinch has taken on that role in the modern music world, following in the footsteps of his mentor Jim Marshall.
He has photographed a wide range of artists from Neil Young to Björk, from Tom Waits to Tupac Shakur. His work frequently appears in the pages of Rolling Stone, Spin, Vanity Fair, GQ and Esquire. Clinch has fused rock and fashion in a gritty ad campaign for fashion designer John Varvatos featuring the likes of Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick, among others. He has published two books, Discovery Inn, a collection of his photographs, and When the Iron Bird Flies (2000), documenting the Tibetan Freedom Concerts 1996 – 1999, and he photographed the 2000 tour book for the proto-punk band Rage Against the Machine. He has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, for the video portion of Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust and for the 2008 John Mayer concert film Where the Light Is, and he recently shot Absolut’s campaign for their Rock Edition bottle (In an Absolut World You’re With the Band) featuring Wolfmother.
He frequents rock events like Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, and San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. “It's about five days,” Clinch explains, “and I set up a portrait area and I direct the filming of the main stage and the second stage, and have made two films of Bonnaroo.” Big productions seem to be second nature for the 45-year-old photographer. Red Bull hired Clinch in 2007 to set up a studio in the basement of a four-star hotel in Aspen and document the winning photographers of the first-ever international action and adventure sports photography competition, Illume Image Quest. I was honored to have been one of the 50 judges for Illume, and had the opportunity to see Clinch in action as he directed, cajoled and coaxed sports heroes, judges and winning photographers in an hours-long photo session. His spontaneity and creativity, and his calm, genuine personality brought out the best in everyone.
Clinch divides his time between a photography studio in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood he bought eight years ago, and the Jersey Shore where he lives with his wife Maria and their two children, Marina, ten and Max, twelve. He recently finished an extensive renovation of the studio but he mostly shoots on location in music-rich places like Los Angeles, Austin, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville.
He grew up on the Jersey Shore in Toms River, and remembers being interested in art and photography as a kid. “My mom always had a camera and was always taking family snapshots,” he relates. “I remember buying one at a garage sale down the street from us. I was always a music fan and going to concerts. When I was sixteen and taking my camera into concerts, I didn’t know what career I wanted.” It soon dawned on him that combining the two interests could be the answer. So Clinch went to a local community college, enrolled in their visual communications program where he learned how to develop film, and work in the darkroom. He then attended the New England School of Photography in Kenmore Square in Boston and cites Susan Wilson, a teacher who often photographed musicians, as supportive of his photojournalism project to document bands.
He began his career trajectory as an assistant to award-winning celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz. After taking an Ansel Adams workshop, he met her assistant David Rose and was invited to work at Liebovitz’s studio. “That was fantastic,” he says of that period. He then went on to work with Steven Meisel and Mary Ellen Mark, before he ended up meeting Timothy White. “What I really admire about Timothy is he was very unselfish; he very much included me in everything, meetings with stylists and clients, he would invite me along to be part of the experience.” White sensed that for Clinch this was the real deal, he was going to be a pro. And today in his own studio Clinch says, “I try to do that with my team—a good strong family of people.”
Clinch is a master of black-and-white photography, but also works in color and varies the format of his portraiture. He has not embraced digital photography wholeheartedly like many of his contemporaries, although he removed the darkroom from his studio and now has someone else produce his prints. “I’m an analog guy. My new studio is set up to embrace a more organized lifestyle,” he says with a laugh, “which I need, and to embrace the idea of editing digitally. It allows me to be home more by working over the Internet. I’ve shot some digital still photography. In the end if I’m shooting something and I have a choice, I’d rather shoot film,” he concludes.
Clinch relates a story that demonstrates conclusively that he has found the perfect career for himself. Last year was Bruce Springsteen’s 60th birthday and in the fall Clinch rented a gallery in Asbury Park for six weeks and mounted a show of his New Jersey photos of Springsteen. “On the last day, he and Patty [Scialfa] showed up to walk through the show with me,” he says. Clinch’s dad, Max, was there to help him take the photos down. “Bruce showed up in a 1951 Hudson. My dad told them he used to have a 1949 Hudson convertible. So Patty said, ‘Come on Max, you have to drive the car.’” So with Bruce Springsteen riding shotgun, Clinch’s dad drove them around Asbury Park: Just another day in the life of a rock photographer.
“Danny is a consummate music fan and it shows in his work. His subjects are always shown with respect, honesty and occasionally a hint of intimacy that gives the viewer a chance to see something new,” says Jim deBarros, vice president MTV Off-Air Creative. “Whenever I’ve chosen him for a project, it’s because I want that mix of honesty and intimacy he brings to a portrait. Danny makes it fun for the artists as well, earning their trust and encouraging them to reveal something. He’s a real gentleman.”
Jeff Immel, Arc Worldwide art director, who worked with Clinch on a campaign for Blackberry starring John Mayer, agrees. “We chose Danny to shoot for us because he’s the perfect ‘fly-on-the-wall’ when it comes to capturing a musician doing what they do. He understands the art of music so well, understands the personalities, and that each performer is comfortable in different ways. He uses that knowledge—and therefore can get closer and more intimate with his subjects than anyone else. He’s captured some of music’s biggest names in some of the most striking moments of their careers, not by getting in the way, not by setting up shots or creating scenarios, but by being able to sense a genuinely unique moment as it happens.” This description fits Clinch’s sense of the vérité moments he aims for, but that cannot be planned in advance.
Clinch first met legendary San Francisco photographer Jim Marshall in 1999 around the time of the publication of his first book, Discovery Inn. For several years he has been working on a documentary film about Marshall. His initial meeting, at Marshall’s long, narrow apartment near San Francisco’s Castro District, demonstrates both Marshall’s volatile nature and his stringent expectations. Clinch stopped by with his family, and a small portfolio of prints. Marshall turned each print over, and not finding the technical information he inscribes on each of his own photographs, carefully tore several of them in half. Later, after a bottle of bourbon was uncorked, he relented and reexamined the work, and a relationship was born.
When asked about Clinch, Marshall replies in his deep raspy voice, with great affection and respect, “Danny is very much the me of now.”
Like other still photographers Clinch has branched into moving images; he founded Three On The Tree Productions, a Grammy-nominated, New York City-based boutique film company in 2003. He has directed music videos and short films for Pearl Jam, John Mayer, The Dead, Harley-Davidson—featuring Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters—among others. He draws inspiration from directors Robert Frank and Danny Lyon and received acclaim for his documentary film, Pleasure and Pain profiling bluesman Ben Harper over the course of eighteen months onstage and off. “It’s a time capsule of where Ben was ten years ago,” Clinch says.
Whether it’s a young Green Day photographed in the trunk of a New Orleans taxi, David Byrne in a New York trash can or Bob Dylan reading a newspaper in a Los Angeles hotel lobby, he seems to tap into something beneath the surface stardom of his subjects, something real, something profound, if only for that fraction of a second when the shutter clicks, showing musicians largely unposed and free of artifice. ca