“It’s Just About the Document”: An Interview with Danny Clinch

He's an iconic photographer for rock stars such as the Beastie Boys and Bruce Springsteen. Here, he talks about his first book and the stories behind some of his most memorable images.

Danny Clinch has photographed Pearl Jam numerous times throughout the band’s career. He first got shots of the band’s lead singer Eddie Vedder at Lollapalooza in 1992 for a publication and then, later on, was hired directly by the band to take photos at live shows and produce promotional materials, including films like the Immagine in Cornice tour documentary and a shorter promo video for Pearl Jam’s most recent album Lightning Bolt (Clinch can be seen rocking out with Vedder in the car). My enthusiasm for Pearl Jam is what led me to become familiar with Clinch’s compositions.

Pearl Jam in 2013 / Courtesy of Danny Clinch

For over 20 years, Clinch has collaborated with artists who have left an indelible impression on the musical landscape including Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Green Day. This year, he added Fleetwood Mac to that list (though he had worked with Stevie Nicks once before). Clinch also devoted time this year to sifting through contact sheets to find images for inclusion in his first monograph release, Still Moving (the title is borrowed from Willie Nelson’s song “Still is Still Moving to Me”). [Full disclosure: I am employed by Abrams, the publisher of the book. I had no involvement in the book’s development, but I was quite impressed by an early advance.]

Inside the book, you won’t find a whole lot of text, though Springsteen provided an introduction and, in a photo, a note from 2Pac reads, “If a picture is worth a thousand words / Photographers R worth a million!” Clinch demarcates sections with short insights however. Each concise slice offers a glimpse into the photographer’s life; there is one where Clinch expresses gratitude for the relationships he has fostered. These strong bonds have solidified Clinch’s reputation as a premier music photographer.

Clinch’s career began humbly: he was an intern for Annie Leibowitz. “At the time I was going to a lot of concerts and sneaking my camera in. Then I started to assist other people and [got] interested in photography. I was a big fan of Annie Leibowitz, so I started to lean towards the celebrity [and] music kind of stuff. It just so happened that, through working with Annie, the other assistants surrounding her and the people in that circle were music, fashion, and culture people. I got into the music scene by one of the girlfriends of someone I had met through the Annie team. [She] worked at Spin magazine and started to give me some assignments.”

I wondered what artist Clinch had the privilege of shooting for his first assignment. “For Spin, it was 3rd Bass, the hip-hop group. I was really nervous. I was super nervous. I didn’t know if I could do it or not and thought to myself, ‘let’s see what happens.’ I went and met them at this location. At the end of the day, I remember coming back and I had a couple Polaroids. I came back and said ‘You know what? That felt really good. I think I can do this.'”

And so he did. These days, Clinch is rarely without his trusty digital Leica (either the M6 or M), his go-to camera if he’s ever in a pinch, and he appreciates the convenience of digital photography. “It’s funny when I think about it there [are] these different eras — you used to sneak your camera in, then you didn’t have to sneak it in. Now people shoot with their phones or the snapshot cameras. If you have a front row seat and a decent camera, if you’re a good photographer you might be able to get something. Back in the day it was, pockets full of film, sneak a lens in in your pocket, trying to hide your camera somewhere.

“Digital photography has changed my work in the sense that I can be a lot more mobile. You don’t have to be carrying all these rolls of film. I roam around a lot, as a documentary photographer or someone who goes to concerts and shoots backstage. I always had to have pockets of film with me. Then, once I had a shot roll of film, I would just put it in my pocket. I didn’t want to put it in a bag and I didn’t want to put it somewhere where somebody could take it or I would lose it. ‘Cause your images were there you know? Today you can shoot a thousand trains on one card. So you don’t have to carry all that stuff.

“The other thing I like a lot about digital photography is the ability to shoot in very low light. It really has changed a lot of things. You can shoot in extremely low light that you couldn’t shoot in before when shooting film.”

The weekend before this conversation took place, Clinch was in California directing a live-streaming The Head and the Heart performance for TourGigs (which primarily offers jam band concert videos). The site had offered him the position of Creative Director. “I shoot a lot of concert films and I had become friends with these guys who were creating a very small company that would do a very small footprint concert film. Almost like a bootleg, you know? I liked the idea of coming in really lo-fi, and creating, like, a cool little capture of a concert that is unobtrusive to the fans and to the band. So I signed on to help bump the visual style of the company.”

Live-streaming the show is a different animal from the other concert films Clinch has done and it had its own set of challenges. “The challenge was to try to do something cool in the opening where the band walks on the stage. We did a time-lapse before the show started and we loaded that in. Then we had to time the time-lapse with the band walking to the stage. I had my one camera operator laying on his back, ’cause [the group does] almost like a huddle. You know how football players get in, put all their hands in and then say a little motivational thing to each other and then they do the hands up? We timed that right and it actually worked out. I was a little concerned there that it wouldn’t, but it did work out, it was cool.”

Beastie Boys in 1998 / Courtesy of Danny Clinch

After he referenced the huddle, I mentioned that one of my favorite photos in Still Moving is of Ad-Rock, MCA. and Mike D backstage, psyching themselves up for a performance. He first met the Beastie Boys in the late ’90s at one of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. “The publicist for the Concert for a Free Tibet basically said that if I wanted to come to these concerts the Beastie Boys were putting on, then she would give me an all access pass as long as I would let her use the photos. She kept her word and I got to know the band, and a bunch of other bands, that helped me start those super important [relationships].”

Clinch expressed the same sentiments regarding that photo before he went on to discuss another of his favorites. “I would say that one of my favorite images is that Beastie Boys in the huddle [one] because really it’s just about the document. It’s about the moment. I was just so lucky to be in that spot and to be able to shoot that photo. I thought that was really cool.

“Also the Bruce Springsteen ‘Devils and Dust photo’, I call it. The one that’s the contact sheet and then there’s the photo next to it. I love the fact that that was one of those moments where I realized that I couldn’t really believe I actually was doing this photograph. Shooting this portrait of Bruce Springsteen at his house, just kind-of blew my mind.”

Sometimes Clinch works behind the scenes, like with the Beastie Boys. Sometimes he is in a studio, as he was with Springsteen. Sometimes he travels to a destination, like the trip to Hawaii where he made the Vedder image that graces the cover of Still Moving. Then there are other times when Clinch is right up on the stage with the band. One remarkable stage-shot photo is centered on Dave Grohl with a roaring audience behind him. “That shot was taken in Scotland at a festival. I asked the [Foo Fighters] if I could go on stage, as long as I stayed out of the way. I thought it was a great way to get all the atmosphere of the whole entire show. You see the artists and you see the fans and you see what kind of venue they’re in and all that sort of stuff. I’ve always loved that.”

Whether it is an energetic link between a band and its fans or the cherished bonds he’s forged with an artist, Clinch revels in connections; the vitality infuses his work. Still Moving contains more than just captured moments, the appealing photos convey stories that persist beyond the pages. “It’s a book for music fans as well as photography fans. I feel lucky that I have been able to photograph such a huge group of musicians and not just one genre. I have Tupac Shakur and then I have Willie Nelson and I have everybody in between.”