Bruce Springsteen, 2005
Tupac Shakur, 1993
Neil Young, 2007
The photographs of Danny Clinch combine a raw immediacy and elegance of composition that makes them unforgettable. Within each photograph is an eternal rhythm that flows when artists come together in the creation of art. Each photograph is a collaboration between photographer and subject that reverberates beyond the frame, drawing the viewer into the experience and making it come alive once again.
The silence of the still image all but evaporates in “Walls of Sound,” a three-decade retrospective of Clinch’s work, is currently on view at Milk Studios through April 11. Everywhere are images, both familiar and unknown, some which have become icons like the cover art for Kanye West’s first album, “The College Dropout” which is hung opposite the Festival Wall, a beautifully collection of unframed images collaged upon the wall, which feature a number of never-before-printed works from Clinch’s tremendous archive.
It is on this wall that some of his oldest photographs hang, including a photograph taken at Live Aid, just moments before Mick Jagger ripped Tina Turner’s leather skirt off her waist. Further along the wall is an eye-catching portrait of The Mighty Clouds of Joy taken at one of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnics. Clinch points to a tiny enamel star that appears on one of the band member’s front teeth, then to the yellow star that he uses in his own logo. It is just this eye for detail that makes each portrait singular and highly personal.
Clinch observes, “I am a big fan of music I am also a big fan of the photograph as a document, as a journalist. I love the real moments and the meaning those images hold. There is an historic quality that you don’t realize at the time as a young man when you are working. Everything is flying by, and it is only as you look back that you begin to realize the people who have really contributed to other people’s lives. Music is the soundtrack to our lives. It means a lot to people on a lot of different levels: to get through hard times, to celebrate, to relax—and these are the people who bring it to them.
“When I get to a shoot, my first question is, ‘Where am I going to do it?’ It’s about the atmosphere, about where this person is at that time in their life. It can be a portrait against a simple backdrop in the studio, and it is still a document.”
This idea is brilliantly illustrated in Clinch’s portrait of Tupac Shakur, a portrait originally taken for Rolling Stone magazine in 1993, which, much like the subject himself, has continued to endure. As Clinch recalls, “I was working with the 4x5 camera as an exercise to counteract the fleeting captured moments that are a big part of how I work. It was a challenge to do these portraits and I saw a lot of moments passing me by while I was stuck under the black cloth, framing and focusing. In the end it was worth it, the beauty of the big negative and the simplicity of the light and background.
“Again, the simple document. I remember Tupac showing up with one other person, while a lot of other Hip-Hop artists arrived with a huge entourage. He was professional and the camera loved him. He was very patient with the process and I only got the shot with his shirt off when he offered to change his shirt for variety and I noticed the tattoos. He was happy to do one without his shirt.”
Tupac, who understood the importance of the visual document and its ability to influence the times, signed his Polaroid from that historic photo shoot to Clinch, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, photographers R worth a million!” A sample of Clinch’s Polaroids from his various shoots throughout the years is on display inside a large vitrine, which showcases signatures from artists as diverse as Nas and Tony Bennett.
Equally comfortable in the studio as he is on the stage, Clinch also has a penchant in photographing in more challenging environments. His photograph of Tom Waits spinning by on a merry-go-round beautifully illustrates this state of constant change that is frozen forever in a single moment, within a single frame. Low light conditions be damned, the photograph must be made.
Despite their stillness and rough-hewn beauty, Clinch’s pictures are almost eerily informed by the motion that preceded their creation and that, it sometimes seems, will instantly resume the moment the viewer turns away. And perhaps it is this ability to seize the moment that makes Clinch a natural.
Of his early years and influences, Clinch remembers, “My mother is still the snapshot queen, She takes photographs at every family event; she always has. Her father also took photographs. I got my first camera at a church function, and I used it until it melted on the dashboard of my mother’s car. Then I got a new one from a yard sale. As I got older, I started going to concerts and bringing my camera. People started asking me ‘What do you want to do?’ and I decided on photography.”
Clinch began his career working for Annie Leibovitz and Steven Meisel. He recalls, “: I was rightfully intimidated working for them, but what I realized was that I was as obsessed about photography and art as they were. And that if I took from them the attributes that suited my personality I could make it work for me. I was excited to see Steven Meisel shoot in natural light. He sees beauty in low light and isn't afraid to use it without a tripod. Leaving room for the happy accident.”
It is in this space of freedom and discovery that Clinch operates best, the space where artists come together to create works of beauty, art, and history. “Walls of Sound” features classic works like Perry Farrell backstage at Madison Square Garden in 2001, quietly observing himself in a mirror, reminding us of the private side of the artist’s life, the time when they must prepare, to don the persona that will carry them forth and allow them to express their love and passion in the aural form, in a way that will bring people together, to transgress all boundaries. Perhaps no image reminds us of this so much as Clinch’s photographs of Metallica playing live at San Quentin prison in 2003, showing us how vital music is to the human spirit. It is in Clinch’s photographs that we remember, and we feel once again, the greatness of wo/mankind that last forever in a single frame.
Norah Jones, 2006
Tom Morello's Dodge Demon, 1999
Stevie Nicks, 2013