Danny Clinch Finds His Fire in the Flash With 'Walls of Sound'
Danny Clinch poses in front of his portrait of Green Day at "Walls of Sound."
Nicole Fara Silver for the Village Voice
Ask most photographers what makes a great image and they'll tell you it's about control. Control over your settings. Control over your lighting. Control over your concept. But for Danny Clinch, the magic is in the chaos. With a portfolio ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Jay-Z, Willie Nelson, Patti Smith, and Björk, he possesses an uncanny ability to find calm in the eye of the storm — and freeze it.
It's easy to say Clinch holds the keys to the music industry's visual history. "Walls of Sound," Clinch's self-described retrospective, is proof. The exhibit, which runs at Milk Gallery through April 15, is a true celebration of love, music, and the people who dare to make it. Just six months after publishing his latest book, Still Moving, Clinch dove back into his archives, searching through the material captured in decades long gone for never-before-seen work. He surprised his studio manager, with whom he's worked for eighteen years, and even himself with what he found. These forgotten images form an immense triangular collage on the far wall of the gallery, a place where energetic photos of festival crowds mingle with snapshots of friends hanging out before work. The thing is, "work" is a massive stage or the frenzy unfolding behind the scenes at a sold-out stadium or major music festival, and these friends happen to be Eddie Vedder, Trey Anastasio, and Dave Matthews.
Slideshow: Rock Icons Photographed by Danny Clinch
One gem that Clinch was most excited to rediscover was an image of the Beastie Boys from Lollapalooza in 1994. Unlike his usual photos of the group, this one feels as if it could have been torn straight from Ad-Rock's personal photo album. "They were playing basketball with Anthony Mason, who just passed away, and then we all jumped into the pool," Clinch recalls. "I was digging through my archives and I found this and I was like, 'Holy cow!' What I like about it is most of my Beastie Boys photos are very posed....[This is] not a captured moment, so to speak, but...they look like regular dudes." Clinch excels at capturing the moments in between, pulling the curtain back on the legend and revealing the artists to be, in this case, nothing more than "regular dudes" named Mike, Adam, and Adam.
The ability to achieve such an unmasking is a talent in and of itself. No matter if you are a Grammy-winning artist or a devoted fan, standing in front of a camera can be one of the most vulnerable experiences in the world. Do I look OK? Where do I put my hands? Did I blink? Insecurities you didn't even know you suffered instantly rise to the surface. And standing behind the lens can be equally uncomfortable.
It's the knack Clinch has developed for trusting the process (and his subjects) that enables him to form a lasting bond with anyone who ends up in front of his camera — so much so that his subjects often become lifelong friends and collaborators. "Having done it so many times, I trust that a great moment will present itself," he says. "I always prepare, and I've learned not to over-prepare. When I was younger, I just used to just be so incredibly stressed about 'Do I have a concept?' and 'What are my ideas?' I'm not really a super-conceptual photographer. I'm a moment guy, and a guy who responds to the atmosphere, and so I kind of want to know where I'm going to be shooting. I have a couple of simple ideas in my head that I can fall back on, and then hopefully I get there and I don't have to fall back on them." Danny Clinch walks into a room knowing it's all going to be OK — and then, all of a sudden, you know it too.
One of Clinch's portraits of the Beastie Boys
Courtesy of Danny Clinch
Walking down memory lane also inspired a new project. In a wonderfully nerdy homage to friend and guitarist Tom Morello's car (a 1972 Dodge Demon), Clinch teamed up with Alex Nowak to create Motor Drive, a limited-edition art book featuring musicians posing with their various means of transportation: planes, trains, automobiles, you name it. Only 340 copies have been printed, one for every cubic inch of Morello's 340-horsepower Mopar engine. The selection of photos, which dominate a large corner of "Walls of Sound," includes images of Chuck Berry and his Cadillac, Nas and his Bentley, and Public Enemy and their muscle cars. One print of contact sheet features a series of photos of a scruffy-looking kid leaning against his car. It may not be the flashiest or the first photo to hit you when you walk over (it is competing with Green Day, after all), but it points to a process not often seen these days, when photographers mainly shot on film and used brightly colored grease pencils to select the images they liked most, instead of putting a string of stars next to them in Adobe Bridge. The stories behind the photos are just as colorful as the personalities and rides they contain. Clinch was in New York City one day when he ran into Marky Ramone, and an unexpected intruder livened up his subsequent shot. "I was hanging out, shooting photos of him with his car, and while we were there, all of a sudden some dude rides up on a bicycle and I'm trying to frame him out," he says. "I'm like, 'God, that guy is in my photo!' and then I realize it's Johnny Ramone! And so then I started to frame him in."
Despite the magnetic clutches of spontaneity that snare Clinch on the regular, he craves some structure once in a while. This is evident in a series of black-and-white portraits at the entrance of the gallery, which include Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop, Kim Deal, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. "I was doing a series of images that were done with the 4x5 camera," he says, standing in front of his famous portrait of Tupac, which he shot for Rolling Stone in 1993. "I really felt like a lot of my stuff is captured moments, very loose and fast and dancing around. This was slowed down, put the hood over your head — very deliberate."
Slideshow: Rock Icons Photographed by Danny Clinch
Peppered throughout the rest of the exhibit are even more memories from the past, with all-access passes, Polaroid photos, and handwritten notes arranged beneath the protective cover of glass cases. All of these touches play their own part in creating a quiet understanding in the viewer: Clinch's photo of the Beastie Boys from 1994 feels like a page torn out of their family photo album — because, in reality, it's a photo torn from his own.
Clinch has built a career and a life out of being a fixture in the frenetic backstage rooms of our dreams, and it's hard to believe that after so much time spent in the presence of greatness one would emerge so down to earth. Just like many of his subjects, Clinch has proven that he has the determination and the guts to keep forging ahead in an industry where the art you make may not reach its peak for twenty years. But it's the lessons that Clinch has taken away from his subjects, his friends, that made all the difference.
"This is what I've learned: I would say that the great musicians — Eddie Vedder, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ryan Adams, Björk, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams; I could go on and on — they don't go 75 percent. They don't go 85 percent. They don't go 99 percent. It's 100 percent all the time. Like, Bruce Springsteen: If he sits down with his guitar here to play you a song, he would play it for you like he was playing for 90,000 people. He would give that. And I think so would Patti Smith. And so would Lucinda Williams. So that says to me, maybe I'm doing an editorial shoot and I'm getting paid $300 and then maybe I'm doing a shoot for more...it doesn't matter. I'm going to give the same amount over here as I am giving over there. I'm just that way anyway. But then when I see someone like Eddie Vedder or I see someone like Bruce or Patti Smith, it just reignites that fire in me. It's the passion that drives them. And the passion that drives me."
Danny Clinch's "Walls of Sound" is on view at the Milk Gallery through April 6. For more information, check out the Milk Gallery here.
See Also: Slideshow: Rock Icons Photographed by Danny Clinch In Defense of the Beastie Boys' To the 5 Boroughs The 60 Best Songs Ever Written About New York City Five Geeky Questions For Storied Rock Photographer Mick Rock
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