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Behind The Lens

How to Befriend Your Music Idols

Legendary music photographer Danny Clinch has hung out with Tupac, Radiohead, and got Bruce Springsteen to write the foreword to his book.

James Brown shot by Danny Clinch

There’s an old superstition that says when you’re photographed, your soul is stolen. If you buy into that, Danny Clinch is in the business of stealing souls. He captures his subjects with remarkable honesty; souls are bared.

For the past 25 years, Clinch has navigated the world of music’s biggest stars through a camera lens. Intimate shots are his specialty with Clinch finding the beauty in quiet backstage scenes. It can be jarring to see photos of so many big names—Jay Z, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith—casually wandering streets or waiting to appear onstage but that's Clinch's gift: presenting musical greats as almost-normal people.

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This September, Clinch is immortalizing his portfolio in print. His book Danny Clinch: Still Moving is a collection of album and magazine covers, shots taken from the middle of concert crowds and behind the scenes, and plenty of never before seen material.

After two plus decades of photographing stars, he's obviously got some good stories to tell. Here, we talked to him about befriending Radiohead, shooting Tupac, and how to get backstage.

Beastie Boys shot by Danny Clinch

Have you ever convinced an artist to do something that they would have not normally done?
Danny Clinch: I don’t really try to push people to do something that they’re not interested in doing but I like to instigate them to get excited about what we’re doing, start to throw ideas around and then it becomes a collaboration, Like the photo of Radiohead I took back in the day. We were doing a shoot for a magazine and everybody was sitting on this bench on the side of the street on 6th Avenue and Thom Yorke stood up. I asked him to stand on the bench and I shot a couple of frames. He said, 'How ‘bout this?,' leaped into the air and did a big karate kick and so I shot that frame and he only did it once. He’s hanging in the air above the rest of the band and it was a spontaneous moment. I buried Redman up to his neck for the Dare Iz A Darkside record but that was something that we had planned together. It’s cool that people are willing to collaborate and go the extra mile to create something cool.

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Talking about your upcoming book, what are some of your favorite images from that?
I like the pairing of things. There’s a pairing that has Jay Z on one side and Tony Bennett on the other and why would those two be together? Because they’re both super interesting people who are owning it. There’s a new image of Tupac that I have in there—if it has been published, it hasn’t been published a bunch—so I’m excited about that. There’s some great Tom Waits [photos] in there. There are some Neil Young photos that I love.

Bruce Springsteen wrote the foreword to the book which is super exciting for me. There’s some good Springsteen photos in there as well. The way it’s broken up, it’s not only live concert stuff, it’s backstage stuff, hanging out, relationships that have taken me ten years to build that I love. Being on the road with Radiohead on the back of a ferry going over to Liberty State park are things you can’t really get unless you have spent a lot of time and invested in a lot of time in a good relationship with people so that they trust you.

How did your relationship with Radiohead start?
I met Radiohead when they first came to America with the "Creep" single. We were going to do a shoot together and they were really happy with the photos. So when they were coming to town, they would call me and we would hang out and I would shoot photos, whether it was social or I had an assignment. I think it’s important that you’re choosy about what photos you publish, that you make sure everybody’s comfortable. Some people enjoy trying to get the scandalous photos out there and putting people in compromising positions but that’s just not my style.

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What would you say your style is instead?
It’s photograph as a document, on the more artistic side of things. A portrait can be really powerful but I also like to pull back and show atmosphere, capture a moment that makes it real. It’s not flashy, it’s soulful and authentic. You hear those words all the time but it feels right to me.

Nas shot by Danny Clinch

Recently you shot Ringo for John Varvatos. Can you talk a little about that experience?
This is my twentieth campaign with him. John is a huge lover of music. Rock 'n' roll has certainly influenced his brand. We had shot Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Green Day, Jimmy Page, Eric Carr Jr. and then KISS—where do you go from there? This year we went to the Grammys and John reconnected with Ringo. I think he was wearing something of John's and we were like, 'Man, we got to try for Ringo.’We reached out to his manager and publicist and they were onboard. We built the campaign around Ring's charity, Peace Rocks. Certainly Ringo doesn’t need the money, he wanted to be able to help support his charity and bring attention to it. He’s super psyched to be on board. He was quoted as saying that he’s always wanted to be a male model.

The cool thing about the John Varvatos stuff is that it’s one of those things that’s helped me transition into filmmaking. I’ve been making films since the early 90s like that documentary on Ben Harper, but I decided to venture into filmmaking and when I started the John Varvatos campaign. I started to bring my Bolex camera. I said to John, 'If you don’t mind, I’m just going to shoot some b-roll stuff that I can put up on my website,' and he was like, 'Yeah, sure.' It turned into now that we really think about the campaign not only from a still aspect but also from a film standpoint for me as a director.

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Adam Yauch shot by Danny Clinch

If you were going to give any tips to aspiring photographers what would they be?
Last night when I was at Action Bronson's show, there was a photographer there and he had given somebody a gift frame. When I started shooting, you met people all the time who are letting you in going, 'Oh yeah, you can come behind here where nobody else is and shoot a picture.' Or you'd get a publicist who said, 'I’m going to let you shoot the whole set instead of the first three songs.' There are people who help you out along the way and I feel like it’s always nice to gift them a print. Sure the artist is going to get a print of themself but there are also people who help you down the road and they will really appreciate one too. Give them a gift frame, they appreciate it, and when they see you the next time, they let you shoot the whole set again and it’s the start of the relationship.

Danny Clinch: Still Moving is out September 23. You can pre-order it now over at Amazon.

Follow Aliza on Twitter - @AlizaAbarbanel.

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