An Intimate Conversation with Danny Clinch: His Latest Exhibit & Love Song to Asbury Park
“You’ll have to excuse me,” smiles Danny Clinch. “My head is hurtin’ a little bit, so maybe we can hang on the couches?” With a cup of coffee in hand and bleariness in his eyes, the famed music photographer explains that he had only gone to sleep a few hours ago. After a performance with his musical group, The Tangiers Blues Band, at a Howard Johnsons-turned-supper club in Asbury Park the night before, Clinch wandered over to his new gallery space at the Asbury Hotel. Sometime around 11:30pm the band had, as the photographer puts it, “a bit of a jam.” Former E-Street Band percussionists Vinny Mad-Dog Lopez and Richard Blackwell stopped by. Another musician dressed in a Safari outfit got on stage at one point and “started barking at people, telling them what to do,” laughs Clinch, who plays the harmonica. Hangover aside, he beams, “it was incredible.”
Though photographers often operate within the binary of “artist” and “subject,” Clinch, 53, has come to inhabit the same world as the icons he captures. In the process of building an oeuvre of work that has offered intimate glimpses into the lives of superstars like Bruce Springsteen, Tupac, BB King and Johnny Cash—Clinch’s own life has become deeply shaped by the road, late night jam sessions and the process of making music. “Transparent,” his newest exhibition that will remain on display at the Asbury Hotel through April, offers a stunning and immersive depiction of this symbiosis.
The light-flooded gallery that also has a stage for musical performances, offers a genre-bending assortment of both Clinch’s most iconic and lesser-known works. There is a story for every image: Green Day after their mudslinging shenanigans at Woodstock ’94 (“One of the security guards was pushing around the fans, so Mike got off stage and went down there. Security thought he was another kid, so they started beating on him”); Willie Nelson recording his 1998 album Teatro in California (“Daniel Lanois told me to come out there so I booked a ticket a few hours later); Springsteen at home playing music from Devils And Dust (“it was the first time anyone had heard the songs”).
For Clinch, who attended the New England School of Photography and worked as an assistant to Annie Leibovitz, the incubation of his dual interests in music and photography began in Asbury. As a teenager he drove from his Toms River hometown to catch sets and take photographs of acts like the Stray Cats and the Greg Allman Band at the now legendary Stone Pony. But when Clinch began focusing solely on music photography in the early 1990’s, Asbury once again became his playground. “When I moved to New York and people didn’t want to shoot in the city, but wanted something that was still gritty, I suggested Asbury,” he recalls of the beach town that was then suffering from high crime rates. “There was nothing here, no businesses. I would go into Convention Hall [on the boardwalk] and there are big huge windows so the light floods in. You could just walk in there and own the place.”
Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball photos were taken at a little bar over on Cookman—the Boss also drove Clinch’s 1948 Pontiac onto the boardwalk one afternoon for a series of images. “I was like, ‘Are we allowed to drive it up on the boardwalk?’” Clinch remembers of the shoot. “Then it was like, “Oh yeah, you’re Bruce Springsteen.”
You’re the first artist to have an exhibit at the new Asbury hotel. How did this collaboration arise?
The hotel had this empty space and winter was approaching, so they offered it to me and put me in touch with a company called Baron and Baron to help plan it out. As soon as we began brainstorming we were like, "How can we make this different than just a regular gallery?” The huge windows in the entrance allowed us to do beautiful transparencies of my work. We also had my friend Tina Kerekes, who sells mid-century furniture and who I met on the boardwalk, come in and curate all the furniture. She helped set a vibe. We decided to put a stage in here to have some music. The idea was to have it be an experience--come in, hang out, bring your coffee in. We wanted to maximize the wall space, so we also brought in moveable walls.
How did you settle on the set-up of the images?
For the biggest wall in the space, I wanted to do a salon-style wall. I was going to frame all of this stuff and then I and then I discovered this board with foam-backing, so I thought it would be cool to come in and freestyle it a little bit. I chose the images and the sizes and we sat here the other night and made a little pod of photos here, a little pod of photos there. I also purposely included some local folks like Nicole Atkins, Brian Fallon and Joe Grushecky.
At The Light Of Day Festival here in Asbury, Joe plays and usually Bruce [Springsteen] comes out and pays. A few years ago Joe invited me to play with his band, who usually ends up backing Bruce. So Joe says, “Bruce is coming out--let's find out where you fit-in on the list!” I was freaked out, I was going to play “Murder Incorporated” on my harmonica. So I'm watching the set list and the song is coming up and coming up and then Bruce and Joe are talking and they're looking at me and they go: “Alright! We're doing ‘Pink Cadillac’ in G!” [laughs] Fortunately I had the right harmonica because I had to play the right key. I came back to Bruce saying something like "And here's our friend Danny! He can sure take a photo but I don't know about his harmonica playing. [laughs].” Then he rips into Pink Cadillac [sings the opening notes] and looked at me like “Go ahead . . ." [laughs]. I laid it all out on the table. I love Joe forever for that.
When did you start working with Bruce?
I had done all the stuff for The Rising in 1999 when he got the E Street Band back together, that's when I started photographing Bruce. Being a guy from New Jersey I was like, "Ok I can die now" after that. And then he was doing Devil' And Dust, and I was like "oh man, it would be so cool if he hired me again." He hired Anton Corden. and I was like "Drats! I got my chance, so it's all good." And then I got a call from management saying "Hey Bruce wants to make a short film about this new record and he wants you to come to the house and film him playing some of these songs." So I went to his place and that photo, [the one in the front of the gallery], comes from that session. I shot it all on super-16 and he played eight songs off the new record; nobody had heard these songs before. When I look at that photograph, it reminds of the moment I was looking through the camera and taking that photo. I remember it being the point in my career when I thought, "How did I end up in Bruce Springsteen's house making this film and taking these photographs.”
Of all the concerts you’ve been to, which sticks out as most epic of all?
Hmmm. The ones that come to my mind immediately as I start to run through my head are some early Radiohead shows that were really spiritual experiences. It brought all of the things that I love about music together. It was rock and roll but it was something unexpected, and then you've got Thom's voice and Johnny's guitar playing. Everything just locks in and it's pretty incredible. I also have been lucky enough to be in some really intimate settings. I remember photographing Johnny Cash and asking him to play something so that I could photograph it, and he played “Bird On A Wire” for me and my two assistants.
Who has been your greatest teacher?
My parents. My Dad passed away in March and my mom will be coming in a little later today. They were always open minded people who were always welcoming to everyone. There was never any discrimination against anyone for any reason--they were always looking after people, helping people. They gave way more than they received and were really content with that. Simple folks, hard working and also they were just really supportive of what I do, regardless of what it was going to be. My father quit school in the eighth grade and became his own business man--hanging wallpaper and painting houses--and they just really showed me that hard work pays off. Being nice to people pays off. They treated people fairly and never judged a book by its cover.
What about creatively?
Creatively, I think I am really inspired by music and by the musicians. It's great to collaborate with Tom Waits. He shows up to a shoot and he has all these toys and all these ideas that he's bringing to the table. And I've got my ideas that I'm bringing to the table and its really a joy to get to do that. Im not a person who ever tries to make someone do something that they don't want to. And I really admire people like Bruce and the Pearl Jam guys who are constantly building a community and giving back to their community. What they do is incredible. I did a film on the Dave Matthews band recently about where they are from and what their charity does. The list of people that they have helped out is ridiculous. I couldn't believe it. 300 charities or something like that.
Your vintage Pontiac is eye-candy. Where’d you find it?
I always joke around and say Tim McGraw bought me that car. I got a great job shooting Tim McGraw and had just moved into our house and had a garage. I was online looking around on eBay . . . it had to be 12 years ago. And I saw that car while we were waiting for Tim to come out to soundcheck. I was like: “That's the car!" It was trained it to the border because it was in Sesaqatchuan, and then flatbedded to my house.
Transparent will be open every day through April 2017 at The Asbury Hotel (210 Fifth Avenue). The exhibit can be accessed through an individual entrance on Kingsley Street. All furniture and artwork on display are available for purchase. Photographs range from $500-$5,000 (Asburyparknow.com/danny-clinch).