If there’s an artist in the rock or rap pantheon that famed photog Danny Clinch hasn’t shot at least once, I don’t know who it is. From Johnny Cash to Tupac, he’s set his lens on the best of them, and the results are as iconic as the figures he’s captured. A few years ago, Clinch started branching out into film—he’s shot shorts of Jay-Z (NY-Z) and full lengths of Ben Harper (Pleasure and Pain), among others. But it was Clinch’s live action madness for Tom Waits’ “Lie to Me” that really got me giddy. So when someone from Dewar’s rang and asked me if I’d like to meet Clinch over drinks at The W, it took me all of one second to say “yes!”
Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne, Jay-Z, Eddie Vedder, the list is endless—is there anyone you haven’t photographed but want to? I’d like to have my couple minutes with Keith Richards. I’ve had a couple live opportunities, but no one-on-one as of yet.
Who was the most fun? Tom Waits, when we were shooting for Orphans up in Northern California. First of all he showed up with a truck full of vintage gear—bullhorns and speakers and cassette decks and amplifiers. And he said ‘C’mon, we’re gonna build a speaker cabinet!’ And I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ So we got our coffee and we spent an hour building this thing out of all this crap he brought along.
I dig that clip! It looks like that Dr. Parnassus movie he was in. Yeah, exactly. So we set it up and he pulled out his guitar to make like it was plugged into this monstrosity. Then he went ‘Oh, man. It would be great if we could shoot this as a video.’ And I was like ‘I don’t have a video camera, but I can put my 35mm on motor drive and we can shoot it like that. It won’t sync up, and it’ll look all screwy, but…’ Waits said ‘Yeah!’ And then he went crazy, jumping up and down with his guitar, moving back and forth in front of the camera, he just went nuts!
Who was your most unfun subject? I would say the most unfun was the guitar player from System of a Down…. (long pause)
No further comment? I could say a lot of things but I won’t.
I wish I could write a disgusted head shake into this, but we’ll leave it at that. (Both laugh)
You got your kickstart with Annie Leibovitz, who I’ve also interviewed. What was the most important thing she taught you? The first thing that comes to my mind is to not take ‘No’ for an answer. That there’s always a way to make something work, you just have to figure it out. Her whole crew that surrounded her, their job was to do whatever she asked them to do. They never said no.
She just had a way—I mean, you can see it in her photographs—of having people, though they were posed, look completely relaxed and in the moment. And I hope that rubbed off on me a little bit.
You got a Grammy nomination for your dual-disc bio for Springsteen’s Devils and Dust. Any similar projects coming up? Yeah, I was just down in New Orleans and I filmed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing with My Morning Jacket.
You did it on site, without a/c, amid all those ghostly paintings they have there at Pres Hall? Yeah, it was wild.
Is that a short or full-length? Full-length. We’re hoping to set an example for other artists by showing that Preservation Hall is a national treasure, and if you come down and make some music with these cats, we’ll film it.
That’s fantastic. I’m also cutting a documentary on Ryan Adams that I shot when he did Cold Roses, Jacksonville, and 29.
Live stuff? Some, but it’s more vérité stuff we did in New York.
Are these all projects with your production company, Three on the Tree? Yes, there all for Three on the Tree.
Are there partners we should mention? No, actually, the name comes from when I was a kid. My dad drove an old Ford Econoline van that had three on the tree [three gears on the steering column]. We also had an old Falcon wagon that had three on the tree, too. One day, someone asked me the name of my production company, and I blurted out “Three on the Tree.” It stuck.
How’d you get involved with Dewar’s, anyway? Let’s see, I originally did a job with Dewar‘s photographing in Hong Kong. It was a lifestyle shoot for the Asian market. It was a great job, we had a great time, I worked really hard, and we got a lot of great results. So they had me on their radar. Then someone contacted my other agent and said, ‘Look, we’re doing a redesign of the bottles, and we’d like Danny to photograph them.’ So I asked them if they wanted lifestyle shots, a party, or what. And Dewar’s said ‘No, we want you to shoot the bottles.’”
Is this your first time shooting product? It is. But there’s something cool about switching up, and we just went for it.
The results are classic. Thanks!
Speaking of classic, Dewar’s is kinda like the classic rock of scotch, isn’t it? (Laughs) Yeah, I like that line. Now you’ve gotta have a drink with me.
I would but I’ve got another interview ahead and I’m afraid it might mellow me out. Nothing’s gonna mellow you out, Hood.