Our Man in Miami: Drinking Dewar’s at The W with Danny Clinch

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.

Industry Insiders: Danny Clinch, Rock Star Photog

Danny Clinch’s images of rock stars, his travels, his life, and everyday events will adorn the walls of the new W South Beach opening in May 2009. An excitable Clinch talks about these new opportunities, his style of work, and the photos he’s about to unveil at the new W.

What’s your job description? I photograph musicians for the most part. That’s how I make my living, and I do some advertising work. I did the John Varvatos campaigns, which I’m really proud of. I also do a lot of album covers and album packaging and publicity. It’s a great gig — I can be as creative as I want because there aren’t really any rules working with musicians. I like to photograph on location or go to a situation or atmosphere and photograph. I make concert films and documentaries and a couple of music videos here and there.

What are you working on now? John Varvatos’ wife has always been a curator of art, and we were talking about this project that she was working on at the W. She wanted to see more of my personal work, like images of records and trapezes and surfboards and things that were more personal and not necessarily musician-oriented. They wanted to use my art work for the entire hotel. Then we started to go through more of my work, and they decided that in the rooms … they would stick with more abstract images that were not about the subject, but more about the photograph. They also decided to use my large photographs on the landings of the elevator. Each floor will have just one large photograph. For that, we tried to pick things that were really portrait-oriented.

Are you happy about joining forces with the W? Yes. I think that it’s all about publicity and promoting yourself in the sense that it’s like a gallery show. Art Basel in Miami has become an institution down there. There are people from all over the world who show up and will be staying at the W during that time. I made some photography books around 10 years ago, with old photos of mine, and they’ve offered to put these books in the hotel as well. It’s an opportunity to promote myself. To really boil it down, it’s a great opportunity for me to showcase my work somewhere where there are people who can afford to buy gallery prints.

Are these books available anywhere else? You can get them at the Morrison Hotel gallery and at John Varvatos stores. These books are pretty cool for music fans. I did the second book around the concerts the Beastie Boys put on for Free Tibet. I photographed everything around those shows.

Is this the first time you are showing your work outside of rock stars? In the gallery shows that I’ve had, I would display images that might not be of a celebrity. It might be their hand or the back of their head or something where it was not quite so obvious. This was my first real opportunity to get people to recognize my personal photographs. It will open my work up to people who maybe aren’t big music fans. Although I can’t imagine someone not being a big music fan — because that’s my life. There are people who don’t really pay it much mind, so it’s an opportunity to tap into another market.

Where are your favorite places? If you ever go to Nashville, go to the downtown strip there. Around lower Broadway. There are a couple places, first is Tootsies Orchid Lounge. People like Hank Williams and George Jones and all those old country guys would walk from the Ryman Auditorium across the alley. There’s also Roberts and The Bluegrass Inn.

Photo: Danny Clinch Photography/Levine/Leavitt