Through The GRAMMY Lens With Danny Clinch

Official backstage portrait photographer discusses career and shares colorful GRAMMY memories
  • Photo: Bruce Springsteen
    Danny Clinch
February 08, 2012 -- 3:50 am PST
By John Sutton-Smith /

After that breathtaking moment when they accept their award before an audience of their peers and millions of fans on television, one of the first individuals a GRAMMY winner meets after walking off stage is Danny Clinch. At that moment, while caught in a whirlwind of emotion and excitement, music's top artists immediately step into Clinch's backstage photo studio for their official GRAMMY winner portrait.

Clinch has been the official backstage GRAMMY photographer dating back to the 45th Annual GRAMMY Awards in New York in 2003. A veteran photographer, video and commercial director, Clinch has also worked with iconic artists such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tupac Shakur, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Spin, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Magazine, and his photographs have appeared on album covers such as Springsteen's GRAMMY-winning album The Rising. Clinch has received two GRAMMY nominations himself for Best Long Form Video,  one for Springsteen's Devils & Dust in 2005 and the other for John Mayer's Where The Light Is — Live In Los Angeles in 2008.

With his experience and keen eye, coupled with an intimate atmosphere and the euphoria of winning music's highest honor, Clinch's GRAMMY portraits are not only revealing, but as eclectic as the genres making up the GRAMMYs' 78 categories. In advance of his 10th telecast, the photographer shared a few colorful career recollections and some of the memorable moments in his exclusive role behind the GRAMMY lens.

Which came first for you, music or photography?
They kind of developed at the same time. I was always interested in art and painting, and my mom took a lot of photographs, she had a snapshot camera. As a young kid I started to go to concerts and I took my camera along with me and tried to get up front. I thought it would be cool to get some photographs and I ended up going to school for photography.

What was the first great shot you took where you went, "I could be good at this"?
When I was a kid I got a really great shot of David Lee Roth at a Van Halen show. In terms of music, that picture got me excited.

What was the shot you first sold?
It was probably a shoot for Spin magazine where I photographed the band 3rd Bass. They were on Def Jam Records and there weren't a lot of big-name photographers shooting hip-hop artists. And I was just happy to run film through my camera; you know, I was just happy to have assignments. We [then] did Public Enemy and LL Cool J and it opened up a lot of doors.

What was the first GRAMMY show you worked?
I believe the first one I did was in New York City at the Garden [in 2003].

Do you feel you have a particular talent for these candid portrait shots?
I think I do, because regardless if I'm shooting backstage documenting or if I'm doing a portrait I feel like I have a knack for being low-key and making people relaxed. When you're backstage at the GRAMMYs sometimes you only have a minute to take a portrait and I feel I have a knack to get people to relax a little bit and to find their good side. I think a lot of it also has to do with relationships; a lot of these musicians I know, so they come in and it's, "Hey Danny, what have you been up to?" And I'm talking to them and I've shot the picture and off they go.

It's a combination of catching the spontaneity, the whirlwind of coming offstage with a GRAMMY, and the elegance of the moment.
Exactly. Everybody is usually dressed really sharp, whether it's outrageous or subtle. People are wearing tuxedos or something interesting, and people are usually pretty damn excited that they've just won a GRAMMY when they're coming back there.

Have you ever had a technical problem, a wardrobe malfunction or the film not come out?
One of the funny stories I was thinking about was when Beyoncé came back [at the 46th GRAMMYs in 2004], and she had won five GRAMMYs. I thought it would be fun to see if she could hold all five GRAMMYs. She's carrying all these GRAMMYs in her hands, and two of them fall to the ground. And as they're falling I shot photos of her laughing and the GRAMMYs are falling out of her hands. It was a really funny moment.

Who do you find are the harder artists to capture?
Everyone that comes back there is pretty excited, nobody's really difficult. We like to try and have a good time with it. My longtime assistant Gary Ashley likes to have fun with people. When Jay-Z came back, he was in a great mood and chatting it up with people and everyone wants to say hello to him and we're trying to take advantage of the little bit of time that we have. And Gary's telling him [to] stand [on] this little line, you know, and Jay-Z wasn't really listening, [he was] talking to some of his friends. And Gary was saying, "Hey you gotta get on this mark, you're in my house now." And Jay-Z was like, "No, you're in my house." And it was going back and forth.

You have a chance to meet these artists in a uniquely unguarded moment.
For me as a photographer, it's a chance to meet people that I wouldn't necessarily photograph otherwise. Like Beyoncé, if she's doing a shoot, she's probably working with high-fashion photographers; and yet we have a rapport and she knows me. She comes back and says, "Hey, nice to see you again," and she's really sweet. And then the Foo Fighters come back and they're like, "OK you've got one more, what have you got!" And they all jump up in the air and I get the shot.

I love the variety of people that come back. One minute you've got Justin Bieber and then you have Pinetop Perkins, James Brown, Celia Cruz — all these great people that came back and [some of them are] just not here anymore, and you get to document them.

What does the best portrait capture for you?
I feel like I'm trying to capture a bit of the person as a person, you know. Sometimes you want to see someone as a superstar and you want to put them on a pedestal, but I like the moment where you feel like you're seeing that person as a person in maybe a sort of an unguarded moment.

Do you mix photography and video and various projects together at the same time?
I'm doing a lot of things at once. I'm doing videos and concert films and documentaries. I've been shooting this campaign for chocolate milk which is kind of exciting because it's with athletes. I'm shooting some TV spots that will run on ESPN. I just did the new Bruce Springsteen record, [Wrecking Ball], so I have the cover and all the packaging on that.

Is there one thing in common you try to bring to all your projects?
A lot of times when people are describing the work they're asking me to do, they use the word authentic or something along those lines, something that feels real and doesn't feel forced and doesn't feel slick.

(John Sutton-Smith is a music journalist and TV producer who helped establish the GRAMMY Foundation's GRAMMY Living Histories oral history program, currently comprising almost 200 interviews.)

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