Letter From A Director… If You Could See What I See

Danny ClinchI started out as a still photographer who considers photography art, and I try to bring a little bit of art into the film document. In music, everybody’s willing to be adventurous, so one of my film goals is to balance the document and art.

Films felt like a natural progression from photography, with one huge difference: still photography is basically me looking at the shot, while making a documentary is teamwork. The editor, the producer, the camera operators all bring something to the table. I feed off of other people creatively, organizationally and narratively, and I enjoy that teamwork.

My first documentary originated from a photo assignment to shoot Ben Harper. I met Ben where he grew up and found out his grandfather was a luthier who owned a music shop that was like a museum. I asked Ben if he was interested in letting me hang around and shoot a documentary, and he said he was.

I choose my subjects because I feel passionate about the topic. Today, I’m working on four documentary projects: a Jim Marshall project, because I’m hugely inspired by Jim’s photographs and what he contributed to music; on the band Blind Melon, a great, unique band that people don’t fully understand; on the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, which My Morning Jacket took on tour as a gesture of respect, just as the Grateful Dead did with the original line-up founded by Allan Jaffe. I documented their Jazz Fest weekend and filmed My Morning Jacket’s show in Preservation Hall, which holds about 75 people. The other film is on Ryan Adams, who made three records, produced a Willie Nelson album and toured with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, all in one year.

Music means so much to people on many different levels. People listen to music when they’re happy and celebrating or when they’re sad and getting through a rough time. Music inspires people creatively, and lyrics inspire people to think a certain way—artfully or politically, for example. I used to think, I’m not curing cancer here, we’re just taking photographs of musicians, but because music means so much to people, I believe it is important to see photographs of musicians to gain insight into who those people are, or were.

I have good access to things that people don’t normally get to see, like Pearl Jam, who never really let people back into their inner circle; it’s super interesting to me. I like to bring into my films the intimacy of musicians working out a song backstage. I can document Ryan Adams being creative, coming up with a title, going to the piano with a cigarette and a glass of wine, and banging out a tune, and then a year later I’m thinking, This is one of my favorite songs, and I was there when he wrote it. I want to share that privilege with others.

—Danny Clinch

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