Photographer Danny Clinch Discusses The Inspiration Behind Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ Cover Photo
When photographer Danny Clinch met up with Bruce Springsteen in mid-winter 2018 to take some photos in New York City’s Central Park, the get together had no specific purpose except to document the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s historic run of acclaimed Springsteen On Broadway performances.
Two and a half years later, in the midst of extraordinary times where no one is exempt from standard business procedures, Clinch’s keen eye for capturing a moment resurfaces and provides the visual story for Springsteen’s new album, Letter To You. A closeup headshot adorns the cover, zoomed in from a gorgeous, vintage-like photo of Springsteen in a snowy setting in the city. Multiple shots from the 45-minute session also appear inside the packaging and in promo photos.
“I told Bruce, ‘you’re living in New York City right now. It’s a great moment in your life. We should wander around the city and take photos,’” Clinch revealed to American Songwriter. “That was the beauty of it. There was no agenda.”
“He was basically owning the city at that time with the Broadway shows. He agreed to meet me somewhere around Central Park and we just went out and shot photos just for the sake of shooting photos.”
The pair met at the Park’s 72nd Street West Side entrance, near the famed Dakota building where John Lennon lived. Clinch had a particular image of another legendary songwriter in mind as a reference point.
“I was stoked to take photos in Central Park because I remember the famous Richard Avedon photo of Bob Dylan in Central Park. Bob’s got his coat on and he’s just standing there in the park and it’s a moment. I love that.” (Note: You can view the Avedon photo, which was taken during the winter of 1965, here.)
As fate would have it, an unexpected late morning snowstorm, after an unusual warm spell, hit the city that day, which ultimately worked to Clinch’s advantage in several ways.
“It was on a Wednesday and I was in the city and woke up that morning and there was a freak blizzard. I texted him and said it was going to keep snowing but the light would still be beautiful. I asked if he still wanted to do it and he said, ‘yeah I’ll come out.’” (Note: For the obsessive Bruce fanatics, a check on snow dates in NYC on a Wednesday in 2018 places the date of the photo shoot as either March 7 or 21).
Clinch and his team scouted out specific locations in the area beforehand, but the money shot wound up being one of the first ones taken. And some of the credit has to be given to the simple but often frustrating act so many New Yorkers experience on a daily basis, one which is compounded during inclement weather. Rather than taking a limo or bringing a full entourage with him, Springsteen opted for a taxi from where he was staying, and was having trouble hailing one down!
“So, it was 2 pm, then 2:05, 2:10 and I’m waiting, looking at my watch. Then I texted him, saying the light’s beautiful and I’m out here in the park. He texted me back, saying he was having trouble catching a cab. Can you believe it? Sure enough, he finally showed up in a cab and said, ‘I hope you have a plan!’”
Clinch, who’s always documenting with his camera, went to work right away and the Avedon moment he was hoping for came quickly.
“That photo was taken minutes after he got out of the cab. We walked about 20 yards, and I saw the moment in front of me, with the vanishing points where the building’s go down, the beautiful light and the Dakota behind him. I said, ‘let’s stop here and do a shot.’ At first, I wasn’t excited about the pedi-cabs. But now as I look at it, they’re all covered up and it brings it all together. It gives it a more timeless feel.”
“I took the shot and he literally could have got back into the cab and left! But we wandered into the park and did all the silhouette shots. We hung out for about 45 minutes and he decided he was going to go to Tavern on the Green for a hot chocolate. He put on his headphones, pulled up his umbrella and walked down the street.”
For nearly two decades, Clinch has been Springsteen’s go to photographer, capturing him performing on stages big and small, candid moments backstage, recording in the studio and posing for portraits that have graced the covers of The Rising, The Seeger Sessions, Working On A Dream and High Hopes.
Springsteen recorded the music for Letter To You in November 2019, calling the E Street Band members to his New Jersey studio for a quick tracking session. “We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had,” Springsteen said in a statement announcing the album’s October 23 release date.
The video for the song “Letter To You,” the album’s lead single, contains black and white footage of the band from the November 2019 sessions, shot by Thom Zimny, plus still shots (which were not taken by Clinch) in the studio. Adding to the song’s contemplative mood is an aerial video, also in black and white, of someone, presumably Springsteen, walking through the snow in the woods, most likely his farm property.
The aerial drone video was shot in February 2020, according to sources, right before the pandemic lockdown hit the country. With no one able to convene for a new photo session, Springsteen remembered Clinch’s photos and realized they would tie in nicely with the winter theme in the video (and the album’s lyrical theme perhaps?) and make for great promo photos and as the album cover image. “He ended up embracing these photos,” Clinch said.
The cover of Letter To You, designed by Michelle Holme, Springsteen’s longtime art director, features a cropped, close-up version of the original photo. Clinch himself isn’t involved in the day to day design of the album cover. “I sent Michelle the photos and she roughed everything out. Then she’ll go back and forth with Bruce on the design. He started texting me, saying he thought it was great. I give my opinion but at the end of the day Bruce is always driving the car. He knows what he likes. He’s the boss!”
The original photo of Springsteen in Central Park can be purchased at Clinch’s website or in person at his Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery in Asbury Park. Clinch recently gave an hour-long walk-through of his gallery and told stories behind many of his classic photos which can be viewed in this video here (the photo is discussed at the 32 minute mark).
Letter to You includes nine recently written Springsteen songs, as well as new recordings of three of his legendary, but previously unreleased, compositions from the 1970s, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans.” Springsteen is joined on Letter To You by Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Garry Tallent, Stevie Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Charlie Giordano and Jake Clemons. The album was produced by Ron Aniello with Bruce Springsteen, mixed by Bob Clearmountain and mastered by Bob Ludwig.