McClister shot, among other things, the iconic cover to Ryan Adams's Heartbreaker

By Alex Heigl
August 04, 2015 04:00 PM
David McClister/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

You may not know David McClister’s name, but you’ve definitely seen his work, either in the pages of Rolling Stone, on an artist’s website, or – in the case of Ryan Adams – on an album cover. The Nashville-based photographer has a new exhibit of his photography opening at New York’s Morrison Hotel Gallery, and he was kind enough to let PEOPLE show off some of his work and answer some questions for us.

“David McClister has been given the most special and exclusive access to Americana artists,” Morrison Hotel Gallery founder and co-owner Peter Blachley says. “Because of that access, and the fact that the artists are so appreciative of his skills and his personality, he is able to capture images of his subjects that nobody else could get. We are proud to represent such a talent as David’s, along with all the other amazing photographers we work with.”

You grew up in the South. Did that influence your decision to shoot Americana artists?

I don’t think so – it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. I think that old adage is true in many ways – shoot what you love. I’ve always photographed the artists that I admired, young or old, and that seems to lead to more calls and opportunities with other artists that I also admire.

How do you get your subjects to relax and let their guard down while you’re shooting them?

My assistants can probably answer this better than I can. But I think I would say that I just try to be honest and true – hi, this is who I am, let’s go take some photos and have some fun, and not take it too seriously. After all, they’re only photos – if we don’t like them, we don’t have to use them – but I’ll bet we’ll find a few that we do! Along the way we’ll talk, we’ll listen to music, and we’ll capture those real, honest moments when you least expect it.

Shooting Ryan Adams was a watershed moment for your career. How did that shoot come about?

Whenever I do lectures or talk with a photographer who is just getting started, one of the questions that they almost always ask is, how do you get started, how do you get established? There’s the obvious – you have to really really love what you do to excel at it – you need to have a burning passion in you and be willing to fail, and get right back up again and keep banging on that door. But the one thing that they can’t control, at least not completely, is, that you have to have luck. You can put yourself in position to get a lucky break, but you have to have it. And when you get that break, you have to take advantage of it. I was very lucky in the opportunities that I had as a photographer just starting out – but I also know that I worked very hard once I got them to do a great job, otherwise I might not have gotten many (or any) more lucky breaks in the future.

The Ryan Adams/Heartbreaker shoot was a lucky break. They had no money – my wife was designing the CD package and was friends with Ryan’s manager (the late great Frank Callari). I had done a few little shoots for some local musicians, but had just started taking photos within the last year, but I was a huge Whiskeytown fan. I told her how badly I wanted to do it, and then I told Frank, and he agreed. It’s still one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever done. Ryan and I just clicked from the start and began trading ideas back and forth until we were both exhausted.

Who are you photographic influences? How do they differ from your filmmaking influences?

My father is a big movie buff – he had me watching Peckinpah, Kubrick, Penn, David Lean, Sergio Leone, etc. at a very young age. We would talk theory – story, editing, composition, etc. – so I think I learned framing and lighting in a very natural way at a very young age. He bought me my very first camera – a Canon 35mm AE-1 which I still have and still pull out on occasion. When I started taking stills, I went back and studied everyone – every book I could get my hands on at the library – from Robert Frank, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon to Danny Lyon, Susan Meiseles, Nan Goldin, Jim Goldberg all of the incredible music photographers. Jim Marshall, of course. Henry Diltz. William Claxton, early Annie Leibovitz.

Are there any artists you like working with in particular? Are there shoots that stick out in your mind as particular favorites?

It’s honestly usually the last one that I’ve done, because I’m still so excited about it. So in that case, it’s getting to work with Jerry Lee Lewis again, at his home in Nesbit, Mississippi. I had him at his piano, and I asked him if he would put his hands on the keys – he did, and of course, he couldn’t help himself, and he began to play for us, song after song, just noodling at first, and then playing actual songs after that. I never would have guessed that I’d get to hear him play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – especially for an audience of six. What an amazing experience!

What are some your favorite venues in Nashville to shoot at?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say The Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. I’ve shot there so many times over the years that I do think I take it for granted sometimes, but then I’ll travel on a shoot to another city and shoot in other famous venues and then I’ll come home and walk back on to that famous stage and see that beautiful light coming through the stained glass windows and I’m quickly reminded how lucky I am to hear music (and to work) in such an amazing place.

Tell us a little more about the exhibit at Morrison Hotel Gallery. It’s your very first exhibit, correct?

It is the first solo exhibit of my music-related work and I am excited to be premiering it at Morrison Hotel Gallery. My work is hanging on the same walls as some of my photographer idols and inspirations. It’s surreal.

Which deceased Americana icon do you wish you could have photographed?

That’s a tough one. My first thought is R.E.M., because they were my favorite band growing up as a kid in the South. In fact, their music video for “Fall On Me” was the very first video that I remember having a connection with. I was so moved by the song and by the visuals, that I went out that week and bought the record ( Life’s Rich Pageant), and then went back and devoured their previous releases after that. We didn’t have an alternative radio station in Knoxville, so MTV and 120 Minutes were where I could discover new music and bands like R.E.M.

If we’re being literal, I’d say Townes Van Zandt or Gram Parsons – two figures that stand tall over Americana music. Both of those artists were truly artists in every sense, and they both seemed to have this amazing charisma that drew people in that I would love to have witnessed.