Ride the lighting


When photographer Clay Patrick McBride met Dolly Parton, he called her a disco ball.

“You just light everything up in the most spectacular way,” McBride recalled saying to her. To break the ice, he also brought a box of Polaroids he’d snapped of the Great Smoky Mountains, her Tennessee homeland.

The photo shoot yielded a stark portrait of Parton literally supported by her guitar — a potent metaphor. It was a career highlight for the Rochester-based McBride, who’s spent more than 30 years photographing some of the most famous people on the planet.

Jay-Z. Metallica. Willie Nelson. Kobe Bryant. Jake Paul. And, earlier this year for the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani.

“You don't always have to do a song and dance. But you need to let them know, ‘I'm the artist here. You’re in my little world now,’” McBride said. “I don't say that to anybody. I just try to lead.”

Clay Patrick McBride began his photography career in New York City in what he calls the "early Gen X '90s" during surging hip-hop and rock scenes. - QUAJAY DONNELL.
  • Clay Patrick McBride began his photography career in New York City in what he calls the "early Gen X '90s" during surging hip-hop and rock scenes.
To McBride, the camera doesn’t take the picture; the photographer does. After earning two degrees from the School of Visual Arts in New York, his keen eye for lighting and bold backdrops landed him at the front of the classroom — he began teaching at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences in 2014.

The thoroughly tattooed, mohawked photographer says he brings an edge to the Henrietta campus that helps get students’ attention.

“The school is filled with PhDs and geniuses, and then there's me, this guy who comes from the filthy streets of New York and more of the underbelly of photography,” he said. “I fit in very well there because I don't fit in with everything that happens there.”

McBride’s time in New York coincided with surging hip-hop and hard rock scenes in the late 1990s. He made a name capturing crisp portraits of Li’l Kim, Slipknot and Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, who notably pointed two guns directly at the lens. He worked as Kid Rock’s personal photographer for nearly two decades.

Clay Patrick McBride in his element. - QUAJAY DONNELL.
  • Clay Patrick McBride in his element.
His formidable archive boasts fresh-faced snaps of LeBron James and Norah Jones in the early 2000s, plus long-departed rock stars Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington.

And then there’s Jay-Z in a mockup of the Oval Office, recalling “President John F. Kennedy conferring with his brother Robert Kennedy, using President Shawn Carter and his little brother Kanye West,” McBride wrote in the photo’s footnotes.

That 2004 shoot for “XXL” has become a teaching moment.

“Over the years, my reasons for taking pictures changed,” he said. “Now, my life is a lot less about me. It's about contributing to young photographers. It's about helping people get to the next place.”

After coming to Rochester initially, McBride experienced what he called “ego death” and considered what he wanted his future to hold. “I wasn't Clay Patrick McBride in New York the way I was,” he said. “You start thinking, like, ‘I am not my accomplishments. I'm not this pile of photographs. I'm not the hundreds of hard drives that I keep in my closet.’”

He found his way thanks, in part, to teaching. He lives downtown and enjoys the diversity of the Rochester Public Market and the Roc City SkatePark, where he loves photographing and hanging with the kids.

Among Clay Patrick McBride’s many tattoos are the letters on his knuckles spelling “STAY GOLD.” - QUAJAY DONNELL.
  • Among Clay Patrick McBride’s many tattoos are the letters on his knuckles spelling “STAY GOLD.”
McBride digs the local scene and has shot many artists, including Sam Snyder, more commonly known by the moniker ‘Overhand Sam.’

“He's one of the most improvisatory people I've ever met,” Snyder said. “He's more about the making of the thing than the business element to it. That’s the punk attitude that any good artist maintains.”

Rochester native rapper Ishmael met McBride at The Little Theatre years ago when McBride asked to take his photo. Ishmael reluctantly agreed before scanning McBride’s portfolio.

Soon after, McBride invited him along to photo assignments in New York, including one with super producer DJ Khaled. McBride even unexpectedly asked Ishmael to rap for Khaled at the end of the shoot.

“To think so highly of a person that you’ll put them with the sharks and trust that they won’t get killed?” Ishmael said of McBride. “People in this industry don’t give. Clay gives.”

Clay Patrick McBride preparing a tintype photography shoot. - QUAJAY DONNELL.
  • Clay Patrick McBride preparing a tintype photography shoot.
In 2008, McBride gave a gift to himself while embedded with Metallica at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. As he ran around trying to capture the band’s final bow, he realized photo conditions were suboptimal. The crowd was too far away. The lightning wasn’t right.

“I just stopped and thought, ‘what's happening right now?’” McBride said. “I’m standing on stage behind my favorite band. In front of them are 80,000 people. Let's check that out for a minute.”

That mental image might be a more important memento than any photo McBride could’ve shot for a magazine.

Patrick Hosken is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].