The dingy industrial façade of River Clark’s studio serves as an auspicious portent to the nature of the mad scientist that inhabits this laboratory. His Castle Frankenstein is an unassuming red-brick factory warehouse on the southwestern outskirts of Hoboken. Yet in the dark unknown, while the rest of the villagers go about their business, Clark toils away inside using science, electricity and body parts to make creations come alive.
He’s even managed to spook some of the locals. “Yeah, they’re weird over there,” he says as he points to a neighboring storefront. “They’re always asking my business, what I’m doing.” At a glance, the concern appears unwarranted because on the outside, River Clark looks to be a fairly benign guy. Alright, so he has a green Mohawk‚ but underneath that you’ll find an amiable fellow whose outward emotional spectrum seems to range from content to amused. And why shouldn’t he be happy with things–he’s a professional photographer, and by all accounts a damn good one.
Clark’s credits include some pretty big names–Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Playboy, Maxim, and FHM to name a few. “I’ve been in almost every major American magazine,” he says in a tone that’s devoid of arrogance but bordering on nonchalance. Noticeably out of step with the rest of the roster is British House and Garden. “That was actually a Hoboken gig,” says Clark. “Chambord Prints (38 Jackson St.) has ridiculously good wallpaper and I shoot their ad campaigns.”
“I’ve done Architectural Digest,” he says, adding, “I actually have a degree in architecture. But what excites me about photography is people, emotion in people, creating something or capturing something.”
The girl at the end of the bar
That “something” Clark creates and captures then manifests itself in some of the most evocative imagery gracing the newsstands today. Still waters run deep, and Clark’s placid surface hides a turbulent creativity which dares the audience to keep looking, knowing damn well they couldn’t possibly turn away. The influence of mentor Helmut Newton is apparent in Clark’s work. Newton, the German-born photographer who died in 2004, gained notoriety for his provocative studies of the female form. “It was Helmut who convinced me to go into fashion photography,” says Clark, and much of the resulting work is reminiscent of the sort of “gorgeousity and yumyumyum” that would have little Alex cringing through his lid-locks in A Clockwork Orange.
Nudes, semi-nudes, painted nudes, nudes covered in raw fish–while Clark would rather shy away from the narrow focus, there is certainly a theme noticeable to even the layperson. “It’s not just girls,” he says, “I shoot other stuff.” But even he begrudgingly admits, “I guess that’s what I’m known best for.”
Yet no matter how jolting the subject matter may seem, the distinctive beauty of the photography is what stands out above all else. There’s an inherent familiarity to the women in Clark’s photos. Striking as they are, they’re not always what people would consider traditional model material. In fact, many of them look like they might be the pretty girl at the end of the bar. “That’s because they probably are the girl at the end of the bar,” says Clark.
“For ad campaigns I do all my own casting–a lot of the time I’ll find the girls out on the street.” In addition, Clark says “I have a lot of friends I’ve shot in the past and I’ll say, ‘hey come over, lets shoot.’ That’s where most of my shots come from–just random shots of my friends sitting around the studio and I get them to do something stupid or funny.”
His knack for capturing the sexiness of familiarity has reaped dividends, particularly when Clark’s Bluefly billboard campaign won Adweek’s coveted Ad of the Year. “I shot Polaroids of different agency models with their skinny backs. Then I shot a few others of the girlfriend [at the time] and friends who looked natural, approachable and realistic. I didn’t push the direction, I just showed them all the Polaroids and they went with my girlfriend. She does not look like a model–she looks like a girl standing in front of a closet.”
While Clark’s maverick approach may win awards, it doesn’t always win him friends in the industry. “I don’t like using agency models,” he says, “and sometimes that gets me in trouble.” He cites as an example, “I did an ad for a cigar company with 3 guys ranging from 19 to 50 that I literally just found on the street–random dudes who had never done anything like it in their life–and paid them to go to the Poconos for 3 days, play poker and smoke cigars.” Clark says, “It made for a real shoot–I made sure they all knew how to play poker. They were originally trying to get a couple male models in the magazine, but you never play poker with male models.”
Why not North Dakota?
Beyond the Poconos, Clark manages to get around quite a bit–a major selling point to using Hoboken as a base of operation. “My biggest passion, other than photography and film, is travel–and I’m minutes from the airport.”
Clark has done a lot of travelling in his time. “I’ve never had a traditional home, as far as living in a place for a long time. I’ve lived in 38 states and been to 48. I moved here from Hawaii–Hawaii is probably my favorite state but this is my favorite place to be. I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere.” With Hawaii checked off the list, one wonders which of the 48 contiguous states he’s missed. “I’ve been everywhere but North Dakota–I’ve never made it up there,” says Clark. “I’ve wanted to get to every state and once had every brochure,” he says. “North Dakota has the most beautiful brochure of any state, I just haven’t done it.”
With so much travel under his belt, one also wonders what would make him decided on Hoboken–which in fairness is not exactly mentioned in the same breath as Paris or Milan when it comes to fashion, and nowhere near as exotic as Hawaii. “The reason I love New York/New Jersey is because it has the same energy as Hawaii, but it’s a tough area to be lazy.”
His introduction to Hoboken life was not unlike many others who first tried to get their foot in the door. “I moved up here nine years ago and was crashing on a friend’s couch,” says Clark. When he decide the Metro area was for him, he says, “I started looking around here and went all the way through Queens, Harlem and Brooklyn, but I really loved this area–there’s something really beautiful about Hoboken,” adding, “plus I have my own parking lot!” As anyone who has lived here for any amount of time can attest, you never walk away from that.
To walk around the studio is to quite literally walk through the photography of River Clark. Many of his more recognizable shots have been staged in locations throughout the building. As he points to a photograph on the wall, he then turns around to explain, “I built a stage on top of the stair case and the rail underneath their ankles is the rail for the staircase.” In an adjoining room there are tattered white walls with, frankly, an ominous looking bed frame. Sneaking out the back door, Clark points to a fire escape and says, “We’ve been out here shooting at night, the light is great.” Meanwhile props of all sorts, from a metal chalice to a lion’s head, are scattered throughout the premises. Of the chalice, Clark points to another photo and recounts, “it was a one shot deal–I literally had one cup of milk. She was totally topless, the milk covers one breast entirely and the other one you can barely even notice.”
Climbing up the rickety staircase to the roof, you get a sense of why the spot works so well for Clark. “This is one of my favorite parts of the studio.” The rugged factory exterior topped off with the wide open roof certainly lends itself to a lot of Clark’s imagery.
On the ground floor is his main studio, where the heavy duty work is done. All decked out with major lighting fixtures, Clark has big plans for the space. “This is actually a film studio–It’s going to be the largest green screen in the area.” Motion picture is next on the list of his ambitions though he admits it may be challenging. “Doing film there’s always a producer and six other people that have their say in everything. I haven’t quite figured out my niche for that yet.”
Off the main studio is the make-up room, where Fedora, the make-up artist, is putting the finishing touches on Christy, who travelled from Reading, Pennsylvania for a session with Clark. “He’s very talented,” says Christy. “I’ve been looking forward working with him.”
With the make-up all set and everyone ready to go, the stereo comes on. When asked if the music makes enhances the shoot, Clark says, “most of the time, though it depends on the person.” As Christy pouts, smiles, and works her way through the set, Clark fires his camera like a semiautomatic, capturing every nuance of her expressions. Viewing them afterward, it’s evident how many factors come into play on what would seem like twenty shots of the same photo. In the midst of it all, Clark will stop and sprint up the ladder to adjust the lights or swap out gel filters. A beam of light here, a relaxed facial muscle there, a slight gust of wind from the fan and the various angles from which the camera is held all play their part in creating a myriad of different images from one basic look. And to Clark, timing is everything. “I don’t photoshop anything,” he says, with tremendous conviction.
There is no evident tension in the room, at least on his side of the lens. However, he gets his divas from time to time. “I was working with this one girl from Germany and she was very rude, she started yelling at my assistants to get her cigarettes and coffee, and I was like ‘you don’t need to speak to people like that.’” So he got his revenge the only way he knew how. “I decided I was going to cover her with something that would piss her off.” The photo of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed uber babe smeared in honey now adorns Clark’s business card, and the look on her face pretty much says it all.
Photography, Jersey Style
When asked how he’d shoot a typical New Jersey wedding, Clark’s one stipulation was, “No portraits. If they wanted, I’d bring along an assistant who was good at stuff like that.” While he might give the mothers-in-law a bit of agita, he’s not opposed to the idea. “I shoot anything I get paid for,” he says, like the true gun for hire. “I’ve done a lot of weddings and will do it with the right people. But the only way I’d shoot a wedding is if nobody tells me what to do. I shoot them photojournalistic–I don’t do the staged photos.”
Clark has also done some work with a few local businesses. “The Girls of Sushi Lounge (200 Hudson St.) was fun, and I’ve done a few calendars for bars and restaurants,” he says. “The same girl in the Bluefly campaign was a bartender at Sushi Lounge–it got a lot of publicity.” Not all of it authorized, according to Clark. “A sushi restaurant in Vegas stole some of the shots, and a friend of mine spotted them in a strip club. He called to congratulate me, and I had to call my lawyer.”
But while he’ll work with bars, you don’t have to worry about Clark be the one down at the local taking snapshots for Facebook of his friends doing Jagerbombs. “I hardly ever go to bars anymore,” he says. Instead of going to the bars to get people to do stupid things, he just invites them over to his studio. “I drink every day, but I do it here,” adding “I drink everyday and I shoot every day, but I never bring my camera outside the studio unless it’s paid.”
Spare time doesn’t seem like much for a man who works everyday and travels every chance he gets. When he does find himself idle, however briefly, he keeps himself occupied by watching his extensive VHS collection on his top floor screen and projector–right next to his keg-o-rator.
River Clark is certainly a man to watch in Hoboken, but not with the same paranoid, probing tenacity as his nosy neighbors. On a rundown industrial lot in the back of town, a young man spends the days in his lair while beautiful women come and go at all hours. There’s a good chance they’re jealous of that, or maybe they just wish they had a parking lot. But the success Clark enjoys is a result not only of extraordinary talent but pure and simple dedication to his craft. “I’ve gone five years without missing a day of shooting.” – with a job like his, why would he want to.