Clay McBride’s Wild Ride

“Gimme the fuckin’ number!”

She didn’t say much, and he seemed to calm down.

Mr. McBride, unfazed, went back to his story. It was at a thrift shop in New Hope that he purchased his first camera.

“I remember he picked up this cool-looking camera and started handling it,” said his friend Derek Crew, who met Mr. McBride in rehab. “Then he said, ‘I’m gonna buy this thing and become a famous photographer.’”

A teacher at a community college said Mr. McBride might be onto something. His parents got excited. Off he went to Europe to study art—and follow his model girlfriend, Joan Scott. He relapsed, did Ecstasy with a Danish chick, screwed all night long. Then he was back in New York, 22 years old, living in Hell’s Kitchen. Cleaned up and started taking classes at SVA. Then girlfriend Joan busted him with another babe’s panties, his father had a heart attack and school was a headache. 

“They say when people lose their mind they think they’re the messiah,” said Mr. McBride. “I think this world became too painful, and I made up my own. I destroyed everything I owned with a little hammer, smashed my entire life up, destroyed all my art. Destroyed everything. It’s the process, deconstruction, reconstruction. The phoenix, resurrection. And I lost my mind. I ended up running down the street naked in Goshen, New York, and that’s a fine way to get help if you need it.”

Four months in the bughouse—the Mid Hudson Psychiatric Center—was just what Mr. McBride needed. His father visited every day, brought him cigarettes, didn’t mention anything about his long, greasy hair.

“He tore himself apart and then put himself back together,” said his brother Jeff. “He was a living artwork that took years of hard work to make. I like to call it his spiritual emergence.”

Back in the world, Mr. McBride became popular for his scratchy, stained-glass treatment of photos. He started working at Time magazine. At 26, he applied his stained-glass technique to a picture of Princess Di for the cover of Time. (Fast-forward six years: His father passed away, and at the funeral, a family friend, Judge Williams, came up and asked if he was “Clay the photographer.” Then the judge says, “You know, your dad used to carry around this magazine, and if I had a dollar for every time he would take that magazine out and say, ‘Did you see what my son did?’”)

All along, Mr. McBride he had been keeping up with bands, photographing his musician friends. He began working with Kid Rock, then Gobsmack, Korn and others. Success kept piling up. He shot album covers for Jay-Z and Kanye West. Next week he’s flying to L.A. to shoot Billy Ray Cyrus for the cover of a Disney album.

Wynton Marsalis, through his rep, told me, “Clay is very prepared but is able to create a feeling of total spontaneity. He’s thorough and he finds the perfect tempo for his subject.”

The relationship with Kid Rock has also endured; Mr. McBride photographed Mr. Rock’s wedding. “Just look at us; we’re like made out of the same stuff, you know what I mean,” said Mr. McBride. “We were similar in how we look, similar in our fuck-the-world mentality. And I just loved that he was giving everybody the finger, that’s how he came out onstage. And he had a sidekick, you know, midget, with him.”

(Mr. Rock for his part emailed to joke that Mr. McBride was a “grease ball” but also “the quickest, nicest and best!” photographer.)

During the late ’90s, the music business boomed. Grunge and the rest of it. “Record labels had huge budgets to make art, and great art directors,” said Mr. McBride. “And I was a part of that.”

Meanwhile he took a photo of basketball star Allen Iverson with his afro picked out, wearing an old-school Philly jersey. “I got lucky,” said Mr. McBride. “I took this picture that became a very, very famous basketball picture. People know about this picture, people sweat this picture—so that started a relationship with Slam magazine, which led to working with hip-hop magazines and labels.

“I bought a great apartment in Chelsea,” he continued. “I had a lease on a great studio downtown and had three people on the payroll, so I was sort of building a little enterprise.”

Mr. McBride said that the most important thing he’d learned in the last 10 years was how to be calm in the eye of the storm. He’s taken up yoga and meditates in the mornings. Along the way he got married to Silvia Cincotta, a hair stylist; two years ago, they divorced.

“I left that relationship, and I left all my shit, so I’m rebuilding right now,” he said. “You know, I didn’t start taking pictures so I could get rich. I’m an artist. I’m going to continue to make art and do what I do. And I think the best art, I haven’t even approached. I really think the stuff I’m here to do, my life’s work, is ahead of me.”

The recession has knocked a lot of photographers off the gravy train. Mr. McBride used to get $15,000 to $20,000 for an ad campaign for the rollout of an album from a major record label—like, say, the first Norah Jones album. “Now they want to pay me $3,000,” he said. “It’s the same contract. They want the same ownership.”

As for love, well, he and a yoga instructor broke up about a month ago. “I’m off women right now,” Mr. McBride said. “I’m focusing on me and my art. I mean, if a 20-year-old beautiful girl falls into my lap naked, am I going to hit that? Yes.”

“He’s my fuckin’ cousin! Give me the fuckin’ number and I’ll leave you alone. Give me the fuckin’ number, you whore!” The gutter punk with the duck tail and his lady friend were back at it. The punk was standing face to face with the girl, and began spitting in her face. Mr. McBride and I both shifted, ready to step in and break up the ugliness. Just then the girl punched the guy in the mouth. Seven times. Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang! He started to bleed.  

“Did I hit a girl back?” he said, addressing Mr. McBride and me. “I fuckin’ love getting punched in the face.”

A few days later, I dropped in on Mr. McBride at the Tattoo Culture shop in Williamsburg. He was having “Stay Gold” tattooed on his knuckles. Mr. McBride looked the work over and remarked: “I like how deep you made the letters, too. They don’t look all small and pussy. They make my hands look bigger. Chicks will think my dick’s bigger because of this.”

smorgan@observer.com

Clay McBride’s Wild Ride