As well as being a photographer I’m also a musician, or rather, a frustrated musician. I spent my teens and early twenties in and out of bands, gigging, writing, rehearsing. Suffice to say, my musical career never really took off and photography eventually became my primary creative outlet. I’m still passionate about music though, and I retain an eternal enthusiasm for an electrifying live performance, or a heartbreaking chord change. It was only ever a matter of time before I starting photographing bands, which now forms a significant part of what I do. To photograph a rock band is to capture a creative unit, to immortalise in time the youth and esprit de corps of a group, a gang. Catch that spark and you’re on to a winner. If you’re really lucky you might just end up with an iconic image too. The rock heavyweights like Annie Liebovitz, Robert Freeman, Adrian Boot, Pennie Smith et al have all done so. But for me Anton Corbijn goes one vital step further – he doesn’t just capture a look, he creates an identity.
Anton Corbijn was a fairly successful music photographer in his native Netherlands when he moved to England in 1979 in pursuit of his idols Joy Division. The legendary Mancunian band’s stark, monochrome sonics were the perfect foil for Corbijn’s emerging photographic style. He translated the band’s sound into images, articulating what he heard onto film and paper using deep grain and inky shadow. You didn’t need to hear a Joy Division record to know what the band sounded like, Anton Corbijn’s images told you.
One of the reasons I admire Corbijn is that before his arrival no other photographer had so successfully caught the essence of a band in a photograph. Several came close; Eric Meola’s Born to Run sleeve portrait tells you all you need to know about the camaraderie between Bruce and his E Street Band. Similarly, Don Hunstein’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover is the perfect representation of the young bohemian Greenwich Village troubadour. But these photographs, as timeless and as iconic and as beautiful as they undoubtedly are reflect just the image and not the sound. Corbijn’s creative relationship with Joy Division became self perpetuating; his images articulating the bands tonal aesthetic; the sound of their music amplified by Corbijn’s images.
Bono has on several occasions referred to Anton Corbijn as ‘U2’s fifth member’. Whereas Corbijn translated the mood of Joy Division’s music into photographs, he created a whole image for U2. The Irish band’s 1987 breakthrough album The Joshua Tree features a Corbijn portrait on the sleeve, the band pictured in monochrome in the arid isolation of the Mojave desert, distilling the widescreen cinematic mood of the album and offering a new U2 to the world as spiritual, looming figures. Dave Gahan claimed that Corbijn gave Depeche Mode ‘a visual identity that we were desperately looking for’, casting the once fresh faced Essex boys as sleazy, leather-clad cowboys in a setting of sticky, dark Americana. Try listening to Where the Streets Have No Name or Personal Jesus without the visual concepts Anton Corbijn created for each band coming to mind. His imagery is inextricably linked to the music that inspires and informs it.
Anton Corbijn’s approach appears to be a relaxed one, which appeals to me. He claims to arrive for some shoots having done little or no preparation. He hired a panoramic camera for the Joshua Tree sessions, having never used one before, and didn’t focus it properly. Most photographers about to shoot a U2 album sleeve probably wouldn’t employ a piece of kit they hadn’t used before, and if they did they would likely spend several days getting intimately acquainted with it. Corbijn’s confidence in his ability, and a desire to keep things spontaneous is to be applauded. Simplicity is key for Anton Corbijn, always shooting hand held, always using natural light. Usually (but not always) working in black and white, on medium format film. Shooting hand held, he says, means that sometimes random elements will creep into the frame, helping to preserve spontaneity.
Over a long career (that has taken him into the world of music videos, and more recently feature films) Anton Corbijn has photographed over a hundred album covers and has given darkness, space and gravitas to artists as musically diverse as Pavarotti and Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and Coldplay. Corbijn’s portraits are arresting and gritty, the contrast of milky whites and oily blacks consistently casting his subjects in an exposed, isolated and dreamlike atmosphere. Despite stylistic evolution Anton remains true to the simplicity of his hand-help set up, creating iconic portraits with natural light and masterful printing. At first view his images can appear aloof or detached, but this belies a rare intimacy and connection with his subject. They reveal an understanding, a chink in the armour almost, of even the toughest character, like Clint Eastwood. Even legends need an identity sometimes.