In a career spanning three decades, Dutch shutterbug Anton Corbijn has peppered the rock and roll landscape with fallen angels, desert rats, starving optimists, satiated shape-shifters and cowboy caravans, shooting seminal album covers for bands such as U2 (1987’s The Joshua Tree, for instance) and music videos for groups that include Nirvana (such as 1993’s “Heart-Shaped Box”). He was also responsible for designing world tours for Depeche Mode, among others. In a certain sense, it can be argued that Corbijn’s lens invented the looks of those bands.
Your career as a photographer was already white-hot by the time you were 20 years old. You’d been shooting musician Herman Brood for years at that point. When did you first pick up a camera? I picked up my father’s camera when I was just 17, and the first photos I took were published. Then I was hooked, naturally. I didn’t know the first thing about photography, but I loved being near music, so musicians became my subject. I worked with Herman Brood from when I first met him in 1973 until 2001, when he died. Actually, a few days after his death, his family asked me to photograph him in the coffin.
You have played a critical role in creating some of music’s greatest iconography for bands such as U2 and Depeche Mode. How much of what we see in these collaborations is you, and how much is the band? With U2 and Depeche Mode, I like to think that I gave both of them a visual identity that really helped them connect with an audience. For both groups, I have photographed about seven or eight albums and done music videos. I am more creatively integrated with Depeche Mode, as I also design their record sleeves, and I designed their last five world tours as well. Whatever museum is hosting an exhibition of my work, there are always Depeche Mode fans there. There are probably some U2 fans there, too, but they’re much more understated in their appearance and approach.
Does your passion for music influence the way that you make films? Is there music that guides the making of a film like The American? I wanted The American to have a very different musical color than Control, for pretty obvious reasons. I set out, initially, to have hardly any music at all. Later, I was contemplating a very spaghetti-westernish score. In the end, I wanted something piano-based. I have an amazing score by Herbert Gröenemeyer, who did this score because he wanted to do a fantastic score for this film. It was never just a composer doing his job very well. It was always more than that.
George Clooney is known for his pranks on set. Did he play any on you? One day, George made a bet with a bunch of us that the Italian train driver wouldn’t stop where we wanted him to park the train for the shot. Sure enough, we’re doing the shot, and the train driver goes too far. The actress came out of the train and was totally confused. My assistant director got very angry with the train driver, who in turn had a few very meaningful hand gestures for George, who was uncontrollably laughing. Before the shot, George had had a quiet word with the train driver and told him that we wanted him to drive an extra five meters for the shot. That was a good one.