On the Record: Anton Corbijn's Album Art

Slide 1: Introduction

As well as being the director of The American, Anton Corbijn is one of the most lauded contemporary photographers and a man who is perpetually pursued by musicians desperate to have him take their picture. In the documentary Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn, R.E.M.’s lead singer Michael Stipe attempts to sum up Corbijn’s special appeal as a photographer, and notes that “a lot of people have gone to Anton to help them figure out what it is exactly they want to look like, if they want to project a new idea or image onto themselves.” Indeed, as you will see in the following slideshow about the photographs Corbijn has taken for musicians over the years, his album images have not just made already cool rockers look even cooler but have more importantly added new facets to the these artists’ music which has propelled them to much greater success.

Slide 2: Steely Dan – Greatest Hits (1978)

Over the course of his career as a photographer, Anton Corbijn has been the mastermind for numerous album covers and images used as gatefold or inlay artwork. Ironically, the very first picture of Corbijn’s that was used as album art was never intended as such. In late 1978, Steely Dan released their Greatest Hits compilation, featuring hits such as “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and the image featured on the inside of the double LP gatefold was a shot by Corbijn of band members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The picture, however, was from back in the summer of 1976, when Corbijn was still based in his native Holland and had only been taking photos of bands for a year. Taken at the Hotel de L’Europe in Amsterdam during the European leg of Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam tour, the shot was to accompany an interview with the band in the Dutch music magazine Oor (meaning “ear”), and was an early indication of the moody, shadow-laden style that Corbijn would utilize so well in the future in elevating musicians to iconic status. The camera-shy Becker and Fagen loved how Corbijn had captured them, and the photo took off: it was used by Rolling Stone for their December 1977 feature on the band, after which Becker and Fagen personally requested that it be used as the image that defined them on their Greatest Hits package the following year. [Buy]

Slide 3: Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Ice Cream for Crow (1982)

As Corbijn’s profile rose following his move to the UK – where he became the main photographer for the New Musical Express, the country’s biggest rock weekly – he began to receive further requests to shoot bands for album covers. It was a sign of the respect he commanded in the music community that he was asked to provide an image for the cover of Ice Cream for Crow, the final album by the legendary Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet). In their book Coverscaping: Discovering Album Aesthetics, Øyvind Vågnes and Asbjørn Grønstad describe the photo as follows: “Van Vliet poses in an arid desert landscape, he is in the foreground and in focus. This captures the object of the portrait in vivid detail: the pores of the skin, the wrinkles around the eyes and mouth and the intense eyes.” The image – taken in the Mojave Desert in August 1980 – caught something of Van Vliet that was previously unseen, and indeed Corbijn says that “he suddenly became more a person than an artist I was photographing …and we ended up as friends.” Though the now reclusive Van Vliet retired subsequent to the album’s release, he and Corbijn reteamed in 1993 on Some YoYo Stuff, a 13-minute black-and-white documentary subtitled "Don Van Vliet - An Observation of his Observations” which shows the aging musician pondering his life and work. You can watch the film in its entirety on UbuWeb. [Buy]

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Slide 4: U2 – War (1983)

U2 is one of the bands most closely associated with Anton Corbijn, and not surprisingly since the collaborative relationship between the two has existed for nearly three decades. However, initially Corbijn was very resistant to the idea of working with the band. At the time, they showed promise but were a long way away from being the world-conquering stadium rock group they are now. The first time Corbijn met U2 was in New Orleans in February 1982. “They were playing on a boat moored on the Mississippi,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘OK, I'll listen to a couple of songs just to prove I was there then I'll leave.’ I didn't realize the boat would set off, so I had to stay for the gig. I liked the guys and ended up traveling with them and did more pictures. It was the beginning of a friendship.” The gatefold image taken by Corbijn for the band’s 1983 album War saw a starker, more mature side of the band; Bono has said that Corbijn’s special quality was that he photographed U2’s music rather than just U2, that he saw in them aspects they didn’t even see themselves. [Buy]

Slide 5: U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)

In discussing U2’s 30-year creative relationship with Corbijn, it’s impossible not to focus on what is considered the apex of their collaboration: The Joshua Tree. At the time Corbijn took on the assignment of shooting album art for the record, U2 had not decided on a title for their opus yet, with it being referred to as both “Desert Songs” and “The Two Americas” (it touched on the band’s conflicted feelings about the U.S.). The first of those working titles sent Corbijn back to the Mojave Desert, and specifically California’s Death Valley. Over the course of three days in December 1986, Corbijn and the band traveled around Death Valley in a bus, and during that time Corbijn became fascinated with the Joshua trees that he saw. The biblical connotation of the name struck a chord with U2: for the inside cover shot, they appear in front of one of the spiky, unusual-looking cacti. “He just asked us to stand against it,” Bono recalls. “We hadn't figured out he was giving us the name of what would be one of our more important albums.” The spiritual, religious aspect then bled into the album’s cover image, in which the band members – “resembling early settlers or pilgrims,” as David Kootnikoff puts it in U2: A Musical Biography – appear against a desert backdrop, looking like wanderers in search of something beyond words. The photos became iconic, and Corbijn reflected that the image he now saw on billboards “didn't feel like the little picture I printed in my dark room. It became this other thing.” And finding new ways to see the band and create new pictures that resonate just as strongly is a challenge now for Corbijn: “Even after 28 years I always try to take a different picture of U2,” he says. “If I'm stuck, I'll go to Holland, smoke a joint and come back with new ideas.” [Buy]

Slide 6: Herbert Grönemeyer – What's All This (1988)

Herbert Grönemeyer is another musical artist with whom Corbijn has been working for over two decades. Though not someone who has the global profile of U2 – he is maybe best known Stateside for appearing in the U-boat movie Das Boot – German actor-singer Grönemeyer is a major star in mainland Europe. Grönemeyer released his first album in 1978, but it wasn’t until a decade later that he managed to convince Corbijn to work with him on What’s All This?. “We know each other since 1988 when I finally gave in to his persistent requests that we do something,” says Corbijn on his website, “and we are still working together now.” Echoing Bono’s feelings about Corbijn’s photos making U2 the rock stars they wanted to be, Grönemeyer says, “The way you look at yourself in the mirror, the way you see yourself, he adds something to it. …He’s not representing the naturalistic you, he’s trying to set you a goal, so you have to work towards your picture, in a way.” As with many of the artists with whom he has maintained creative relationships, Corbijn has now also shot a number of music videos for Grönemeyer in addition to album covers. In 2004, a book entitled Herbert Grönemeyer was published which coupled Grönemeyer’s lyrics with Corbijn's photographs, and they have collaborated twice more since Corbijn’s transition to movie director: Grönemeyer had a cameo as a doctor in Corbijn’s debut feature, Control, and this year composed the soundtrack for The American. [Buy]

Slide 7: Depeche Mode – 101 (1989)

Interestingly, the bands or artists with whom Corbijn is most associated are often the same ones he resisted working with for the longest. In addition to feeling he was a bad fit for U2 and Grönemeyer, Corbijn explains that he “turned Depeche Mode down for five years because I thought they were too poppy.” He finally caved in 1986 and directed a music video for their song “A Question of Time” (because he wanted to do a road movie-style promo and the band gave him the opportunity to shoot in the U.S.). By the time he shot the album cover for Depeche Mode’s 1989 album 101, he was fast becoming almost an honorary member of the band. “He gave us a visual side we did not have,” says lead singer Dave Gahan. “We felt very comfortable with him right from the beginning. Up until that point we had done awful videos with the stars of the moment; they had their idea of what they wanted to do but we had no idea of how we wanted to be seen.” For over 20 years now, Corbijn has acted as the band’s visual director, doing stage visuals, music videos, album covers, photo shoots, etc. As he had done with U2, Corbijn molded a powerful visual side to the band’s music, creating a complete package that unquestionably elevated Depeche Mode creatively. “Their music is quite filmic, and therefore I could make it quite epic,” says Corbijn. “So I think that I definitely gave them a strength in the imagery, and also connected it to their music.” [Buy]

Slide 8: R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)

In the vast majority of cases, the images Corbijn creates for album covers are of the recording artists in question, however a notable exception to this rule is the cover of R.E.M.’s seminal 1992 album Automatic for the People. Corbijn had met R.E.M.’s frontman Michael Stipe in Stipe’s hometown of Athens, Georgia, in 1990: "Michael's very photogenic and is willing to take risks, so we've done a lot together,” Corbijn told the L.A. Times. The photos for Automatic, Corbijn’s first collaboration with the band, were risky in different ways. One of the images – cited by Coldplay’s Chris Martin as one of Corbijn’s most memorable – features Stipe standing in the ocean, up to his neck in water, a shot Corbijn dragged the singer out of bed at 6 a.m. to capture. Stipe describes Corbijn as having “this almost magical quality to his abilities as a photographer,” and possessing “an understanding and an ability to manipulate light, and — far beyond that — a love and desire to perceive the human condition.” Having showed that he trusted him with his life, Stipe then backed Corbijn’s decision to put not a picture of the band but a cryptic black-and-white image on the cover of Automatic for the People. The photo, the context of which for years remained a mystery to even die-hard fans, was taken in Miami, where the band recorded some of their album, and was of a star on top of the roof of the now-demolished Sinbad Motel on the city’s Biscayne Boulevard. Corbijn’s oblique (but now instantly recognizable) image far from hurt the album: Automatic for the People sold four million copies in the U.S., is widely considered the band’s finest record, and propelled R.E.M. to similar stratospheric heights as fellow Corbijn collaborators U2. [Buy]

Slide 9: Sophie Zelmani – Love Affair (2003)

Over the course of his photographic career, Anton Corbijn has been markedly democratic in terms of the people he chooses to work with. In addition to musical giants such as U2, Depeche Mode, R.E.M., Metallica and the Rolling Stones, Corbijn has also worked with much lesser-known artists such as Clannad, Zucchero, Herman Brood, Per Gessele and Fad Gadget. In 1998, Corbijn shot the cover image for Precious Burden, the sophomore album by another musician who is not a big name, Swedish singer-songwriter Sophie Zelmani. In 2003, Corbijn reteamed with Zelmani for her record Love Affair, creating a beautiful, sun-bleached image which echoes the romantic aspect of the album’s music. Writing about the photo on his website, Corbijn says: “We shot this at the end of the day near her home, a bit south of Stockholm. It was one of those amazingly beautiful autumn sunsets and we were surrounded by thousands of yellow leaves with the winter starting the next day. Sophie and me work very low-key; it is just the two of us walking or driving around looking for a nice place to take some photographs and we found this little bit of woodland as we were keen to catch the last rays of the sun that day and stopped the car and took some photos for about 5 minutes at most as the sun was going down very fast.” [Buy]

Slide 10: The Killers – Sam's Town (2006)

In 2004, Las Vegas power pop band The Killers exploded onto the scene with their hooky debut album Hot Fuss, a record which put an energetic, poppy spin on classic-style rock. Their follow-up record, 2006’s Sam’s Town – described by lead singer Brandon Flowers as “an album that captured, chronologically, everything important that got me to where I am today” – was significantly influenced by U2 and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom had worked with Anton Corbijn. Naturally, it was instinctive for Flowers to choose Corbijn (who had previously shot the video for their song “All These Things That I’ve Done”) as the man to create the album art for Sam’s Town. “I remember when I was a kid, looking at U2 albums or Depeche Mode albums, you always saw his name,”  Flowers told MTV. “He's responsible for taking these awesome black and whites and making these cool videos. So he was always somebody we wanted to work with, and I can't believe we got him.” The visual style the band were after at first is described by Corbijn as “a chic, gypsy look,” however out of their “discussions came these elements of faded glory.” The cover shot is an image of quirky, decayed Americana, featuring model and singer Felice LaZae dressed as a beauty queen leaning against the wall of a rusty trailer, while a goat lies languidly in bottom left of the frame. A year later, Corbijn recruited The Killers to record a cover version of the Joy Division song “Shadowplay,” which is featured over the closing credits of Control, Corbijn’s biopic of Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis. [Buy]

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