Revered for a glittering career working with the most notable names in music and, latterly, in the world of the film, 62-year old Anton Corbijn sits before us rather in a rather reflective mood on a wet afternoon in the heart of the ancient Italian city of Lucca.
Appearing at the Lucca Film Festival for a career retrospective, he took some time out to talk to HeyUGuys’ Greg Wetherall about Kurt Cobain and the Nirvana collaboration he turned down, why he wouldn’t go into photography if he were starting out today and his own favourite album artwork.
Right now, he’s musing on what has happened to his beloved photography in the modern world. “I wouldn’t become a photographer now”, he sighs. “To find your voice is so hard. Now, when I come up with something, people look at it, because they know me, but if you don’t have that position, it’s tough… and I’m not sure if that’s what I’d want to experience”.
Around us lie the palatial and ornate surroundings of an old Italian building bedecked with paintings from the renaissance period. The compact walled city in the foothills of Tuscany is known for having a hundred churches and, if worship is on the menu for the citizens who populate this province, it is apt that many have turned out to celebrate this shy and reluctant ambassador for the visual arts.
Shyness is something he openly admits to, even so far as conceding that it provided something of an unlikely catalyst for his career. “I came to photography in a very odd way” he imparts. “I was shy and music was everything to me. There was a local music concert and, having just moved to the town, I was 16 going 17 and, because it was the holidays, I hadn’t been to school, so I had no friends in the area”, he says.
“I had to go on my own. It was in daylight, and because of how shy I used to be, I took my father’s camera. I walked to the front of the stage.”
“When you’re shy, you always think people are talking about you, so it was ‘what’s he doing there? Oh, of course he’s supposed to be there, he has a camera in his hand’.” I thought I might as well take a few pictures whilst I was there. Those became my first pictures and they were printed by the shop around the corner. I sent them to a magazine and they published it. I thought ‘Wow! This brings me closer to music!’ And because I loved music so much that was my automatic subject. It was only much later when I became very interested in photography as an art form and that I broadened my horizons”.
Having traversed the visual arts, from those humble concert-going beginnings as a young budding concert photographer, to music video maestro and, with 2007’s Joy Division/Ian Curtis biopic, Control, launched his career in feature-length films. He’s also sculpted a huge number of iconic album covers by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and many more.
In fact, Corbijn was responsible for the original artwork for REM’s mid-career peak Automatic for the People and, through the recent 25th anniversary celebrations and subsequent re-release, the band have resorted to Corbijn’s original – and personally preferred – artwork. Michael Stipe has often said that he’s very shy. Is this shyness of a brand that he can recognise and empathise with? He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, probably, but Michael always had something”, he offers. “He’s still a friend”.
And what of all of his covers?
“I have done some album covers that I like elements of but didn’t like the whole thing. Obviously, I can’t be unhappy with The Joshua Tree (U2). That did a lot of things for me. The first time that I saw it on billboards, I couldn’t that something that I had printed had become so big. It was quite something and for the time it was a great design. I liked my original artwork for Automatic for the People (REM – used for the 25th anniversary edition). I also like quite a few of the Depeche Mode things. It’s much more ‘mine’, because I design(ed) everything: the logos, etc. I like the new one, Spirit. That is one of my favourite sleeves. I like Violator also.”
“I’m not an official designer, so there are a lot of designers who take issue with me for designing my sleeves, because I don’t do things ‘right’. To me, that means it has a personality.”
You’ve mentioned about the regret of not following up your work on Nirvana’s ‘Heart-shaped Box’ video by directing the follow-up single ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, despite Kurt Cobain’s insistence. Do you have any other regrets? And does that stand as your biggest one?
Well, I don’t want to live by regrets. I remember turning down Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry for ‘7 Seconds’. It’s a beautiful song, but I thought that it just sounded like noise. It wasn’t the sort of song I wanted to do, (But) it’s just a stupid reason to turn something down.
I do think ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was the worst of my turn downs. Nirvana were such a great band and, in hindsight, there would have been one more video that never ended up being made.
Did you have any signposts when you were talking to Kurt during that period that you thought anything was wrong?
Well, you could see that he was struggling with something, but then I always think that these are the most interesting people. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have struggled with who they are in life. They often feel that they can’t express themselves enough. It’s usually the very talented people that feel that way. With Kurt, I felt that.
I remember being on the telephone with him when I was editing the video and he said something, and I said, ‘I don’t think so, Kurt. I don’t agree. I think we should do it different… and this and this’ and, as I was talking and talking, I didn’t hear anything back. I said, ‘Kurt? Kurt?’. I thought, ‘Oh God, he’s got angry and walked off’ and it was very unlike him, because he was very sweet. I was waiting for 20 minutes and nothing happen. I found out when I called him back the next day that he’d fallen asleep.
We live in quite a nostalgia culture. You’ve worked with so many icons. Do you feel that they are harder to come by these days? Especially in the area of music?
I don’t know. For young people, I think there are a lot of icons. I’m just not a part of that world of knowing who the icons are. I’m sure there is a lot of great rap music. There must be icons.
It’s moved away from rock into rap and hip hop, maybe?
Definitely. Because that’s where the developments are happening.
But thinking about the groups of yesteryear, there seems to be a lot of iconoclastic frontmen and women, whereas now, no matter how good their music might be, the likes of Coldplay and Arcade Fire are quite faceless. They don’t tend to have this talismanic figure out front.
I think white rock music has had its heyday, in a way. There’s still great music being made, but I think that the excitement for kids now is much more in hip hop and rap.
Looking at your career, having started off in photography before moving into music videos and then into film, do you feel that one informed the other? You’ve said that you took a lot of your photography skills into music videos…
Yeah, initially, because I didn’t have any idea of what to do with a moving camera!
For film, I think music videos were handy, in a way, because (it was then that) I started to work with twenty or so people around me, which is different being on your own with a camera. Initially, I found it very difficult with music videos to explain ideas and people didn’t understand what I wanted, because I didn’t know myself.
I was never taught to develop ideas ahead of time. I would go with my camera and meet somebody and then make that work. It was very good schooling, in a way, and it helps me with a lot of difficult moments in film where I can very quickly make a decision but, at the same time, I never developed the ability to pre-think visuals and make stories, so I had to learn through music videos and that’s helped me a lot with movies.
For Depeche Mode, for 25 years, I’ve also designed the stages (for their shows). A lot of things come together: this sense of ‘design’, graphic design and the films that you show, etc.
But you’ve said that you wouldn’t write your own screenplay?
No, I can do music videos because that’s easy, you know? With a good song, anything goes, I think.
I’ve always wanted to work on a serious script, but it would take months and months, but I don’t have the time. I don’t think I have the talent for it probably, either.
I will give it a try at some point though. I will start on a book and then do a script, so that I have something to develop.
Do you think technology has aided or hindered the field of photography?
It’s incredibly difficult. On the one hand, of course, it makes the making of a photograph quite cheap, which is great if you want to do things and show people, but you still have to have really good ideas because there’s far more competition in that field than when I was young.
Now, everyone is a photographer. And there are a lot of meaningless images. There are millions of images coming every hour and to find your own voice within that is really difficult. I don’t know how you’d go about it if you were to start now. Very difficult. Also, when we look back in ten years’ time to this period, are there any images that really stand out?
We don’t give any image enough time to develop as something that’s in our subconscious. In the old days, you had a magazine that was there for a month in your parents’ living room and, if there was a great picture in there, you memorised it, whereas now, it’s like this (clicks fingers).
It’s great that everyone can take a picture now and send it around the world but, at the same time, it has made photography sometimes meaningless.
Having said that, there are finally so many museums now that will show photography. When I was growing up, there was hardly any. The big pictures become very big, in terms of value, but it’s very hard for new people to break through.