Anton Corbijn hates being called a "rock photographer," even though he's the world's most in-demand lensman of pop musicians.
To him, that label suggests someone who enjoys documenting the backstage and cocktail-party scene. Corbijn prefers to take his subjects away from all that--to somewhere like, say, Joshua Tree National Monument, where his suggestion for a U2 photo location led to that band's most famous album title as well as cover.
Contrasting himself with celebrity photographer-directors who focus on the body beautiful, Corbijn says he tries in some way to photograph \o7 minds\f7 . In that quest, he's not too far from the kid who grew up in Holland staring at album covers.
Corbijn, who is in his 30s, recalls "a quite lonely childhood (where) you sit a lot in your room and play records and it means a hell of a lot to you, and you form your own images. . . . As I make imagery now, I still think of people who were like me--that if you look at the sleeve, that those images mean something, that it's your link to the people who make the music. That's always in the back of my mind."
Nowadays, the no-longer-shy Corbijn is the visual collaborator of choice for such groups as U2, R.E.M., Nirvana and Depeche Mode, providing a good portion of the imagery fueling a lot more lonely childhoods, though his work tends toward the more sophisticated palate.
Having Corbijn as your photographer or video director is considered such an imprimatur of status in serious or alternative music circles that, when he deigned to shoot an album cover for the lower-brow Bon Jovi last year, his name became part of the ribbing directed at the project--as in "Those guys want to be taken seriously so badly they hired \o7 Anton Corbijn\f7 to do the cover."
"For me it was not a natural thing to do Bon Jovi," he says. "But I didn't want to become predictable in who I was working with. I don't want to become stale."
Corbijn's latest stab at staving off staleness is his role as the visual designer of the current Depeche Mode arena show, which begins a five-night run at the Forum in Inglewood on Saturday. His move into tour design is an inevitable step in his work with the group, which has used him almost exclusively for photos and videos for the last seven years.
"The problem with Depeche is that they're not very mobile on stage, because of the bloody synthesizer stuff," says the soft-spoken but self-assured Corbijn, still looking the pale European but dressed for L.A. in a gray T-shirt as he sits drinking tea in his West Hollywood hotel room.
His solution was to design two levels of staging, separated by banks of video screens. The \o7 very\f7 mobile singer David Gahan has the lower stage mostly to himself, while the three more sedentary musicians sit atop the upper level. (At one point technicians Martin Gore and Alan Wilder do take up a guitar and drum kit and saunter down to the lower stage as well.)
In creating films to fill the stage's 11 individual screens, Corbijn didn't cheat by borrowing footage from his MTV videos for Depeche, although there are familiar symbolic motifs, or "references" to the videos, on loan.
Corbijn started shooting the punk scene for Dutch magazines in the '70s as a Joy Division-obsessed teen, graduating to England's weekly New Musical Express, always working on the run, which he prefers even now.
"I still consider myself an amateur photographer in some way, though you can't help becoming professional if you do it long enough," he says.
"In a way it's a cowboy mentality. I try not to work in studios, and I don't use tripods either. I like candid photography. I like photographs that don't seem to be totally finished, where you have a feeling you can become part of the photograph and it can become part of your imagination."
Corbijn shoots "80%" in black and white. The shots are usually anything but glamorous: often dark or shadowy, with indistinct edges. His are the only celebrity mug shots you're likely to see where the foreground figure might purposely be out of focus.
"There's the challenge with really famous people to do a picture that is very ordinary, because that's not how people see them usually," says Corbijn, whose reputation is such that the stars rarely balk. Lately, even models like Christy Turlington have come to him for anti-glamour shots.
His latest projects display his diversity: Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" video; still-photo shoots with Isabella Rossellini and Henry Rollins for a portraiture book in the works; and a video of the ballyhooed Bono/Frank Sinatra duet.
"I've always been fascinated by music; that's the reason why I started in photography, because I can't play an instrument and it's the closest I could get to it," confesses Corbijn.
"My favorite music photographers from the '60s had a much more natural link with the musicians. In the '70s, when I was starting, glam-rock was happening and people were starting to think about imagery and how to use it--and the '80s was about marketing.
"But '60s people like Elliott Lundy, who did Dylan a lot, and Michael Cooper, who did the Stones and John Lennon, were brilliant. The photographs were like a natural extension of (the stars') lives.
"I try to apply that still nowadays, although everything that I do is merchandised, and maybe I have to be slightly bolder in some ways than those '60s photographs. But I try to keep the spirit at least--a human feel.
"You have to make some sort of image that's great when you see it reproduced--that it somehow becomes identified with that thing--but also you should not lose the feeling of emotion that you're \o7 close\f7 to something. It has to give something. It can't be just a composition or an image. That's a very simple approach, but I'll stick with it."