The extra band member: photographer Anton Corbijn and Depeche Mode
When photographer Anton Corbijn first met Depeche Mode in 1981 while working an assignment for British music magazine NME, he wasn’t convinced. For the intense Corbijn, the son of a preacher who had moved from Holland to England a year prior to follow moody post-punkers Joy Division, the poppy four-piece were light stuff.
“That’s just the way I was wired, that if you do something it should feel like you do it with all your might. Your focus, your energy, always 100 per cent on the one thing, ’cause I guess that’s what I did in my photography at the time,” Corbijn, 66, says from a hotel room in London. “When I felt people fell short of that, I wasn’t so interested.”
The band’s sound took on a colder, industrial edge with 1983’s Construction Time Again and 1984’s Some Great Reward, when guitarist Martin L. Gore took control of their songwriting. And although music critics struggled to comprehend how the band who’d recorded Just Can’t Get Enough was now singing about sex and death and religion, Corbijn’s interest was piqued.
“Yes, they dismissed them,” he recalls of the music press’s response to the band’s sudden transition. “But between the first time I met them to when I really started to work with them about five years later, they really developed and they became a different band, really. They had a lot more seriousness going on, so that I could see how my images and their sounds really started to match up.”
Forty years on, the photographer and band have carved out one of pop music’s most intriguing creative partnerships to the point that Corbijn, the band’s de facto creative director, who has taken their publicity shots, shot their videos and designed their album covers, logos and stage shows, has often been called the band’s fifth member. Images from across their collaboration are collated in the sumptuous new 512-page book, Depeche Mode by Anton Corbijn.
By the time he’d meshed with Depeche, Corbijn’s early rock photography had already cultivated a distinct artistic style characterised by high-contrast black and white, heavy grain, movement, and a unique interpretive streak (his iconic NME cover photo of Joy Division in a London tube station had the band completely turned away from camera, save an over-the-shoulder glance from Ian Curtis). The aesthetic was tonally a fit for Depeche Mode, lending a solemn, romantic image to their new sound.
Asked in the book how he’d envisage Depeche Mode if Corbijn had not been such a part of the band’s identity, frontman Dave Gahan quips: “In focus and in colour.” While influenced by documentary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus, Corbijn says his aesthetic, defined by working at a fast pace, was borne by necessity.
“When I was coming up in Holland if you wanted to photograph somebody in the music world who came through, you usually had a few minutes, that was it. So you became very inventive in how you used those few minutes, and it helped you focus,” he says. “That was a good schooling, I think, because I know I can take a good picture anywhere, that it will somehow work.”
Asked how he’d envisage Depeche Mode if Corbijn had not been a part of the band’s identity, Dave Gahan quips: “In focus and in colour.”
During those early years shooting for the NME , he’d arrive at jobs with a simple set-up: his Nikkormat FT camera (and a spare in case it went on the fritz), plus 50mm, 35mm and 80mm lenses.
“I’m not a studio photographer so location is a very big thing, and you don’t always have the luxury of taking people to places that would be ideal, so I always improvised and made something work,” he recalls.
His first shoot with Depeche Mode in August 1981 saw him taking the band out in a row boat on a small lake in their hometown of Basildon, Essex.
“It’s advantageous sometimes to be forced into that kind of focus,” he says. “Because if you have all this time and all these cameras and lenses, you lose what could be the strength of the simple approach. I mean, it’s just one idea and you shoot it. How many different ways can you shoot it?”
Corbijn was a fixture with the band through the release of their most significant records, 1990’s Violator, for which he designed the rose-adorned album cover and shot the evocative video for single Enjoy The Silence (“It was on high-rotation on MTV, people wrote it was ‘the David Lynch of videos’; it was interesting the impact it had,” he recalls), and the follow-on 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion.
He remembers it as the start of a “dark period”, where Gahan succumbed to drug abuse and emotional torture, eventually overdosing on a speedball in May 1996 that left him clinically dead for two minutes.
A stark photo in the book from August 1993, taken in a Frankfurt hotel after a gig, shows Gahan gaunt and lifeless, his torso and arms covered in nicks and scars. Why did Corbijn take the photo, so severe in its intimacy? Was he trying to show Gahan to himself?
“I don’t know if there was an ulterior motive, I don’t know if it’s just a photographer being with someone in a room and thinking, ‘This makes a good picture’,” Corbijn says.
“The injuries were partly self-inflicted and partly because he was diving into the audience every night. But there’s also a very Jesus-like vibe to the photo, the way he’s lying there with his eyes closed but all this damage to him. It had something. A combination of heaven and hell, I guess.”
In his 2015 film Life, about Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock and actor James Dean, Corbijn explored the unique relationship between photographer and subject. What’s it like being with a rock band during those periods of heady excess, well within the romantic facade that everyone else sees?
“It’s always different when you look back. When you’re in there, although there was darkness and all that, there was also, of course, the elation,” says Corbijn. “The concerts were successful and each day was an incredible rush of energy, so that confuses things in a way.
“But, of course, when I look back I should’ve maybe talked to Dave more seriously,” he adds. “Because I’m not a connoisseur of drug use, I maybe didn’t understand just how damaging or how far it went. I’m happy that period is behind us, because it was not a healthy time.”
Since 2007’s Control, a biopic about the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Corbijn has worked primarily in film. His next project, he says, will be a documentary on Hipgnosis, the English design group who created album cover art for artists including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney (“It’s a documentary about the dying art of album sleeves and the resurgence of people buying vinyl,” he says). But he remains enamoured with the possibilities of still photography.
“I love the simplicity of just going out with my camera. Especially after making movies, I realised the freedom you have as a photographer,” he says. “To get a movie to work there are so many elements that have to gel, it takes years of your life and it can still fail. In photography, if it goes wrong you’ve only lost a few hours.”
Corbijn’s list of portrait subjects could rival Forrest Gump’s encounters. There’s Nick Cave (“One of my favourite subjects, he always looks believable”), Miles Davis (“We shot in 5-10 minutes, he had such a strength”), Tom Waits (“He does his own thing, never PR or anything, just Tom and me”), and Nelson Mandela (“Such an aura, a beautiful energy. That’s an experience that remains with you”).
He’s also had a similar long-term collaboration with U2, famously shooting their Joshua Tree album cover and acting as creative director across various albums and tours (“They’re always open with trying things, but it’s a bigger machine,” he says). But his relationship with Depeche Mode remains personally rewarding.
“There’s an advantage with staying with one subject for a long time; you become part of the furniture so there’s an ease in the relationship and what you can do,” says Corbijn. “I hope people can appreciate the variety of things we’ve done. I think we’ve made some great things together.”
Anton holding onto Dave during the filming of video Barrel of a Gun, Marrakech, 1996.
Dave Gahan in Randers, Denmark, 1987.
Corbijn’s first shoot with Depeche Mode (with former member Vince Clarke) in London, 1981.
Dave Gahan in Frankfurt, 1993.
Depeche Mode in London, 1992: (l-r) Dave Gahan, Alan Wilder, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher.
Anton holding onto Dave during the filming of video Barrel of a Gun, Marrakech, 1996.
Dave Gahan in Madrid, 1992.
Depeche Mode in San Francisco, 2008.