When Anton Corbijn was 24 years old, he heard a record that changed his life. It was Unknown Pleasures, by an English band called Joy Division, and legend has it that the budding Dutch photographer was so moved by it that he picked up and moved to England. He soon photographed the group in their hometown of Manchester, and over the next decade became one of the best-known photographers in the world, renowned for his eerie black-and-white style; he essentially created U2’s image since the mid-’80s. Along the way, he directed music videos, including Nirvana’s ”Heart-Shaped Box” and Depeche Mode’s ”Personal Jesus.” Now he has jumped to the big screen, going back to his Joy Division acolyte days with the biopic Control (see the EW review), the tragic story of lead singer Ian Curtis who, after battling epilepsy and trying to deal with a disintegrating love life, committed suicide in 1980 at age 23.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you really move from Holland to England in 1979 purely because of Joy Division?
ANTON CORBIJN: I wanted to move away from Holland for my work because I felt that things would be better for me in England. But when I heard Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, that pushed me towards making the move and making it real. I met them within 12 days of moving to England.
What was it about that album that captivated you so much?
There was an energy and gravity to it. A weight to it. My English wasn’t that great, so I wasn’t understanding all the lyrics, so it was something about the sound — it sounded like what Ian was saying really mattered. In those days I was very intuitive with everything I did, so I felt it was the right thing to do to follow this music.
And you’ve been living in England ever since?
I’ve lived here nearly 28 years now. But to be honest I’m about to move back to Holland. I came to England because of Joy Division and now that I’ve made the movie I’m leaving again. It’s like I’ve come full circle and it’s the right time.
That first photo session you did with Joy Division in the train station tunnel in Manchester became quite iconic.
I think they liked it, because it was the first conceptual picture they’d done. My idea was to show them walking away towards unknown pleasures. So it wasn’t based on their faces. They were walking away from the camera and there was a darkness to it, and I think it somehow seemed to sum up that whole period of Joy Division.
You were also invited to photograph the ”Love Will Tear Us Apart” video session. Were you getting to know Ian very well by this time?
The problem I had was that my English was poor and I was also quite shy, plus they spoke with an accent that was hard for me to understand, so the conversation was very limited. I couldn’t really consider myself a friend of Ian’s because I couldn’t put two lines together. I think the photographs, because they became so well known, suggested a far deeper relationship between me and the band than actually existed.
Did you get any sense of how troubled Ian was?
No, not at all. He was a bit held back, but I found him to be very friendly. He was a little absent, but were there strong indications he was going to kill himself? No. People talk about that picture where he’s in the tunnel looking back, and they say it’s like a prediction of things to come, but those are the kinds of things that people read into images later.
NEXT PAGE: ”In England I’m already labeled a rock photographer, which is a little insulting, because I’m not a rock photographer at all.”