Taking a shot: The Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn on his first Hollywood film

He says he hates being labelled a rock photographer and anyway, the English have never valued his artistry. So will his new George Clooney film finally bring Anton Corbijn the credibility he craves?

Chances are you've seen Anton Corbijn's work without realising it. The cover of U2's album The Joshua Tree – with Bono and the boys looking wistful in the desert – was one of his. Same goes for Depeche Mode's video for "Enjoy the Silence", as Dave Gahan marches across a dramatic landscape in a crown and stately robes. Or that infamous black-and-white shot of Joy Division in a London underground passageway, a photo that simultaneously made the careers of Corbijn and the band while prefiguring his own 2007 directorial debut Control, a striking account of the demise of that band's lead singer, Ian Curtis.

In the past, Corbijn has been a little put out that in England his work has gone rather unrecognised (he has lived in London since arriving in late 1979 from his native Holland to become the chief photographer for NME). "Without sounding pompous," he told one interviewer, "I don't think the English have realised the value of what I've done." And it's true: rather like Depeche Mode, the band he is most associated with (as their "creative director", he has shot videos and designed album sleeves and stage sets), he is more appreciated in Europe and the US, where sold-out exhibitions of his work are frequent.

In the UK, the best he can hope for is seeing his "commercial work" lauded – most recently he shot the actress Liv Tyler campaign for G:Star, a clothing company. This being Corbijn, though, you won't hear too many complaints. As mild-mannered as he is soft-voiced, he has a gentle-giant quality about him, at least these days. When we meet in London's Soho Hotel, where he is dressed in a navy denim jacket, brown T-shirt and grey slacks, I am struck by how much less aggressive he looks now, at 55, than in the self-portraits he shot in his younger days. His hair grey and rapidly receding, he now boasts a beard that shaves him of that dangerous, defiant edge of youth.

Still, echoing the strategy of some of his prime subjects – David Bowie and U2, in particular – Corbijn's success has always been about reinvention. He hates being branded a rock photographer, and no longer makes music videos. "My horizons have broadened," he says in his faint Dutch accent. Now he is a film-maker, here to talk about his second movie, The American. It topped the box-office charts in its first week of release in the US, and has already grossed globally three times its $20m budget – making it a hit in anyone's language. Of course, it rather helps that it stars George Clooney as a hitman hiding out in an isolated Italian village after he himself becomes a target

Compared to his elegiac directorial debut, The American feels a considerable shift for Corbijn. "It is in a lot of ways very different from Control," he acknowledges, as he slumps in a chair near a pile of hardback copies of Inside The American, which documents his time on the movie. "It's a Hollywood film, as opposed to an independent film, with a big actor. It's a different genre, it's fictional, it's contemporary, it's colour, with multilingual acting. Control was only in English and German, and in black and white. Even shooting when it becomes colder, in October and November, was different. I tried to get as much varied experience as I could, making the second film."

While Clooney's company Smoke House produced and Hollywood "mini-major" Focus Features provided the financial muscle, it was Corbijn who developed the project, hiring Rowan Joffe (son of director Roland) to adapt the novel by Martin Booth. He admits that he found it much harder than making Control, not least because a fictional film leaves one with an overwhelming array of narrative choices compared with the constraints of a biopic. As a result, Corbijn went for the "less is more" approach. The pacing is gradual, never sudden. The dialogue is minimal. And the compositions are constructed with the same craftsmanship that Clooney's character employs to assemble the weapon he's hired to build – his one last job before he quits his lonely life.

There is a fetishistic quality to the scenes in which Clooney plays gunsmith, and Corbijn cites films such as The Conversation and The Day of the Jackal as influential. Still, with the inclusion of footage from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, it's clear he sees the film as a modern-day Western: Clooney rides into town before the past catches up with him. The story deliberately and dangerously flirts with cliché, as Clooney's angst-ridden assassin hooks up with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido), whose heart of gold he falls for. Corbijn calls it a case of good versus evil. "It's a simplified notion of life, which I quite like."

Of course, it is tempting to correlate this with Corbijn's own background. He was born in Strijen in the western Netherlands, the son of a clergyman, and lived a fairly cloistered childhood. "We only went to a museum when I was 16 for the first time, and that was Rembrandt, because Rembrandt depicted Biblical scenes, which was the only way my father understood art," he recalls. And it wasn't just his father. He estimates that 60 per cent of his family – meaning his grandfather and his uncles – were men of the cloth. Did they expect him to follow suit? He shakes his head. "They never pushed."

Instead, he drifted towards photography – his first major subject was the Dutch musician Herman Brood in a Groningen café in the mid-1970s. He admits he wasn't ambitious beyond the way he wanted his photographs to look. "I never saw myself doing anything like I do now. Everything has been a happy accident. Even going to England. I had problems in Holland getting my pictures published – people thought they were too dark. Going to England for Joy Division turned out to be an incredible career move in retrospect." Even then, nobody wanted to publish the pictures until Ian Curtis died.

If this proved the making of him, Corbijn had already acquired some famous friends – not least Tom Waits, whom he met back in 1977. "When we first met, I was just a shy photographer from a local magazine [and the pair knew each other only on professional terms]. But in the early 1980s, we got to know each other better and went to each other's homes." Their resulting 30-year friendship has spawned a new book, Waits/Corbijn, featuring more than 200 candid portraits taken by Corbijn and a 48-page contribution of text and images by Waits. "He takes pictures of things he sees on the road or trees that are dead," grins Corbijn.

Proving how far removed his work is from fellow "celebrity" photographers such as Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton, Corbijn is keen to stress that it is not a document of Waits's world – no tours or visits to movie sets are included. "It doesn't try to say 'This is Tom's life,'" he says. Rather, it's just the two of them hanging out. "That's the beauty of it. When we work together, there's nobody there. There's no record company, there's no make-up. There's nothing. Just him and me driving around a bit, or sitting somewhere. With one person, it's great. That's how I work with a lot of people if I can. It's fairly loose. I don't have lights or anything."

It is this sort of casual intimacy that dominates much of his work – not least in an exhibition just opened in New York's Stellan Holm Gallery, entitled Inwards and Outwards. (The subjects are typically iconic – Waits, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, Alexander McQueen among them – while the methods are defiantly old-school, with Corbijn shooting hand-held on film.) Much like the fact that he no longer watches MTV, he doesn't approve of the direction his profession has taken, and despairs whenever photographers are assigned to take a picture of him. "It's really uninteresting, what they do. It's unbelievable. Click-click, click-click – got it. What happened? There's nothing there any more."

You have to wonder where the next Corbijn might come from. Certainly, between MP3s relegating the artistry of the album cover to little more than a record company afterthought and the decline in the importance of rock magazines, he is well aware that were he starting out today, he wouldn't stand a chance. "I don't think there would have been a place for me," he admits. "When I started, it was the only time I could have done it. I would hate to want to be me in this day and age. I'm happy I was able to do all these things, because that was my dream – to be near music, and photograph it."

A dream he more than realised. And Corbijn has since put body and soul on the line to protect his career. When he made Control, and the financing fell through, he sold his house and put up half the budget himself. "Given the same outcome, I would do the same," he says. "It was a wonderful time in my life. I wouldn't have missed it for any money." After the modest yet telling success of The American, he is looking to make a third film within the next two years. There are no plans for a Hollywood blockbuster, thankfully, as he prefers the moderately sized canvas he's worked on so far. "I like this scale," he nods. "It's pleasant. It's human."

'The American' (15) opens on Friday. 'Waits/Corbijn' will be published by Schirmer/Mosel next year

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star