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