giovedì 1 giugno 2017

U2 and Anton Corbijn

The last day of the shooting for the launch of “The Joshua Tree” had not gotten off to an ideal start. «We had taken some photos in a couple of ghost towns near Yosemite Park and Death Valley with U2. Then we stopped at an abandoned shack on the road to Palm Springs and Bono flew into a rage: for him it was a big waste of time», recalls the Dutch photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who had organized the trip. «I replied that capturing the details is as important as taking great scenic views». Fortunately Corbijn, called by some the “fifth member of the band” (and also famous for having created the image of Depeche Mode and directed numerous music videos, as well as the films Control and The American), had already earned the trust of the Irish musicians by shooting the photos for their three previous albums.
And it would seem that even the title of the new album, which would turn U2 into international rock titans, was his idea. «At the beginning of the trip it was going to be called “The Desert Songs” or “The Two Americas”. This is why I had chosen California’s deserts as the setting. But on the first day I told Bono the story of a tree in one of those deserts that the Mormon settlers had named the Joshua Tree, because its branches recalled the arms of the prophet Joshua raised to the sky, exhorting his people to follow him to the Promised Land. The next morning, Bono came down to breakfast with a Bible in hand and informed us that “The Joshua Tree” was the title of the new album».
At that point the photographer began to search for the right tree to use as the background for the famous portrait that appears inside the album cover. «I found it the second day, south of Zabriskie Point, where I’d taken what became the cover photo. I decided to use a panoramic lens that I was unfamiliar with to take full advantage of the vastness of the landscape». A week later, when picking up the negatives from the lab, Corbijn realized the risk he had run. The photos were all slightly blurred, with a single object in sharp focus in the background: the tree. «At first I felt my heart sink and thought, I screwed up. Only later did I realize that the photo was even more powerful like that». In the portrait, Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam have intense, proud expressions, yet clouded by a veil of melancholy. «I’m still proud of it. It reminds me of the faces of immi- grants just landed in America. But with the success of the album, those photos were everywhere and ended up creating an image of U2 as being too serious, which was a bit at odds with their new status as global pop stars». To remedy the situation, from Achtung Baby forward, Corbijn chose to represent them in a more playful, less documentary style. «The band has always been committed to social issues, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t know how to have fun. The serious expressions of “The Joshua Tree” are actually due to how cold it was (to give greater coherence to the setting desert, Corbijn asked the musicians to take off their coats, even though it was December and the temperatures were barely above freezing, author’s note)». That image of the band isn’t the only “misunderstanding” that came out of the photo shoot: the album title led many fans to believe that the photos have been taken in Joshua Tree National Park, which is in fact located 300 kilometers to the south. «I’ve never been to that park, but unfortunately the misunderstanding resulted in tragedy: in 2011 a pair of fans ventured out in search of the tree and lost their bearings. They died from sunstroke». Sadly, although the two were aware of the exact location of the famous picture, they wouldn’t have found it. «It’s gone, it’s been cut down, or perhaps killed by fans who took home branches as souvenirs». Thinking back to those memorable days, Corbijn concludes, «My only regret is not having immediately grasped the album’s full import. But that’s normal: it’s difficult to realize you have a master- piece in front of you while you’re working on it».

Published on L'Uomo Vogue

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