New Book ‘Depeche Mode by Anton Corbijn’ Exalts the Most Visually Realized Band of a Generation
Above image, Randers, Denmark, 1987
“I can honestly say I have never questioned any of the ridiculous outfits I’ve had to wear or roles I’ve had to play in any of Anton’s videos, photographs or films.” – Martin Gore
It’s a curious thing, certainly, that in the age of Instagram, bands have never looked more visually underachieving, nay outright boring. Some, like Greta Van Fleet and St Vincent, seem apparently to be trying very, very hard…and in the case of the former, failing embarrassingly spectacularly.
And then there’s Depeche Mode, arguably the most visually idealized act in the history of modern pop music (sorry Madonna and Lady Gaga, but good try all the same). Yet one could debate for hours as to what degree the band themselves were/are responsible, and how much of it was the result of a 35-year creative partnership with Dutch photographer and all around aesthetic virtuoso Anton Corbijn. The latter came to notoriety via a series of particularly haunted images of Ian Curtis and Joy Division. And though he resisted offers to work with Depeche for quite some time, he eventually acquiesced in 1986, and the marriage has been a very happy one ever since.
A new book from TASCHEN, which might seem preposterous were it about any other band, gathers the creative fruits of this remarkable three-decades-plus relationship to utterly striking effect. And at 512 pages, with a price of $150, the pithily titled Depeche Mode by Anton Corbijn suggests the level of “faith and devotion” Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher have cultivated over 40 odd years; after all, would enough people pay that much for a book about U2?
It opens with an introduction by journalist Simon Bainbridge, in which he interviews all concerned parties. And when he asks Gahan how he would envisage Depeche Mode without Corbijn, the singer jokes, “In focus and in color!” But he then continues on in earnest, “Anton was able to give the DM sound, which we were beginning to create, a visual identity.” It’s an understatement of monumental proportions.
But it’s about much more than just visual identity, of course. Depeche were a band that went through periods of devastating strife, their by-now-legendary 1993 Devotional Tour ending with Gahan and Gore in the throes of what could only be described as epic substance abuse issues, Fletch on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and former member Alan Wilder quitting in disgust and exasperation. And Corbijn’s images incisively and poignantly capture all those simmering tensions that have arguably fueled their dark, often despondent creative output over these many years.
In a promotional pic from 1992, for instance, each of them looks to be in their own head, with a palpable and vivid sense of emotional disconnection coming clearly through. It was a very bad time for them. Yet earlier we see a young Martin, on the plane which was on the way to their storied 1988 Rose Bowl concert, and his countenance seems full of the sort of slightly-veiled nervous excitement that comes when you’re pretty sure your whole life is about to change. (It did.)
Later images from San Francisco (2008), New York (also 2008) and New Orleans (2012) are awash in a sort of resigned solemnity. They’ve all made peace, Depeche are as exalted and popular as ever – but Corbijn rightly allows the scars to still show.
Altogether there are more than 500 photographs featured in this stunningly realized visual career retrospective, including some taken during the filming of such everything-changing videos as those for ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy the Silence’. Of course, nothing less than that could have possibly and properly told such a story as theirs – one that surely remains far beyond the reach of mere words.