Born in the English industrial city of Birmingham in 1948, Brian Griffin was a factory worker until he entered Manchester Polytechnic to study photography. It was a move that changed history, well, at least the history of some of the best known bands of the 70s and 80s.
If you’re a music fan of a certain age, then you know Griffin’s work, even if you don’t know his name. He was the creative genius / photographer behind a slew of iconic images, including album covers for Joe Jackson, Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode, Psychedelic Furs, Ultravox, Billy Idol and Echo And The Bunnymen.
In his long and celebrated career, his innovative, surrealistic approach to corporate and portrait photography reinvented the genre, creating what is now described as Capitalist Realism. His myriad of influences, from Krautrock and industrial music to the Dutch Masters and Renaissance painters have established Griffin as a singular artist who often defies convention.
Griffin will talk about his work at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival in Washington, D.C., June 7-10. That is exciting on its own, but he’s also going to be doing portfolio reviews for attendees who sign up for a session with him.
Mike Lee: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned you were influenced in university by painting, and continue to study Renaissance painters and Dutch Masters, among others. While this clearly has had an influence in much of your work in structure and use of light and shadow, I’m curious about the noir aspects of the corporate work starting in the 1970s. I’m wondering if German expressionist filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Carol Reed’s The Third Man were an influence.
Brian Griffin: You have to remember that I grew up in a heavy industrialized area that most of the time appeared as a black and white world filled with atmosphere from the fogs and smog. A world that felt you was living in a techno club with the sounds of the giant Forge hammers, tap tapping, emanating from the bucket and bath works and the low sounds from the steel rolling mills. My world was full of imagery, which helped me unite with the expressionist world especially the German Silent Cinema. Basically it was a world filled with shadows, immense noise and highlights produced from hot iron and molten steel.
Lee: You often use juxtaposition in your professional work (as an aside, one of the reasons I picked up a camera, as a teenager was the Elvis Costello on the diving board in LA-thank you, sir!). Do these compositions come by instinctively or with planning?
Griffin: When relatively young, I guess I researched into the Surrealists too heavily and became heavily inspired by their employment of visual juxtaposition
Lee: What strikes me about your series Himmelstrasse is how you conveyed the emptiness of the unavoidable journey that ended with death for the hundreds of thousands conveyed to the death camps in Poland. What motivated this work and what was the response to the book?
Griffin: A book of dark subject matter; It had a muted reception with just a small number of people supporting it. That project was so exciting for me, that excitement being created within me by some external power. A power that just uses me to create images, what that power is God only knows. Again the book is very musical with its repetitiveness seeming to convey the sound emanating from the carriage wheels as they pass over the joining rails creating a Motorik beat.
Lee: Is your series Capitalist Realism as much about your response to your experiences growing up in Birmingham as it is a statement about the Thatcher Era?
Griffin: Its inspiration is all about the influence of growing up in the lower working class reaches of society and the treatment of us by the monied classes
Lee: Do you listen to music while you work? I read you listen to industrial. Who is your favorite?
Griffin: Neu of Krautrock fame were always my favourite with Michael Rother the guitarist in Neu being my musical hero.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.