1948 was a good year for the world of music photography. On top of being the year that Mick Rock was born, it was also the year that Brian Griffin was welcomed onto the planet. However, while Rock carved out a reputation as ‘The Man Who Shot the Seventies’, Griffin took the longer way around. It wasn’t until the Eighties that his work began to attract attention, eventually earning himself the accolade of the ‘Photographer of the Decade’.
While Griffin is renowned for using art, books, and films as the inspiration to his work, it was his native Birmingham that most shaped his approach and style. Post-war Birmingham was the site of an industrial boom, with factories springing up across the city. After his education at Halesowen Technical School, Griffin began his career as a draughtsman, working for British Steel, where he would work for the next five years.
However, unusually for the time, his parents encouraged him to think outside the box and pursue something beyond factory work. An invitation by the factory foreman to join the local camera club inspired the young Griffin to apply to Manchester Polytechnic, although he says that, at the ripe old age of 21, “I wasn’t that interested in photography. It was a form of escape.” He graduated in 1972 and moved to London, with the idea of becoming a fashion photographer.
Unfortunately, as the man himself says, “People just didn’t want to give jobs to a young lad, and there weren’t many photography jobs to come by in the first place. In the late sixties photography wasn’t a terribly fashionable thing to do, it wasn’t something anyone desired to do.” As a result, Griffin’s first forays into professional photography were as a corporate snapper for magazines such as Management Today, Marketing, and Accountancy Age.
For the most part, Griffin’s subjects tended to be suited and booted businessmen and tradespeople. However, it was this that helped him shape his own style, which came to be known as ‘Capitalist Realism.’
By the late Seventies, punk’s flame was flickering out. In its place, a wave of new bands came onto the scene, favouring a cleaner sound and sharper look. Griffin remembers that bands such as Elvis Costello and The Attractions and The Jam “tended to dress quite smartly and were quite fashion-conscious. I thought they looked just like the businessman I was photographing, so I wondered if I could get a job shooting music.” Check out the Luxury Music Poster collection of some of Griffin’s work, to see his unique take on photographing musicians.
After discovering that the smartly-suited Elvis Costello had recently signed with Stiff Records, Griffin decided to pay the indie label a speculative visit: “I met the boss Dave Robinson and he booked me for my first shoot, photographing the album cover for The Parkerilla by Graham Parker and The Rumour… It wasn’t because I loved music or wanted to photograph bands. I just wanted to expand my repertoire and source of income.”
Working for corporate magazines had started to shape the way Griffin looked through a lens and gave rise to a series of shots and covers that would establish him as one of the most influential music photographers of his generation. However, taking pictures and portraits of up-and-coming and established bands was not without its problems: “I actually didn’t find it as interesting as the corporate work. That was weirder and more surreal, whereas the band members with their funny haircuts looked like they should be odd! The bands were a pain in the arse a lot of the time. But corporate work was very low paid, whereas music work paid far higher rates.”
Browse the Music Poster selection of Griffin’s prints and you’ll notice that there are very standard ‘gig shots’. Griffin’s talent lies in using the backdrop in the same way a film director uses a set. Similarly, the subjects are ‘cast’ in roles, using props and film-noir-style lighting to achieve startling and boundary-pushing images. Check out his pictures of the likes of Echo and The Bunnymen, Iggy Pop and Siouxie and The Banshees and you’ll see his subjects unconsciously revealing aspects of themselves that a standard photograph just won’t capture. Griffin’s portraits and pictures are more akin to fine art, when it comes to lighting and composition, elevating his shots from bog-standard visual documents to statement pieces.
As a green-behind-the-gills lens-slinger, Griffin started out using an Olympus OM-1 SLR. As a result, many of his earliest shots were caught on 35mm film and then physically resized, for portraits and album covers. However, as the work started coming in, he realised that it might be time to upgrade his equipment: “Eventually, around about 1979, I scraped enough money together to buy a Hasselblad. I was shooting album covers, and getting a lot of work, so I realised that the most sensible thing to do was to have a square-format camera. For all of my career, up until recently, when using my Hasselblads I shot everything near enough on the same lens – a 150mm.”
“Up until recently” comes in at around 2004, when Griffin started using digital cameras: “I started shooting digital about 2004 or 2005. I was sponsored by Mamiya with its first medium-format digital camera – the ZD. Now I use film or digital, depending on what I’m doing.” However, it seems that the tried and tested route is the one he prefers, saying that ““All of my cameras are basically from the late ’70s to the beginning of the ’80s; all film cameras.”
While there have been some notable photographers on the music scene, there aren’t many who can claim to have pioneered a singular style of photography or who have snapped as many bands as Brian Griffin. His images are beautifully staged yet seem to reveal previously-unseen sides of the musicians on the other side of the camera. In a single picture, he creates a narrative and a story that is much a part of the image as the snapshot itself.
For Griffin, the road to success requires a certain combination of ingredients: “Working as a photographer is incredible. It’s very difficult and I have seen many talented photographers give up, but if you’re passionate enough and are willing to sustain the efforts it takes, it can be an incredible thing. But you’ve got to be a little obsessed and you need a strong disposition.”
Do you have a favourite Griffin photograph? Browse our collection of his work and let us know which ones you think best represent this outstanding and important artist.