Brian Griffin obituary

<span>Wandsworth Roundabout, 1977. Brian Griffin wound intrigue throughout his work, stopping the viewer in their tracks, making them take time over his images.</span><span>Photograph: Brian Griffin</span>
Wandsworth Roundabout, 1977. Brian Griffin wound intrigue throughout his work, stopping the viewer in their tracks, making them take time over his images.Photograph: Brian Griffin

Brian Griffin, who has died aged 75, was one of the most original and influential British photographers of his generation. His images of Kate Bush, Donald Sutherland, Iggy Pop and Damien Hirst, and his album covers for Echo and the Bunnymen and Depeche Mode, are some of the most famous pictures of the 1980s.

For the cover of Depeche Mode’s 1982 LP, A Broken Frame, Griffin transposed Soviet social realism to a cornfield off the M11 in East Anglia, and the result was named by Life magazine as one of the greatest images of the decade. His virtuosity saw him declared photographer of the decade by the Guardian in 1989.

His work, which has been exhibited globally, is in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the V&A, the Arts Council and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Griffin’s success capturing the glossy worlds of money and hairspray was rooted in something darker. He was forged in the Black Country, the industrial heartland of the West Midlands, and the influence of the factories, and the harsh light from the furnaces, suffused his early photography. He had a relentless work ethic and would do anything to succeed in a world far removed from that of his upbringing.

He was born in Birmingham, the only child of Edith (nee Moore) and James Griffin, who were both factory workers. The family lived in a two-up, two-down in Lye, where every street had a factory. Young Brian felt that “the whole world appeared to be partly made of metal. Everything you touched seemed to be iron and steel.” After passing the 11-plus exam he went to Halesowen technical school, then went to work at the age of 16.

In 1965 he was making conveyors for readymix concrete plants when the factory foreman suggested he join Hagley camera club, where he picked up a camera for the first time. He then got a job at British Steel and was working as a nuclear pipework engineering estimator in 1969 when everything changed. Devastated by the end of a love affair, he decided to leave his old life behind.

Griffin’s only means of escape was photography, so he put some of his camera club images into a Boots photo album and applied to art colleges. He was accepted into Manchester Art School at the age of 21, where he studied with Martin Parr and Daniel Meadows.

In the college library he devoured books on art, and after graduating and moving to London, he spent weeks at the National Film theatre immersing himself in German and French cinema. Inspired, he began to look for work.

In 1972 he went to see the art director of Management Today magazine. Griffin’s talent was plain to see, and he was immediately put to work. He shot a shadowy monochromatic image of rush hour on London Bridge from the back of a cab, calling it his Metropolis image, after Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece. Prior to this, Griffin had doubted his ability, but now he knew that he could make it as a photographer, he unleashed his artistry.

Through his images for the magazine, Griffin introduced surrealism to the boardroom. His industrial background meant that he clicked with the businessmen who were his subjects, and the captains of industry played ball. He wittily subverted the corporate power of the men he photographed by introducing discordant juxtapositions, building tension. He wound intrigue throughout his work, stopping the viewer in their tracks, making them take time over his images, and his work began to be recognised.

Ambitious, he wanted to expand his repertoire and earn more money. He understood that the style he had honed in the business world would translate into the pop sphere, where post-punk bands were eschewing bondage trousers in favour of being suited and booted. He went to Stiff Records and photographed Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

Recognition followed and commissions flooded in. He worked for Esquire, Rolling Stone, the Face, Time Out, the Sunday Times and the Observer, in advertising for British Airways, BMW and Levi Jeans, and photographed Brian May in a series for Sony Walkman in 1980.

That year he moved to Rotherhithe, a working-class area of south London on the banks of the Thames. He loved the place, recognised its people and was to stay there all his life. He set up a studio from where he continued to push the boundaries of the conventional. Using his background in engineering, allied to his innate creativity, he built lighting machines and used knicker elastic and ping-pong balls to create startling special effects in an analogue age.

Some experiments led to happy accidents: his highly regarded 1984 image of Siouxsie Sioux, intended as a double exposure, was in fact a triple: “It was wrong, but so right,” he said.

In the days before social media, aside from magazines, the main showcase for a photographer’s work was on walls, be they in galleries or town centres. Griffin’s first solo London exhibition was at Contrast Gallery in 1981, and the posters of his work for bands such as Spandau Ballet and Ultravox were plastered across the land. His family finally saw his work and were proud: they had always wanted more for Brian than factory life.

As well as portraiture, he produced numerous documentary projects. In 1986 he photographed construction workers at the Broadgate development in the City of London. At the time he was still reeling from the death of his father from lung cancer, due to a life inhaling cast-iron dust. The project allowed Griffin to pay homage to his father and to all working people: he monumentalised the men “like knights lying in state in a cathedral with their swords”.

In 1989 he left still photography to make television commercials, music videos and short films, but returned a decade later. In 2003 he produced a project to aid Birmingham’s bid to become the European City of Culture. He worked promoting the 2012 London Olympics and in 2015 his photo-essay, Himmelstrasse, movingly documented the railway tracks in Poland that transported people to Nazi death camps. He continued to work up until the end of his life, with new projects still in the pipeline.

He had more than 20 monographs published in his lifetime and won numerous awards. In 2013 the Royal Photographic Society awarded him their Centenary Medal, and the following year he received an honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University for his lifetime contribution to his home city.

Griffin’s 1980 marriage to the photographer Frances Newman ended in divorce. Their daughter, Layla, died in 2020; he is survived by their son, Danz, and three grandchildren.

• Brian James Griffin, photographer, born 13 April 1948; died 27 January 2024