You will know the iconic work of photographer Brian Griffin from a raft of classic 1980s album sleeves, including the cover of Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’, the inspiration for which lay in the pages of business magazines 

At first glance, the photograph of Ultravox on the sleeve of the ‘Vienna’ album is just a simple black and white shot of the group. But look closer. 

Look at the lines created by the four men in their suits. Look at the poses. Look at the shadows. Look at the light. It could be a still from a 1920s Hollywood movie, yet the jagged textures around the figures suggest something closer to German Expressionism or Surrealism. This, you begin to realise, is anything but a conventional band photograph. 

The man responsible was Brian Griffin, who had already made a name for himself with identity defining sleeves for Echo & The Bunnymen. His monochrome shots would achieve something similar for Ultravox, more or less single-handedly creating the mysterious image of this group that imprinted itself so vividly on the early part of the 1980s pop zeitgeist. 

It almost wasn’t so. The young Brian Griffin wasn’t remotely interested in photography. Born in The Lye, deep in the heart of the industrial West Midlands, he wanted to be an engineer and his first job saw him working in a local pipe factory. A chance conversation with his foreman changed everything for him. 

“He asked me if I’d ever been interested in photography,” remembers Griffin, his Black Country accent still subtly audible. 

Griffin shook his head. His foreman told him he thought he’d enjoy it. Rather than dismissing this as the kind of ignorable advice you get from the older generation, Griffin joined a local camera club and discovered that his work colleague had been correct. In short order, he converted the lounge of his parents’ two-up, two-down terraced house into a darkroom. A little later, at the age of 21, he enrolled on a photography course at what was to become Manchester Polytechnic. 

“I did it as an escape,” he confesses. “I wasn’t exactly excited about the possibility of becoming a photographer.” 

To his surprise, when he saw the work of his fellow students, Griffin realised that he had a natural talent. After graduating with a first class diploma in 1972, he upped sticks and moved to London, but it wasn’t long before he was facing a crisis of confidence, feeling that his images were inferior to those of the other photographers he was competing with. 

It would take a vista of the morning rush hour, shot on London Bridge from the back of a black cab, to restore Griffin’s faith in himself. The intended subject might have been the doleful city gents striding to their offices, but it is the ordered lines and the absorbing shadows created by the light streaming onto the cab’s leatherette seat that gives ‘Rush Hour London Bridge’ its remarkable visual appeal, echoes of which can be seen on the cover of ‘Vienna’. 

Griffin spent the next few years freelancing, which mostly involved capturing men in suits for business magazines and company reports. But then he began to notice that all the former art school students forming bands were also wearing suits. 

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I can photograph these guys, because I’m photographing men in suits all the time’,” he says. 

He initially took his portfolio to Dave Robinson at Stiff Records, who handed him the job of shooting Graham Parker for the gatefold cover of ‘The Parkerilla’ album. Within a few weeks, the work started rolling in. 

The shoot for Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ was the first to take place at Griffin’s new studio at 121-123 Rotherhithe Street in London’s Docklands. His assistant had found the space in the Evening Standard and it would quickly become the epicentre of his developing reputation in the music world. The building is now a modern apartment block – and as yet there’s no blue plaque celebrating Griffin’s achievements here on the brick exterior. 

But while there were plenty of commissions around at the time, there wasn’t much money. 

“The budgets for most album sleeves in those days were tiny,” he laughs. “You had enough to do the job, but it was never much. I was always pretty enterprising. I wouldn’t worry if I didn’t have expenses to shoot something, because I could usually think of an idea that would cost nothing, like using a 60-watt lightbulb or something equally cheap. Throwing loads of money around didn’t necessarily create great ideas.” 

In the case of the ‘Vienna’ shoot, the strange, angular landscape that the four members of the band appear to be standing in was created by Griffin using a roll of studio backdrop paper. The paper was not crumpled, just very deliberately folded, creating a connection to the subtle creases in the clothes that Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann were wearing. 

There’s a sense of symmetry between the straight lines of the folded paper and the sharp cuts of the jackets and trousers. It is ordered, clean and clinical, contrasting the icy white of the paper with the shadows created by the folds, the light clothing of Ure and Cann with the dark clothing of Currie and Cross, and the bright window of light behind them with the frame that surrounds it. For Griffin, the shoot appealed to his interest in smartly dressed subjects. 

“A suit almost makes a person appear like they are in the nude,” he says. “They became nondescript to a certain extent, almost like they’re wearing a uniform. I didn’t like untidiness, I always preferred bands that dressed well to those that were scruffy. Smart musicians were just more interesting for me to photograph and played to my visual strengths. Ultravox were a smart band and I liked that.” 

The distinctive Hollywood noir tonality of the ‘Vienna’ session came from Griffin’s inexperience with flash. 

“I was using tungsten light in the studio at that time, which was what they used in old movies,” he explains. “Tungsten gives an image a special feeling all to itself and a constant burning light gives it a different atmosphere compared to flash. I didn’t have the ability to use flash the way I wanted to at that time, it just seemed too abrasive, and I wanted to see my subjects lit, standing in their positions. With tungsten, I could see the light touching them. It was as if the light existed, almost like a living thing in my studio.” 

The dramatic effect of the lighting is perhaps even more obvious on another picture from the same session, which became the sleeve for the ‘Sleepwalk’ single. In this shot, the faces of the band are partially obscured by their own shadows and any visible features are almost completely smoothed out by the brilliance of the light. Shooting at a maximum of 1/30th of a second, Griffin asked the group to carefully move their heads centimetre by centimetre, then stay completely still until everything was perfectly set. 

Common to both the ‘Vienna’ and the ‘Sleepwalk’ sleeves is a sense of unconventional, slightly awkward, almost Picasso-esque posing. From left to right on the ‘Vienna’ cover, Chris Cross is staring upwards meditatively like a priest during a prayer and Warren Cann, with his hands in his pockets, seems to be looking at something behind Cross. Midge Ure is a little back from the others, either turning imaginary dials or juggling invisible balls, and Billy Currie appears to be walking off the set. 

“I posed them that way,” says Griffin. “They were really good to work with in the studio. All four of them formed a very enclosed group, a private group. They talked between themselves, but they didn’t externalise their thoughts.”

As for those brooding shadows that seem to perpetually draw you in, we need to go right back to Griffin’s Black Country origins. 

“The lighting of the Ultravox sleeve was very much influenced by growing up among the factories, all the rolling mills and forge hammers,” he admits. “I’ve never forgotten my Midlands roots and I never will. That was a huge influence on how I approached my photographs and it still is today.” 

Brian Griffin would go on to become one of the most celebrated figures in the world of music photography. He developed countless memorable sleeves for a wide range of artists, including Depeche Mode, John Foxx, Iggy Pop and Billy Idol, and made an invaluable contribution to the mesh of progressive sounds and intriguing images that defined the 1980s music scene. 

His complex and deceptive photo for Ultravox’s equally complex and deceptive ‘Vienna’ album is the one that remains special and important to him, though. As well as its precise artistic presentation, it signifies a moment when his career began to blossom, enabling him to establish his own studio practice. Four decades on, it’s a fascinating and understated example of classic period music photography. Of its time, yet utterly timeless. 

For more about Brian Griffin’s work, see

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