Curiously, the cinematic image that would grace the cover of U2’s classic album The Joshua Tree was not taken at California’s namesake national park, but rather some 250 miles north at Zabriskie Point.
Many fans assume that the cover was shot in the Joshua Tree National Park, but the band’s fifth album, which catapulted them into superstardom, actually features a shot of the band in the barren desert at the edge of Death Valley.
‘Desert meets civilisation’ was the loose theme when photographer Anton Corbijn, using a panoramic camera, captured the band in November 1986 for an album which had a working title of The Two Americas.
The band and photographer had embarked on a road trip through the desolate Californian locations of Death Valley, Zabriskie Point and the Mojave Desert to scout imagery that would suit the sleeve for their next project. Having secured some great shots, Corbijn was approached by Bono, who had another idea:
There’s a tree that I really love – it’s called the Joshua Tree. It’ll be brilliant to have it on the front and the band will be on the back.
Legend has it that pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding travellers westward. Bono knew about Joshua from his Bible studies and thought it would be a great title for the album.
They sped down Route 190, and it was near Darwin, California, just west of Death Valley, where they found what they were looking for. Usually found grouped in large numbers, there was a Joshua Tree standing all on its own.
U2 spent 20 minutes posing with the lone tree before the winter chill drove them back into the bus. While the iconic Joshua Tree did not make it to the front cover, it does appear to the right of the band on the back cover and also directly between them in the middle of the inside gatefold shot. If you look closely you can see a mirror in the bottom left of the photograph, so everybody could check out how they looked. Bono explained:
It was freezing and we had to take our coats off so it would at least look like a desert. That’s one of the reasons we look so grim.
Ultimately, a shot of the band standing in front of Zabriskie Point was chosen as the cover image, and it became one of the most iconic covers in rock history. Sleeve designer and art director Steve Averill, Corbijn and U2 collectively felt the stark black-and-white widescreen of the band in the foreground with the dramatic lunar landscape behind them better reflected where the music was going, and the Joshua Tree title and image itself was nothing more than a happy accident.
The Joshua Tree is not the only project connected to the location. The 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film of the same name (soundtrack and album by Pink Floyd) staged an orgy scene at the site. Scenes from the Star Wars TV series The Mandalorean were also shot there, and philosopher Michel Foucault notably called his 1975 acid trip at Zabriskie Point the greatest experience of his life.