Icons of Photography: Anton Corbijn – The United Nations of Photography

Icons of Photography: Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn was born (as Anton Johannes Gerrit Corbijn van Willenswaard) on May 20, 1955, in Strijen, a small estuary town on a small island near Rotterdam. ‘There was nothing there. To me, everything outside the island looked mysterious and exciting.’ His father was that most monochrome of callings – both visually and morally – a pastor. ‘No visual stimulation to speak of and a strict religious way of life.’

He lived there till he was eleven, a young boy wanting to be somewhere else – somebody else, too, of course. His dreams of a world beyond the island were of music, mostly. ‘If it hadn’t been for music, I would never have picked up a camera. Of that I am pretty much certain.’

At 17, he borrowed his father’s camera, took some pictures at a small-town rock festival and sent them to a Dutch music magazine. They were published. He became a professional rock photographer – and a kind of personal image-maker to Herman Brood, Holland’s biggest-ever rock star. The partnership lasted until the singer’s suicide in 2001. Such long-lasting close professional and artistic relationships have been a dominant theme of his life and work – with Depeche Mode and U2, in particular.

In November 1979, he travelled to London, drawn by Joy Division and their music. A fan in search of the Manchester band – and what they could bring to his life and his work. ‘In England, it felt like art, photography and music were much more life or death. Trying to get out of those grey tower blocks and trying to make a name for yourself – it really meant so much to those people, they really meant everything they were doing.’ Within two weeks, he had contrived to arrange a Joy Division photo shoot in a tube station. He met singer Ian Curtis once more. ‘And then he was dead.’

He worked for the NME – at a time when the UK music press was at its peak, in both sales and global influence. He became something of a star, making art of the medium’s technical constraints – black and white only, newsprint barely better than toilet paper. He found and created drama in almost solarised black and white – images made with Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Helmut Newton in mind.

He found fresh meaning in sense-of-place. There’s a striking and defining – for both photographer and subject – image of David Bowie, in a Chicago bar in 1980. Chin on hand, Bowie stares away from us, sharing his space, flatly and democratically, with a TV set, a jukebox and some beer ads. Nearly all Corbijn’s pictures are on location. Most are outside. Another defining image is of Bono and Larry Mullen Jr walking on a snow-patched Berlin side-street, five yards apart. Aloneness, anxiety, separation – these have always been the heartbeats of his pictures.

In time, he became a photographer of stars, fixing his playful dreams in silver nitrate. In the lab, he added deep, querulous greys, luxuriating in the shade’s possibilities and evasions. Mel Gibson doing press-ups in his trailer. Michael Stipe bare-chested in the Trevi fountain in Rome. Clint Eastwood pointing at the camera – and us. Mick Jagger in a horned mask.

Nastassja Kinski looking over her shoulder, in the classic sexy manner – undercut by the fact she’s up a tree in a demure white dress. Sly jokes are the joyfully surprising hidden delight of his photographs. Tim Roth by some crude concrete steps in Odessa – a city famous for its epic 142-metre flight of stone steps. William S Burroughs, who shot his wife, standing beside a bullet-punctured human-shaped shooting target. ‘My biggest fear always is that I’ll photograph an idea rather than a person,’ he said. Danny DeVito’s ball of a head in the bottom left of narrow portrait frame, a white balloon held by the actor in the top left of the image. U2’s fathers pretend-playing their sons’ instruments. Tom Waits in a Dracula cape. Jokes but good ones. Ideas but ones which inform rather than subsume the subjects. 

A very tall, very thin man, long based in Shepherd’s Bush, he became a creative director for both U2 and Depeche Mode – taking photographs, designing album sleeves, establishing a… look. Movie director Wim Wenders called him U2’s fifth member, ‘who plays a silent instrument’. He’s also been described as the fourth member of Depeche Mode. There’s also been a long and deep relationship with Tom Waits who he first photographed in Holland, in 1977, even before he moved to England. He photographed him many, many times over the years. ‘Believe me,’ said Waits. ‘I won’t go jumping off rocks wearing only a Dracula cape for just anyone.’ In 2013, he and Waits put out a joint book of photographs.

He has made many, many videos. For Cold Play’s Viva La Vida, inspired by an earlier Depeche Mode video, he dressed Chris Martin as a king. The one he made for Headhunter by the Belgian electronicas Front 242 was full of images of eggs. He’d misheard the title as Egghunter. 

Increasingly, he has moved into film. He has made a mainstream Hollywood action movie, The American, and a European spy movie, of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man. His best-known – and best – movie, though, was his first, the Joy Division biopic, Control, in which he turned the pretty, charming, colourful town of Macclesfield into a black-and-white vision of Stasi-infested East Germany. A triumph of art over life.

In 2006, he did the logo for what is now his hometown, The Hague. It’s swirly, mostly black and found controversy. He has produced books, one on Amsterdam strippers, done in collaboration with a painter, Marlene Dumas. His photographs of the young women clothed are wonderful – and sexy – but the working ones are dreary. The pastor’s son has little feel for flesh or the illicit. He is too much the romantic. He loved the fact that the actors who played Ian Curtis and his mistress in Control became a real-life couple.

There is always a search, a worried search, in his work. An aesthetic of anxiety and the solitary. In his forties, he created a book called a. somebody, strijen, holland – self-portraits, shot on that childhood island, in which he masqueraded as John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Sid Vicious – dead musicians he wished he’d photographed, or been. An admission and exploration of his own desire for fame. He was convinced they could fill the gap he felt in himself. They probably did, too.

‘You can see the despair of me wanting to be part of that exciting world much more – the despair of wanting to be somebody. I guess I always wanted to be “a somebody”, and I only admitted this to myself in my forties.’ He then realised, of course, that he’d been a somebody all along. The young boy on the island, looking out. 

© Peter Silverton 2021

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