A still from The American, Anton Corbijn's 2010 feature film, and the cover of his book Inside The American. The image shows actor George Clooney as master gunsmith Jack.
For a man once described by Bono as U2’s “fifth member”, Anton Corbijn is refreshingly lacking in rock star attitude. The photographer turned director is not fashionably late for our interview at his London studio, but flustered by a bad commute from his new home in The Hague. As he tucks his 6ft 5in frame into a favourite battered leather armchair, he peppers the conversation with constant self-deprecation. He references his lack of technical ability throughout our conversation, and the best praise he can muster for his successful first venture into moviemaking – the 2007 Joy Division biopic Control – is that it “could have been a lot worse”.
But it’s this ability to charm and disarm that has helped Corbijn create some of the most striking portraits of the past 30 years, adding a sexual, gothic and almost quasi-religious edge to a host of subjects, from Kurt Cobain to Pavarotti, Naomi Campbell and Nelson Mandela. In the past five years his focus has moved to feature-filmmaking, following his Bafta-winning debut with the 2010 George Clooney thriller, The American. “Am I going to become a movie director or remain a stills photographer?” he asks at one point. “I get the feeling I would like to do more films. I still think photography is a beautiful thing in itself, it’s just that film is more of an adventure. With my camera, I know roughly what I can make now but with film I’m still not sure. That element for me is more exciting.”
That search for excitement was instilled in Corbijn from an early age. He was born in 1955 in Strijen, a small town on an island in south Holland. The son of a clergyman, he first wanted to become a missionary, but his head was turned by outside influences. “There was a real sense of isolation and what seemed to be exciting for me was whatever came from outside that island, which was music on the radio and stuff on TV,” he says. “I think that stuck with me – that there was an exciting world somewhere that seemed to spell freedom from the quite religious life we lived on Strijen. I wanted to get closer to the music world but I didn’t know how.”
Encouraged by the local doctor, Corbijn’s father bought a Mamiya 35mm in the 1950s and his son borrowed it in 1972 to take to rock concerts in the provinces, whenever Dutch groups toured the smaller venues. In the days before tight security, Corbijn would crawl on stage to take photos of the bands and get closer to the action. “I had no knowledge or love of photography then,” he says bluntly. “It was purely a machination to get literally close to the stage.”
This self-portrait, a.curtis, strijen 2001, shows Corbijn dressed as Ian Curtis © Anton Corbijn.
However, when a few of his pictures were published in a national music paper, he resolved to pursue it further. Corbijn bought his first camera with money earned from working in the holidays in a factory and began taking and developing his own prints. With a dearth of galleries showing photography at the time and a frustrating experience at a technical college spent “sitting in a studio photographing a box of cigarettes”, he found inspiration in unlikely sources. His grandfather and great grandfather were painters, which he credits with giving him an eye for composition. He also took to scouring Dutch newspapers.
“There were a lot of good photographers working for them,” he recalls. “They were all documentary-style photographers. They would go to Latin America or wherever there was a war. You’d get these really dramatic pictures, even when they photographed people at home. They were printed in this particular style, very strong black and whites, so that was a little bit what I aimed for.”
After several years taking photographs for Dutch magazines with mixed results – “people didn’t think my pictures were uplifting enough” – he sent a selection of pictures to the New Musical Express and moved to the UK in 1979, spurred by his love of Joy Division. Twelve days after arriving in London he met and photographed the gloomy Salford post-punk band, whose frontman Ian Curtis would become the subject of Control some 28 years later. “My English was absolutly awful so my understanding of what Ian was singing about wasn’t totally there, but I had an intuitive feeling what it was about,” he says. “We didn’t have much of a conversation and he wasn’t a friend, but he was someone I admired and I played their music a lot.”
The band liked his photographs and invited him to shoot them again, this time in Manchester in April 1980. Just a few weeks later, Curtis committed suicide, adding an unexpected poignancy to several of the starker photographs he had shot in the depths of a bleak northern winter. “I think I hit the nail on the head with those pictures,” says Corbijn, of an experience that did much to cement his reputation as a photographer who could capture the darker side of rock’s distinctive characters. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s he became the go-to guy for artists looking for a little monochrome gravitas, cloaking acts such as Echo and the Bunnymen, Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart and R.E.M. in swathes of inky shadows.
Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, shot in Manchester in April 1980. Image © Anton Corbijn.
Several artists have returned to him again and again, most notably Depeche Mode and U2 – neither of which he was initially thrilled to work with. “I wasn’t sure if I liked U2’s music and I only thought about the first shoot because it was in New Orleans and I really wanted to go to New Orleans,” he says.
After initial commissions, he developed close working relationships with both groups. The title of U2’s 1987 album The Joshua Tree, was inspired by Corbijn’s shoot with the band in the Mojave desert, while Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan has said that Corbijn gave his group “a visual identity that we were desperately looking for”.
Corbijn enjoys the responsibility of shaping the way these artists are viewed through record sleeves and editorial shots, yet still refers to the process as a “combination of talents”. This need for collaboration led him to conclude that, in order to produce his best work, he had to either love the artists he shot, or love what they made. “I really need that interest,” he says. “I think you put more into it, especially because I don’t think I’m technically very capable. I can’t fall back on a technical level where everything looks great, so if [the connection] is something lacking then my picture really fails, I think.”
A still from Control, Anton Corbijn's 2007 biopic on Joy Division. The image shows lead actor Sam Riley playing the group's lead singer, Ian Curtis.
The 55-year-old uses a Leica and a Hasselblad, preferring film to digital with both. “For a good picture, I don’t need all that information,” he reasons. “Striving towards perfection, but not getting there is how I like photography to be.”
The process is kept lively by shooting handheld, moving as he goes and accepting that not everything will be perfectly lit or even exactly in focus. But he’s a “freak” for accuracy at the developing stage, ensuring the grain of the print is pin-sharp. “Somehow within that framework you can get imperfect pictures but they work perfectly,” he says.
Corbijn’s successes behind the camera gave him the opportunity to expand his artistic output, and he has directed more than 100 album covers and over 80 music videos. “It was anger,” he says of the latter. “I got pissed off at the fact that I saw some beautiful songs with terrible videos.”
His first videos were low budget, black-and-white affairs that effectively strung together still images rather than embracing the new medium. Tasked with creating a video for Propaganda’s 1984 single Dr. Mabuse, Corbijn holed himself up in a friend’s flat in Berlin, devising an image for each line of the song. “It was so stiff but, at the same time, nobody did it like that so it was different.”
MTV had just launched and the music video was a much talked about medium, which meant that budgets soared and, with them, the reputations of many of the directors involved. Several notable examples have, like Corbijn, graduated successfully to cinema, including Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze and David Fincher – who won an Oscar for The Social Network. “I never looked at music videos as a step up to something else,” says Corbijn. “They had their own value.”
John Lee Hooker's hand, Los Angeles, 1994. Image © Anton Corbijn.
Instead, the experience of making music videos fed back into Corbijn’s photography, encouraging him to take risks and develop concepts further. “I had to come up with the ideas prior to meeting people and I found that really, really difficult. I had to overcome elements of my character in a way and I had to think of props and all sorts of things that I didn’t normally use.”
As he moved away from a pure documentary style, in which he simply responded to the subject and situation, he began to invent settings and characters. One of the final portraits in his first book, Famouz, came about as a result of this new approach. Nick Cave was not seen as someone to order around, but bolstered by his music video concepts, Corbijn encouraged him to play the role of a sexual deviant. The 1989 portrait sees the Australian rocker resplendent in a fake moustache and pimp-style three-piece suit. “He played a type and I think that was new for Nick too. It was only because I had that confidence from thinking up schemes for the videos. I did several more photographs with Nick over the next 20 years as he’s one of my favourite artists.”
Nick Cave, London, 1999. From the series 33 still lives, a take on the paparazzi photography and the disappearance of mystery. Image © Anton Corbijn.
In 1988, Corbijn directed a posthumous video for the Joy Division song Atmosphere and his continued association with the band prompted another career-turning point two decades later. Encouraged by other people to consider making a movie, he turned to Touching From A Distance, an account of Curtis’ life by the singer’s widow, Deborah. “It was a story that I knew. I thought that all the great directors wouldn’t have this emotional involvement in the story so that was my advantage – that’s why I dared to do it. I think I made the film at the right time in my life. If it wasn’t for Control, I don’t think I ever would have made a film.”
For the authenticity of the main character, Corbijn took inspiration from the documentary feel of Ken Loach’s Kes. “I didn’t want to make the film look like my photographs,” he said. “A lot of people said it did but that’s just because it’s black-and-white. I wanted all the greys in there and I didn’t just want to make what I knew into a film.”
Chatting on the morning after The King’s Speech had swept the board at the Oscars, Corbijn points out he was lucky enough to work with several of the film’s key crew on Control. The Dutchman also teamed up with Martin Ruhe, a cinematographer he had worked with on music video shoots and trusted with handling the lighting of scenes – something he had little experience of, after years spent working with natural light for his portraits. It was important to have this team around him because when things got moving, the film generated a momentum all of its own and there wasn’t much time to prepare. “You go and you go and it gets closer and, before you know it, you’re shooting,” says Corbijn.
The downside to that snowball effect was that he forged ahead before funding had been properly secured. Having put the cast and crew together, he rented a studio in Nottingham and began filming with money from his own pocket: “Not knowing the film world, I didn’t know how unusual this was,” he says. He ended up paying for half of the film’s €4.5 million budget, most of which he failed to recoup despite its box office success. As a result, he was forced to sell his home in England and move back to Holland, but he says it was worth it. “Even though I lost a lot, I’m so happy I made that movie. It really enriched my life,” he says. “Joy Division was a big part of my reason to come to England. I got a career here by taking their pictures and then I made a movie about the experience and then it sends me back to Holland. It’s a nice circle and it’s interesting that you can’t plan life that much, you just have to go with the flow.”
It took three years for Corbijn to produce his follow-up. Filmed in colour, The American reflected his growing confidence as a director, with more camera movement thanks to a greater use of steady-cam and crane shots. The contrast to Control was deliberate, but Corbijn says both films were a homage of sorts to 1970s filmmaking. “I like the 1970s because you could observe more in shots,” he says. “Now it’s so scripted where you have to look, so you are forced to focus.”
Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, shot in Turin, 1996. Image © Anton Corbijn.
Filming in Italy and Sweden, Corbijn acted as his own location scout and kept his stills camera close at hand throughout the shoot. It is important to him to control all visual aspects of his films, including posters, promo stills and DVD cases (although that was hard on his latest film where he couldn’t alter the trailer). He has also published photography books based on both films. “Life would be a lot easier if I wasn’t so anal,” he laughs. “Old habits die hard. I think it’s the photographer in me who wants to make something.”
Movie making may have filled Corbijn with a renewed sense of adventure, but photography remains his primary medium. His portraits of actress Gemma Arterton and chess champion Magnus Carlsen are plastered across the London underground in a new advertising campaign for fashion brand G-Star RAW and his latest musical collaboration is with Canadian band Arcade Fire, who he shot for a sixth time last November. And back in Holland he is fitting a studio he’s built for himself, with an eye on the future – “when I’m 70 or something and I don’t want to travel so much”.
His next major exhibition will be in Amsterdam this summer, a series focusing on his recent obsession: artists. “It’s a world that I’m very intrigued by, and also inspired by. I think deep down I am a frustrated painter.”
Among those featured are Marlene Dumas, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, all artists whose work he admires. Many of them have been wary of his initial contact – the fine-art world lacking the image-conscious attitude of cinema and music. He persists as much for his own development as anything else. “I’m probably romanticising it a little bit but I find the camera can still be a great excuse to meet people,” he says simply. “You can spend some time in their presence and you always take away something from that.”
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