He has photographed more international stars than almost anyone else and his pictures of Bono, Mick Jagger, Björk and Clint Eastwood are famous the world over: Anton Corbijn is among the greatest portrait photographers of our time. He has also enjoyed long friendships with many famous artists. We met up with Corbijn in The Hague
I recognize him because of his height. It is raining continuously in The Hague on this Monday morning, but Anton Corbijn – tall, sporting a dark windbreaker and a wooly hat pulled down low over his face – arrives by bicycle. German entertainer Herbert Grönemeyer, a close personal friend, once gave him this bike as a birthday present. It is a classic Dutch “Omafiets” – or “granny bike.”
We quickly enter the Gemeentemuseum building. Corbijn has them open up for us. The closing night of his exhibition was, in fact, the day before, so the rooms are devoid of people, except for his assistants. The latter are already in the middle of dismantling the exhibits, but Corbijn’s precondition for meeting was that we walk through his exhibition together. Corbijn is visibly disappointed to see that some of the photos have already been put away. He insists that I not just look at them in the catalogue, but see them full-sized and hanging on the wall in all their grainy glory.
The Hague has just dedicated two concurrent shows to him, but the 60-year-old seems anything but complacent. He talks affably and engagingly, eager to be precise. He does not want history to see him simply as someone who snapped pictures of rock stars, but as a serious portrait photographer. Anton Corbijn asserts the timelessness of his work, although it has already achieved this.
In the early ’80s, he took pictures of Joy Division, Johnny Rotten and David Bowie for pop magazines – often stamp-sized accompaniments to lengthy texts. One of his early trademarks, the powerful black-and-white contrast, was actually just a trick to make the images stand out despite their small size. These photographs have stood the test of time. They are powerful even if the person pictured is no longer famous.
exclusive:You started out as a humble music photographer. Today, you are admired and copied like few others. What is your secret?
Corbijn: I don’t really know exactly. And I don’t try to understand it, either. Otherwise I may end up killing what works well. I just try to take good pictures.
What makes a good picture?
I want to make people look good, of course, but that’s not my strenth. My strength is to make people look interesting. Sometimes they are not happy with the result, but they always like the picture ten years later. (laughs)
You call that “inner beauty.”
When I was young, I felt very uncomfortable in the presence of outward beauty. Maybe I was jealous – I didn’t like the way I looked very much. Later, I asked myself: As a photographer, what can I add to a beautiful person? Inner beauty is the quality people have and put into their work.
Is that why you photographed so many musicians?
That is one of the reasons. I’m not interested in the onstage orgasm but rather in the birth pains of the creative process.
Music was Corbijn’s first love. On the island of Hoeksche Waard, where he grew up as the son of a pastor, Corbijn felt isolated. All the exciting things took place across the water – rock music, for example, which represented the promise of a different life. But Corbijn was shy and did not have the courage to go to concerts, so he took along his father’s camera to create the impression that he was there for a reason.
Armed with this prop he even ventured into the artists’ dressing rooms. So, Corbijn came to photography accidentally. To date, Corbijn has shot dozens of music videos and four movies featuring acting greats like George Clooney and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. On the set, he had to learn to be less introverted. But he is happiest alone, on his bike, which he rides across the miles and miles of dunes lining the coast.
I want to make people look good, of course, but that is not my strength
Your photos and movies are full of male loners.
Yes, it seems like that! (laughs) One-on-ones are just my favorites. A picture of a group never feels quite as meaningful as a portrait of an individual. When you photograph several people, you immediately get involved in the composition of the picture. You intervene more, the whole thing is less natural.
You have photographed many media-savvy international stars, yet many of the images are still surprisingly intimate. Do you look for vulnerability?
Yes, I find it interesting. Most of the time, these people are presented like a ready-made kind of thing, I on the other hand try to find the human element. I have been working with Tom Waits and Martin Gore for many years. They relax and trust me, we are like family.
But your images are not really documentary in nature, either.
Of course not. We don’t just randomly meet in a kitchen, but purposely drive to a place and take a photo there. What can I say? The people in these pictures are posing, but they are also not posing.
So, strolling through the museum, we may just have gotten a bit closer to Corbijn’s secret. In the best of his images he has succeeded in creating a balance only he can achieve: They look casual, yet at the same time stylized. Much of this is due to his way of working. On the one hand, Anton Corbijn works intuitively like a street photographer. He shows up to appointments with just a camera – no assistant, no tripod, no artificial light. Nor does he require much time. On the other hand, he is always well prepared. Corbijn will only meet a subject once he has immersed himself in their music, books or movies. From this, he develops an idea. “This idea must not dominate the image, as is often the case these days, especially in U.S. photography. But I always have it at the back of my mind.”
He learned this when he started to produce music videos for Depeche Mode, Nirvana and Johnny Cash. Such work requires a conceptual approach, and the “idea of having an idea” then crept into his photography – especially when he felt the need to reinvent himself. This is how the highly conceptual paparazzi photos in the “fake documentaries” series featuring Robert DeNiro, Björk and Lars von Trier came about. In the ’90s, photography in the tabloids lost any kind of mystery, says Corbijn. He wanted to counter this with a new kind of enigmatic narrative.
Corbijn cannot stand gossip, which is why you will not get any anecdotes or details about the creation of the pictures from him, no matter how persistently you ask. “I don’t want to make your job unnecessarily difficult,” he finally says to me. “But I have to protect my work. I want people to come up with their own stories about my pictures.”
In the meantime, we have arrived at Corbijn’s studio on the edge of the city’s old town – I in the car, he on the bike. In 2011, he had the curiously narrow building completely gutted and remodeled. It now features exposed concrete, plenty of natural light, a small kitchen and his entire archive assembled on three floors. The latter are linked by a dark wooden staircase. It is surprising how much space you can create inside an old coach house that is wedged in between two other buildings. Everywhere you come across memorabilia: a caricature of him drawn by George Clooney, a hand-written laudatory speech by Tom Waits and polaroids of U2 – but everything looks tidy, almost like an exhibition. Everything, except the first floor, which houses his bikes, a safe, a table-tennis table and pallets of packaging material – Corbijn’s girlfriend runs a knitwear fashion label. Now that he almost exclusively makes movies, he is rarely here.
Your last movie Life looks at the creation of the famous photograph of James Dean in Times Square. What made you choose this particular image?
The interplay between photographer and subject has always interested me. Who is actually helping whom? Is James Dean helping the photographer, or is the photographer helping James Dean? It is almost like a couples’ relationship.
At the time, an entire series of photos was shot for Life magazine. Why did this particular image become iconic?
That’s hard to say… It’s not even a close-up – very rainy and somewhat weird. But it touches us because it shows a tragic figure who was going to die soon afterwards. If you see an image often enough, it enters the visual memory of a period.
Today everyone has a camera in their pocket, millions of photographs are taken every day. Can an image even still become iconic?
These are exciting times for photographers: Anything is possible. But this constant flood of images also diminishes the value of the individual picture. We don’t spend enough time on one image any more. If everything is constantly being replaced, nothing can stick in our memory.
I am not interested in the onstage orgasm, but in the birth pains
Corbijn has made some coffee and we drink it on the third floor. A huge portrait of Ai Weiwei stares down at us. An image like this could very well become iconic, says Corbijn after a pause, simply because so much personality emanates from it. These days, he is more interested in painters than in musicians, and photographs them in their studios. Maybe because the birth pains are especially pronounced – they have to create something out of nothing.
Musicians are always on tight schedules nowadays, says Corbijn. “They don’t hang out any more.” Today, all the photographer can do is to document what is in their schedules anyway, and the result must primarily lend itself to multi-purpose usage. Someone like Corbijn – a mysterious blend of painter, gigolo, priest and Russian spy, as Tom Waits described him in the laudatory text that now stands in a frame on Corbijn’s desk – doesn’t fit in that well any more.
Those who seek to discover Corbjjn’s secret and only ever look at his skills will not uncover it, because they overlook his personality. “We all work more or less with the same camera,” he says as he is taking me to the door. “That’s why everything depends on how your subject reacts to you. For me, a portrait is the record of a meeting. It says: ‘I was here, and you were here.’”