THE IDEA IS THE START OF EVERYTHING. Anton Corbijn is a Dutch interdisciplinary artist. Born in 1955, the celebrated portrait photographer has produced some of the most powerful pop culture imagery of the 21st century. He is also a video maker and film director, working with luminaries such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney and Helen Mirren.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Anton Corbijn, are you inspired by music?
I was born on an island off Rotterdam. The pop music which came from outside of that island was indicative of a much more liberal lifestyle than the Protestant religious lifestyle that I was used to at home, where my mother had studied theology and my father, grandfather and uncles were preachers. I had a naive sense of freedom that I thought was happening in the music world, so I was very attracted to that.
Why did you first pick up a camera?
Because I was quite shy. I had just moved from a town to a bigger city with my parents during the school holiday and I didn’t know anybody yet. There was this local band which I liked a lot that played in the town square in the afternoon. I was too shy to go on my own, but my father had a camera and I asked to borrow it because I thought if you walked towards the stage holding a camera people think, Oh, he’s taking a picture. If you are shy, you think that people watch you all the time and talk about you and that makes you insecure. At least with a camera people realise there’s a reason. I took about nine pictures and had them developed in the shop, and three of them I sent to a music magazine and they published them. I thought, wow! That’s it! Maybe this is what I should do in my life. If I take pictures, I can be part of the music world.
How old were you?
17. And of course they were terrible pictures. I didn’t know the first thing about photography, but that didn’t stop me. That school year I tried in weekends to photograph more bands, but nothing got published. The next school holiday I worked in factories to earn my own camera, and then, at the end of that school year, I finally got one or two pictures published in some magazine.
Then you went to London, where you were in the vibrant musical scene of the time?
My move to London was in 1979, and I took my first pictures in ‘72, ’73, so there’s a big gap there. I applied to three art colleges in the Netherlands, and none of them would have me. Photography was not taken seriously at the time. It was a blessing because I had to develop my own way of shooting, my own style, my inability to do it any other way.
“It’s impossible not to be friends with U2 or Depeche Mode if you work 40 years with them.”
U2, Eze 2000 © Anton Corbijn
Anton Corbijn, when you did get to London how was the musical world there?
What I liked in music was all happening there. Joy Division had an album out and that’s why I moved in a way. I went to the office of a weekly magazine called New Musical Express (NME) and they liked my work and I became the chief photographer almost overnight. That lasted five years. Every week there were so many people to photograph, and that’s how I met U2 and Depeche Mode. I started working with U2 in 1982, and Depeche I started working with in 1986.
Did you go on tour with the musicians?
No, it was more photoshoots for a single sleeve or something for magazines. I did some live pictures in the beginning, but that’s not my forte because I was frustrated by the lack of control. You don’t have anything to say about lighting or where you are or how they move, so it’s difficult to come back with something that’s really good.
Can you please tell me about the photographs in your exhibition Artists & More Artists at Château La Coste in Aix-en-Provence?
I try to photograph people whose work I like and I’m interested in. My genre used to be musicians, but as I grew older my interest became a bit broader and includes painters, actors, directors, models and writers. For this exhibition I concentrated on visual arts and musicians.
You included a well-known photograph of David Bowie among the musicians?
Yes, but my most famous photograph of David Bowie is from 1980. This is a later shot in the 90’s, part of a series done on a Hasselblad camera. There are 11 or 12 photographs of musicians, including Nick Cave, U2, Coldplay, Bob Dylan, Johnnie Cash, Tom Waits, Slash, Patti Smith and Nirvana. I feel very at home with musicians.
You also have a picture of the Chinese artist AI Weiwei in the exhibition. Was it easy to photograph him?
In a way it was really easy to photograph him, but the circumstances were difficult. He had been freed again from prison but the authorities would not let him leave the compound, so I had made an appointment in the compound. Just when I arrived he got a call saying, you have to come to the police station. He said, I don’t know if it means I have to be there for a half an hour or a month, so I had to take the pictures quickly and then I left. It was already digital days, but I shot on film, and it’s a lot of risk out of your own pocket. You pay to get the plane to Beijing and for a hotel, you photograph him in less than 10 minutes, and then you fly with these films through airports back to Amsterdam and the films have to come to London because that’s where my guys are who develop film. In the old days I thought it was normal, but now you have to think if this risk is acceptable. Fortunately, with him it was worth it. Nothing happened to the film and because I took such a risk in making the photograph of Ai WeiWei I put a lot of effort into it. It’s a photograph of a naked torso. The shadow falls over it and he stands in front of a wall that is totally cracked and reminds me of old china, of porcelain.
Was Lucian Freud difficult?
Lucian I photographed twice. Normally when he painted somebody his assistant David Dawson would take the photographs of the sitting, but when Lucien started to paint David he became the subject. So David asked me to take the pictures of the session, and that way I also could take some photographs of Lucian, who was reluctant to be photographed.
Did you photograph Georg Baselitz upside down to be like his own paintings?
Yes. I wanted to integrate him into one of the paintings that I saw in his studio, a painting of two legs, of course upside down. I try to be slightly playful sometimes, sometimes very serious. Musicians are very used to being photographed. They write the songs and they have a look that’s important when you listen to the music, so they are used to being part of the visual representation of their work. Painters are not bothered. Basically they want to paint and don’t want to sell themselves in that sense. That has changed a bit with Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, but overall painters are much harder to persuade to have a photograph taken of them.
“George Clooney was interested in working with me because I was a hot director, believe it or not.”
Anton Corbijn, you worked for New Musical Express, the cult magazine The Face, for Vogue and Rolling Stone, always in the world of music. You have had a particular friendship with U2 and Depeche Mode, and as well as photographing them you also did plenty of videos.
In the early ‘80s I started doing music videos as well as photography. The videos were very much like still photographs. It is embarrassing when I look back, but in the end I found a way to make videos look like my work. People said “your videos are almost like little stories”, for I didn’t do so much performance videos. With Depeche I must have done over 20 videos, with U2 not so many, 3 or 4. With U2 and Depeche I do the photographs for the albums. For Depeche I also designed the albums, the logos, the stage for their tours, for what is already 30 years. I still do some of the videos and the photographs. These are very long-lasting relationships, especially in the music world.
Do you become friendly with the people you photograph, or do you just see them once and then it’s over?
Both situations happen. It’s impossible not to be friends with U2 or Depeche Mode if you work 40 years with them. There must be an ease in the relationship, and friendship, but a lot of the people I see once and take the picture and that’s it. With painters it’s more like I’m curious, because I would love to paint and I can’t, and I think it’s far more interesting to me than photography to be very honest. I love to see how all these different painters work, so that’s why I try to always photograph them in their studio, whereas I try not to photograph musicians in studio, and not with the instruments.
Later you directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man” (2014) and George Clooney in “The American” (2010). How come you also got into film?
MTV was a big medium at the time, and sometimes I would sit at home watching it and have two or three videos of mine on within an hour, and that was wonderful. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking but I got lots of scripts and I always thought there are a lot of directors who would make a much better film from this story than I would, so I turned it all down until a story about Ian Curtis came around. He was the singer of the band Joy Division that I had moved to England for, to be closer to their music, and I thought if I ever make a film maybe this is the one because my emotional connection to the subject matter might supersede the technical ability of good directors who don’t have the emotional connection to the story. So I did. We had fantastic actors and “Control” (2007) was very successful.
Did you know how to direct the actors?
No, I didn’t. The actors helped me. I had done a U2 video for Electrical Storm with Samantha Morton, who is a great actress. She enjoyed the video I made and said if you ever make a film and you need an actress give me a call. So she was the first I called. Once she said yes, all the people came on board. “Control” was film of the year in England and won a lot of awards. I had no agent, so then everybody wanted to be my agent. I thought this was normal, you make a film and you get all these awards. Fantastic! George Clooney was interested in working with me because I was a hot director, believe it or not.
People usually say that you are a photographer, but in fact you are also a director of both fiction and documentary films?
Filmmaking is a great experience. The George Clooney film “The American” was fiction, and the documentary just released in America called “Squaring the Circle” will come out in Europe soon.
What is your next film?
Called “Switzerland”, it’s about the last period of the American writer Patricia Highsmith’s life, but fictional. Helen Mirren, the English actress, is playing Patricia Highsmith so that makes me very happy. I’d like to do one film every three years.
You have all these great actors.
I’m very fortunate in that respect. For instance, it’s hard to find a better actor then Philip Seymour Hoffman. He sadly died and “A Most Wanted Man” was the last film.
Do you work all the time?
Yes, I work a lot, and I would design a house if they let me. I like making things. For the stage I make a little drawing and then somebody builds it. It’s all about ideas. For many jobs there are people who can do things really well, they studied for it, they are craftsmen. I am a guy with ideas, so I can draw an idea. The idea is the start of everything and then somebody else can make it.
David Bowie, London 1993 © Anton Corbijn
Marlene Dumas, Amsterdam 2000 © Anton Corbijn
Lucian Freud, London 2008 © Anton Corbijn
Nick Cave, London 1997 © Anton Corbijn
Patti Smith, New York 1999 © Anton Corbijn
Bob Dylan, Cleveland 01.09.1995 © Anton Corbijn
““Hey! Can you hear my 5 o’clock shadow?””
Anton Corbijn, going back to photographs, are there particular pictures that are landmarks of your life?
Yes, quite a few, like Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Gerhard Richter and Nelson Mandela. I think my photo is the best picture I’ve seen of Mandela, though that sounds probably arrogant in print. But I’m really very proud of it. I took it at his house in Cape Town. I felt he was the father of Africa.
Who are the photographers you particularly admire?
When I started in the music world I didn’t know anything, so I started to look around at what I thought was interesting. That was, for instance, with Jim Marshall, Elliott Landy and David Gahr, and in England you had Michael Cooper who was the photographer of Sgt Pepper’s album sleeve. He was friends with both Jagger/Richards and McCartney and John Lennon, so he crossed those boundaries.
Did you photograph them?
No, I photographed Paul McCartney, but not John Lennon. I did some pictures of Mick Jagger in 1980, and then in the ‘90s I did some pictures around the Voodoo Lounge release for Rolling Stone magazine. I used masks and stuff and that was a really popular photoshoot so then I did a few more shoots with the Stones for themselves. I like to think they’re pretty good images.
Did you photograph George Clooney and your other actors?
Yes, I did a book on the film “The American”, a diary with lots of pictures. I photographed Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp who I both love, but most actors are a little vain. One of the things I love about Philip Seymour Hoffman is that he had no vanity at all, not about himself. He had the vanity for the character he played. I think that’s the right attitude.
What about beautiful women?
I photographed Eva Herzigova, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Helena Christensen, either for Vogue or myself. I had problems with very beautiful women in the beginning of my photography. I was shy and I found it intimidating. I didn’t know what to do with them in terms of photography because I thought they are already beautiful, what can I add to that? So I was always looking for the beauty on the inside and to make people look interesting rather than beautiful. That was how I worked, and slowly I became more comfortable with beauty.
In 1997 you made a BBC movie titled “The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart” with Don Van Vliet who died in 2010. What was it like to work with him?
I love Don Van Vliet, and we had become friends since we met in 1980. When Zappa died I was in a bookshop in L.A. and there were so many books on Zappa, and I wondered how many books there would be on Captain Beefheart and it was basically none. So I called Jan, his wife, and said does Don ever want me to do a film or something for him? And she said he’s been waiting for years for you to ask him that. I managed to get the BBC to pay for it, and then I made a 12 minute short film with him. As Don was already ill then, I didn’t want to show him talking. I used the voiceover so you couldn’t see him as ill. It was an enjoyable film to make and he was a fantastic man. He would call me quite often, and because he was shaking he would rub his face against the phone and he always would say, “Hey! Can you hear my 5 o’clock shadow?” He was a unique character.
Are you still in love with the world of music?
The world of music has changed a lot. I don’t listen to a lot of new things because as a subject matter I’m not interested in it anymore. I am a different age. I photographed these people when I was a similar age. Now you come as an older guy with a lot of luggage.
Have you found the freedom you sought in the world of music?
I found friendships that are important to me. My family probably didn’t understand my doing photography. They were never against it, but they didn’t understand it because everybody in that family studied at university and I didn’t. For them, it was: he’s lost.
What did they say when you had your first exhibition?
In ‘93 I had an exhibition at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a really good museum, and there was a big dinner thing afterwards, and my father asked me, so you can really live from this? They never did understand how you can live off taking a picture. That was beyond them because I had no diploma, nothing to show for it.
Are there people who you regret you didn’t photograph, that you would have loved to do?
Absolutely. Every show I have, hanging pictures up there’s more and more people who have passed away. You can never do that again. That’s quite beautiful in a way. You create something that’s unique, hopefully original. Elvis I would have liked the experience, but I was too young, and then with the painter Cy Twombly who I met twice and he always said he was too old. I hate the fact that I didn’t push more. I love his paintings and he was a great looking guy.
Is there any one musician you still want to photograph?
Bob Dylan is the one person I still want to do a good picture of. I took one picture in 1995 in Cleveland at 2 in the morning on a parking lot. Two frames, and then he says, Anton let’s do the rest of this some other time.
Some people specialise with photographing the same person and took lots of pictures of for example Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon or Picasso?
In music not so much. There’s nobody who took pictures of the Beatles for 40 years, because they never existed for 40 years. The Stones don’t have the same guy who does their pictures over the years. Depeche Mode and U2 have an incredible story, visually, from them as young people to what they are now, done by the same guy. That’s unique. I’m not saying I’m very good at it, though I think I am, but I’m also saying that there’s nobody else who has done that.
Anton Corbijn, thank you very much.
Portrait of Anton Corbijn © Stephan Vanfleteren
All images courtesy of Anton Corbijn
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