From conservative beginnings in rural Holland, Anton Corbijn became
one of the world’s leading portrait photographers. His iconic, monochrome portraits have captured many of our culture’s greats including David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Luciano Pavarotti, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Ai Weiwei, Robert deNiro, Kate Moss, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Cash, Nelson Mandela and Patti Smith to name but a few, and his creative direction of Depeche Mode and U2 have made him both bands’ invisible member.
Now with four critically acclaimed feature films to his name, Corbijn the director is more renowned than ever, but no less hungry for new challenges.
You grew up in a village on an island in Holland where your father was the minister. Do you have fond memories of the place?
I have mixed memories of it. I was held very strictly to certain rules, but at the same time I was always playing outdoors - I first drove a tractor when I was eight. When I was about 9 years old I became focused on everything that happened outside that island, and hearing music on the radio, it became the epitome of my desire to be part of that ‘other’ world. If I was born in a city I don’t think I would have had the same desire to be part of the music world. People who are extreme often come from villages, not from cities. Until the age of 17 I was a very lost person and I had no interest in school or any idea what I was going to do with my life. Then I picked up a camera and suddenly felt I had a purpose.
How did you first get into photography?
I asked my father if I could borrow his camera to take to a music concert, because I thought having it with me would make it OK for me to get the front of the stage. When you’re shy you always think people are looking at you and think, “What is he doing there?” You feel very watched. So I went, took a few pictures, had them printed at the shop around the corner, sent them to a music magazine and they printed them! That’s when I thought, “Eureka”.
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What characteristics do you look for in someone you choose to photograph?
Many artists are intensely focused on their art and I find this intensity very attractive. For me to get where I am I had to do the same. I knew nothing. I had to fight against the preconceptions of the industry with my pictures; nobody liked them in the beginning. You have to believe there is something there even if it’s hard to put your finger on it. So I’ve always had a kinship with people who have a similar attitude across different disciplines.
"I like the built-in imperfections in the way I work.
It’s just slight, but it gives you the feeling it is made by a person."
You shoot analogue and never digital – why is that?
What I’ve always enjoyed with analogue is the delayed gratification; when you photograph something you don’t know what you have until a week later when you see the contact sheets. I like that tension. I grew up with that tension, not knowing the result. This striving for perfection with digital gets to a point where it doesn't feel human. I like the built-in imperfections in the way I work. It’s just slight, but it gives you the feeling it is made by a person.
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How is filmmaking most different to photography for you?
People think film is a continuation of photography, but it’s not – it’s a whole different way of thinking. Making my first film was a big learning curve. It’s really hard to make a film, but very challenging and a great adventure. There are so many people involved and you have to try and guide them towards your vision. Sometimes you don’t get there; sometimes you get to a nicer place thanks to the people around you. It’s a struggle. With photography I have a strong sense of what I can do; I really enjoy and love it. But to keep developing myself I need to make films.
"Even when you are successful, you think your next thing should be better
or more successful. But success is a really dangerous element."
What did you struggle with most in taking that step?
I really had to start believing that my initial thoughts about, for example, how an actor should deliver something, were right. I remember having one or two disagreements with George Clooney while shooting The American. On one occasion, I said, “Well George, I know you have all this experience and I don’t have any, but I feel we should do it this way.” And he said, “You have proved yourself right most of the time.” It was very gentlemanlike of him to acknowledge that and also allowed me to realise that the little experience I had and the intuitive approach was working.
In your more testing moments, who or what do you personally turn to for strength?
I read books, I look at paintings - I try to see how other people see things. When you make things, one moment you think it’s fantastic and another you think “I could have done better”. I don’t think that ever stops. Even when you are successful, you think your next thing should be better or more successful. But success is a really dangerous element. I’m glad I wasn’t successful when I was young because it can be difficult to handle. It’s fantastic when it’s there but it’s more important to believe in what you’re making and love what you’re making.
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You have kept a fairly low profile throughout your career – how do you feel about fame?
When you spend a lot of time on something be it a book or a film you want people to see it, so it’s inevitable that you’ll have to be in the limelight for a bit. But whatever else is out there, opinions about me or details of my private life, I can’t fight it. It’s too much work, so I let it be. I try to stay clear of the headlines. I’m in a really good place now; I feel happy where I am and that’s all that counts.
"In Holland we had Herman Brood, who had a wonderful sense of style.
He was a playboy, a burglar, a junkie, a painter and a gentleman.
For him, style was part of his expression."
Is there an artist or musician whose style and dress sense you most admire?
Unorthodox behaviour or appearance is interesting and musicians are great at that. Better than actors I think. In the 60’s, the Stones and Beatles were breaking ground. After that we had Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, those sorts of guys. In Holland we had Herman Brood, who had a wonderful sense of style. He was a playboy, a burglar, a junkie, a painter and a gentleman. For him and all of these people style was part of their expression. I don’t have that. I often feel as if I’m overdressed.