Quiet and self-effacing, Corbijn possesses all the traits of a shy small-town native. His childhood was restricted to an isolated island in the Netherlands called Hoeksche Waard where his father worked as a preacher. Meanwhile Corbijn dreamed of a larger world waiting for him.
A few decades later and Corbijn has lived a thousand lives through the many artists he’s captured on camera. It seems as if there are no legends remaining that he hasn’t photographed or filmed. The quietest man in the industry has ended up surrounding himself with some of the biggest personalities in entertainment history. Nirvana, U2, Joy Division, Miles Davis, David Bowie, the list goes on.
To try and sum up the significance of Anton Corbijn’s body of work would be futile. So we sat down with the man himself to find out how he views his remarkable career.
What do you make of such big icons falling this year? There have been a lot of celebrities passing away like David Bowie and Prince.
Yeah it’s the end of an era. Prince was very young, but with the others, it’s like an era falling away. It’s difficult for people of my generation because it’s all the people you loved when you grew up. These people are associated with so many emotions in your life, and suddenly they are no longer there. But I’ve seen it coming a bit. Not these people in particular but just the fact that a lot of icons will soon disappear. Even when I was putting my exhibition together here in the Hague museum, with pictures of Jack Bruce and Joe Cocker and B.B King. . . they have all fallen away. So it’s difficult in that sense personally for me because I knew all these people. I’m not a studio photographer so when I photograph somebody I travel to see them. There’s always a lot of memories involved when I think of these people and look at the photographs because each one was a journey.
When you meet these people and photograph them, you obviously develop a very intimate relationship. Do you think about the magnitude of their work and who they are? Is this something that you’re constantly aware of?
No not constantly. I think it would be difficult to work if it was always at the front of my mind. In fact I feel that sometimes I’m blissfully unaware of it. But other times I think about it too much and then the work becomes too constructed. My best work is done when that feeling is not so constant because you get a better sense of the person. I have some anecdotes but generally I try to not say too much about the shoots because I don’t think that’s my function. My function is to go out and meet people, and the result of that meeting is the photograph that I will then send out into the world.
So you’d say you’re kind of an intermediary?
Yeah, I report from the other side.
You come across as quite a shy person and you’ve said, “I am by nature quite introverted.” Yet you work within film and music, arguably the most extroverted industries in the world.
Yes, maybe that’s what attracts me to these people, that they have something I don’t. But when you make a movie it’s very hard to be introverted so I had to find some element of my character that made it work.
Having said that, I’m geared towards artists that are more introverted. There’s a melancholy quality to the things they make.
What does the word ‘ego’ mean to you? Ego seems to form the backbone of the entertainment industry in many ways, so I’m interested to hear how you think it’s defined.
Good question. I’m not sure what it means really. Some people talk about having a healthy ego. For many years I didn’t think I had an ego, but then I did a series of self-portraits that dealt with my obsession with the music world and my parent’s obsession with life after death. I photographed myself as musicians who I like or liked and are now deceased, in the village I was born, on an island in Holland. The book was called a. Somebody. The first picture was one of myself as John Lennon and it’s called a. lennon. Basically what I realised is that I wanted to be somebody, though I had never confessed it to myself. As I got older I realised that actually for my whole life I’ve wanted to be somebody. The protestant side of me tried to ignore that but it was there. There was an ego at play that I had somehow kind of denied the existence of. A bit of ego I don’t think is bad because it pushes you forward to do things.
"As I got older I realised that actually for my whole life I’ve wanted to be somebody. The protestant side of me tried to ignore that but it was there."
But then there’s also the celebrities you’ve worked with who have experienced the darker side of ego and have been destroyed by it.
Yes but I usually admire the people I photograph. I don’t exactly let them control the shoots but I let them be involved. I don’t want my ego to overwhelm theirs, I want to work with it somehow.
I’d like to ask you about your childhood because it seemed quite sheltered. You lived on an island called Hoeksche Waard, your father was a preacher, you’ve said that you didn’t get a TV until you were ten years old, and that you didn’t see a black person until you were 12. Watching the documentary about you I felt that you were extremely affected by elements of the overtly religious upbringing. Obviously the life you’ve chosen is vastly different from the life of your parents. Was there an element of you wanting to escape that and run away?
Well in the protestant church it’s all white walls, there are no images, and so looking back that was slightly rebellious of me to go and try to make iconic portraiture. And at the same time I feel that the pictures I make have some kind of function. They’re not totally throwaway stuff. I once tried to make throwaway stuff but it didn’t work out. It became 33 Still Lives. I wanted to get rid of the weight off my shoulders, but then I realised I should embrace it because it probably makes my pictures what they are. So there is an element of my upbringing in how I go about my work and how I am with people. But there is also an element of rebelling against it and not wanting to conform to a lot of rules. So I guess I’m a mix and I’m not fighting it any more. That’s what I’m made of.
"There’s always a lot of memories involved when I think of these people and look at the photographs because each one was a journey."
Artists tend to be very sensitive and exposed and I would imagine that being in front of a camera only magnifies that. Do you feel that you need to act almost like a therapist for your subjects sometimes? In terms of calming them and being a soundboard for any insecurities?
Maybe I am for some people. It helps that I don’t work with a massive team of people. It’s usually just me. If I’m photographing more than one person, like with musicians, I tend to have an assistant, but it’s very low key and small scale. I carry my own camera. I think that really helps in how people react to you. If you arrive with a whole big circus then you get more of a performance out of people and I don’t want a performance out of them. I want something more private.
When someone like Bono, or Tom Waits, or Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode) calls you up and goes through an idea, is it an informal chat or is it more professional and indirect? Is, as you say, “the whole circus” involved?
It’s always different. With Tom Waits it’s very one on one. With U2 there’s always an element of the circus there. They’ve become so big and they like to get it right and get more out of it than you imagine you can. So they have a lot of people around them to help them do that. Sometimes that gets in the way but they are very progressive and open people and they want to move forward, so that’s how they approach it. With Depeche they’re a little less interested in the process and so often I just turn up with an idea and we do it.
Are you friends with these people or are you keen to keep it as a working relationship?
No I think the people you mentioned are friends. When we work obviously that puts pressure on me because I want to do the photographs not just as a friend but as someone who can bring something to the party.
"With Tom Waits it’s very one on one. With U2 there’s always an element of the circus there. They’ve become so big and they like to get it right...With Depeche Mode they’re a little less interested in the process and so often I just turn up with an idea and we do it."
On his working relationships
Would you say that you’re easy to work with?
[Laughs] My girlfriend might beg to differ but I would imagine I’m not too difficult to work with. I’m very precise with the choices in the editing process. I’m less precise when I’m shooting, so I don’t think it’s a difficult shooting process. But I’m very controlled about what actually goes out.
You’ve said the goal for your imagery is to capture intimacy, imperfection and humanity. These are very simple but sometimes tough goals to achieve with people who are quite guarded. Would you agree?
Yeah I guess. I think that I show myself to be quite vulnerable and that helps in the process when people are guarded. I think they come to me for a specific approach and that’s what I want to give them.
Who’s the most difficult person you’ve ever had to work with?
I’ve only once walked off a shoot and that was with a French actress. But I think she was not herself because there were a lot of substances involved.
What do you learn from a disastrous experience like that?
My father was a very patient man. He was a pastor but later in life he became a preacher for the hospital because he was very good at listening to people’s stories. A part of me is like that. I have a lot of patience. It takes a lot for me to walk off a set. Online you read a lot of rubbish about celebrities being assholes, and I rarely find that to be the case. You can understand why they are a certain way. They’re often under a lot of pressure. So if you don’t take these things into account then maybe you find people to be difficult. I read something yesterday on Facebook about Miles Davis being an asshole and all that. But I liked him very much.
Was he easy to work with?
No he wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean he’s an asshole. In the end, we did a photograph that he really liked and he gave me a drawing which is now hanging on my wall. He was a great man.
You must be very aware of how much celebrities are misrepresented in the media and the public’s perception.
Yeah, but then again I once saw the guy from KISS on TV and he seemed like a real asshole to me.
Who was that? Gene Simmons?
Yeah he acted like a dick. But that’s not the kind of person I work with. I think it’s fine if people are difficult, usually it’s also difficult for them too. Some people are tortured. People react so quickly and everything is so polarised these days. Even me saying about the KISS guy. . . maybe I’m wrong.
"I’ve only once walked off a shoot and that was with a French actress. But I think she was not herself because there were a lot of substances involved."
Speaking of tortured people, did you find that front-men like Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain shared similarities?
I think they were both very tortured people, Kurt especially. Kurt was the sweetest guy. When I met him he was already very popular so he was quite guarded but we got on very well and I liked him enormously. He was such a talented guy.
I’m very impressed with how these guys go through life. The popularity is a lot to take on. They had a love-hate relationship with the position they created for themselves. They were in a place they wanted to be and also didn’t want to be. There was a lot of mental anguish. Artists are not always the most balanced people and maybe that’s what makes them good and exciting.
And what about Ian as a person?
He was very shy and I had not mastered my English very well when I met him so we never had a proper conversation. But I like to think there was an understanding. When I listen to a record I tend to listen to the song rather than the lyrics and so with Joy Division I didn’t understand what he was singing about but I understood the significance.
Do you think that the music industry hastens the process of damaging these already vulnerable people?
I’m sure there are people out there who just think of sales and are happy to manipulate people.
But does the industry itself take a vulnerable person and expose them to some extent? These young artists can suddenly have whatever they want. I saw the Amy Winehouse documentary recently and the thing that struck me was just that nobody ever said no to her.
Yeah sometimes these very calculating people are in charge of very imbalanced artists and this is a deadly combination. In the 60’s especially there were a lot of casualties because they were not surrounded by good people. I think a lot of people learned from that and so now there are more people who manage but also act as mentors and guardian angels.
What’s your opinion of music today?
I’m unfortunately the wrong person to ask. Since I started making movies I don’t have the time to follow music and listen to new albums. When I grew up I felt that music was a language of my generation and this is no longer the case. It’s an entertainment industry more than anything.
Are you sad about that changing role of the music industry?
When I grew up we were either playing outside, or doing our homework, or playing a record. Now there is so much choice for young people that music has taken a back seat in the importance of people’s lives. If you’d saved up money and cycled to the record store to buy a record every two or three weeks, the importance of that record is much greater than if you just hit a button and download it for free from the internet. So we have a different relationship with music these days and that creates the demand for different music to be made. Having said that I think there’s always exciting musicians at work.
What was the last great record that you bought?
I bought Low by Bowie because I had damaged my own vinyl copy and I saw it in a second hand shop.
You worked with Bowie as well. What was he like as a persona and a cultural icon?
I can’t sum up the importance of David Bowie because other people have done it far better, but from my personal experience he was a real gentleman. He was very nice to me always and I liked him a lot. I met him in 1980 and some people say the 1970s were the more interesting years for him but I think the last record is fabulous. Especially ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore. The saxophones are so fantastic if you play it really loud. I love it. But just as a person, he was a tremendous man.
You’ve now entered into film and I’m sure it’s a very different industry. I know you had to sell your house in order to finance the first film Control, which by the way was brilliant. So how has that been for you?
Well I actually had to sell the house afterwards. I thought I was going to get the money back but it didn’t work out. I didn’t have an agent so I took the worst contract you could imagine. [Laughs] Quite a few people made money on it but I didn’t. So that was a lesson learned.
"I think they were both very tortured people, Kurt especially. [...] I’m very impressed with how these guys go through life. The popularity is a lot to take on. They had a love-hate relationship with the position they created for themselves."
On frontmen Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain
What does film mean to you now in contrast to photography and music videos? You’ve recently worked with George Clooney in The American and you’ve just done Life, as well as the Philip Seymour Hoffman film A Most Wanted Man, which again I loved.
Yeah I really have to find my way still in film-making but it’s a big adventure for me. Photography is a massive love for me but I know roughly what I can do there so there’s less excitement in that sense. I feel that to start on a totally new thing after turning 50 is a great adventure to embark on. It has also developed me as a person. And of course I’ve worked with some really fantastic actors so far.
We’ve touched on the digital world already. With smart phones it seems everyone is a photographer. I read an intriguing fact recently which I thought summed up the state of the image industry today; when Kodak went bankrupt in 2012 they had to let around 15,000 people go worldwide and when Instagram was bought for a billion dollars they only had 15 employees. What’s your opinion about this proliferation of technology and the way it has resulted in imagery being everywhere?
I am always wondering why people throw away film and go for video when they want video to look like film. It’s like if you want your CD to sound like vinyl, why throw away the vinyl? With photography I like a lot of the post-process to be digital but I like to shoot on film. So it’s the best of both worlds for me.
I’m not against modern technology or developments, but the value we put on things is a little crazy. Apple being the most valuable company in the world is strange to me. Also the attitude with big companies of tax avoidance and using a lot of minerals for their products and all that. It’s the emperor’s new clothes. I would like it if these companies brought in a new care for the world.
You think they don’t care?
I think the profit is what counts, like every company. I wish this new technology went hand in hand with a desire to change the world for the better.
For the last question I’ve picked out two images and I wonder if you might be able to walk us through them. The first one is Lance Armstrong in the swimming pool with his ‘head above the water’. That’s incredibly striking, almost sinister.
Yes, striking because of what happened to him afterwards. I shot that at his then girlfriend’s place in L.A. I’d shot him before in Spain on the bicycle so I wanted to do a different kind of picture here and there was the opportunity with the pool there. I often come to a place without any preconceived ideas. I meet the person and see what we can make together. So this was quite spontaneous.
The other image I wanted to ask you about is the one with Nirvana and the meat lady.
Oh yes, the still from Heart Shaped Box.
What was the experience of making the video like? I think Kurt said it was the best possible representation from his mind.
He had basically scripted that video but this lady was my idea. For me that was mother earth so I wanted her to be in there. There were a few other things like that. The crows on the cross were artificial crows because I liked them in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet. Also the butterflies you see are not real butterflies because I wanted to have more theatrical things. So I made it a bit more mine, but Kurt was amazing at being able to make such a detailed visual description of the film. I found it astounding.
Feature image of Anton Corbijn: Stephan Vanfleteren
All other images copyright © of Anton Corbijn
U2, Death Valley 1986
George Clooney, Italy 2009
PJ Harvey, New Forest 1998
Peter Doig, Port of Spain, Trinidad 2011
Lance Armstrong, West Hollywood 2004