“Photography was the only thing that mattered in my life and I gave it everything.” – Anton Corbijn
Whether or not you know the photography of Anton Corbijn, you’ve undoubtedly seen his influence. As both a photographer and music video director, Corbijn helped to define the visual styles of bands like Nirvana, Joy Division and Coldplay, as well as U2 and Depeche Mode, with whom he has collaborated for more than two decades. Collaboration seems to be one of the hinge pins of Corbijn’s creative process, whether you point to his 35-year ongoing collaboration with Tom Waits, or the incredible body of work produced with Depeche Mode, which includes more than a dozen music videos, from the spaghetti-western inspired Personal Jesus to the tongue-in-cheek homage to 70s cinema, It’s No Good, in which Corbijn even cast himself in a cameo.
When Corbijn met U2 on their first American tour, Bono had only one request: “Make me look tall, skinny, intelligent, with a sense of humor,” to which Corbijn replied, “So, you want to look like me.” Corbijn’s relationship with U2 is not only one of his longest-running creative collaborations, it’s also one of his most prolific and well-known, yielding album covers for The Unforgettable Fire, Rattle and Hum, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby as well as several music videos, including One.
Music was Anton Corbijn’s first love. The son of a Protestant minister, he was socially awkward and somewhat shy as a boy. “He always sort of withdrew into his own cocoon,” his sister recalls. However, he found an escape in music. He wasn’t a musician, just an amateur drummer who loved to listen. During the summer of 1972, when he was 16, his family moved to the small Dutch town of Groningen. He heard about a local concert in a park. Having no friends in this new area, he wanted to attend, but didn’t want to go alone and draw attention to himself. He asked his father if he could borrow his camera. This allowed him the freedom to get to the stage without feeling like people would be staring. After getting the images developed he sent them off to a magazine, and, to his surprise, they published them. That was the moment that changed his life. Photography became a way for him to gain access to concerts of the bands he loved. It was an excuse for him to get closer to the stage. “I really wanted to become part of that world,” Corbijn says, “Gradually, I developed a love for photography itself.”
Within a few years, Corbijn felt the limitations of his small hometown in The Netherlands. The musicians he enjoyed the most were English. He knew that in order to grow, he would need to move on. “I don’t think the scene in Holland inspired me, but I was very inspired by the London scene,” he says. “There was just something about the music scene here that I wanted to see in my photography. I felt my best pictures were always taken when I went for a little trip to England or when some English musicians visited. I definitely didn’t think I was capable of all this when I was young.” He picked up and moved to London in 1979, mostly because of the band, Joy Division.
Joy Division was a British post-punk band who was just making it big in the late 70s. Their first album was released in 1979, Unknown Pleasures, and Corbijn was so moved by it that he wanted to go where that music came from. Within two weeks of arriving in England, he found himself at a Joy Division concert and, at the end of it, was able to meet the band. They invited him to shoot some photographs of them the next day. He didn’t understand many of the lyrics because of his poor English at that point, but he knew from they way they sang, that it was important. It was the music that inspired him. Their passion for music reminded him of what he felt for photography. “The intensity with which some people were making music and that they sang with, really appealed to me. That was the only thing that they were living for,” he says. “That appealed to me, so I had a connection with people like that because photography was the only thing that mattered to me in my life. And I gave it everything. What music can give you is that you aren’t the only one who feels like that. It felt like some sort of camaraderie.”
Corbijn became a photographer for New Musical Express, a music journalism publication in the UK, and traveled for them to different cities throughout England. What he found surprised him. The environment was bleak and desolate, with large areas that were extremely poverty-stricken. This “landscape”, as well as the melancholy music and musicians surrounding him, inspired him to shoot in black and white, giving a stark and lonely look to his images. Entirely self- taught, Corbijn has relied on instinct rather than technical training, loving to experiment and the surprise of seeing what develops. He doesn’t use a tripod, doesn’t use flash and lets the mistakes just happen. “Your handicap is your strongest asset,” he says, “I made it work for myself, and then somehow that becomes how you take pictures, which is different to a lot of people.”
Never stagnant in his career, Corbijn has moved deftly between photography, music videos and feature films. His first film was a project close to his heart. Loosely based on the story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, Control won several awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including the Director’s Fortnight. It went on to win five British Independent Film Awards including Best Film and Best Director. For his second film, he directed George Clooney in The American and his latest directing project, which just finished production, is A Most Wanted Man with Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright. He is continuously pushing himself to grow because, through his career, he has seen more in himself than he thought was possible and he wants to find what else is there.