PCC’s Chat With the Photographer/Video Artist/Film Director

BY PAUL FREEMAN [1994 Interview]

When we talked with Anton Corbijn, he was beginning to gain widespread public recognition for his striking photos and videos. The son of a parson and a nurse, his artistic vision had long been admired by his peers. He has memorably captured images of such icons as Bob Dylan, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Björk, Captain Beefheart, Robert De Niro, Stephen Hawking, Elvis Costello, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Morrissey, Clint Eastwood, The Cramps, Roxette and Eurythmics.

His classic album covers include U2’s “Achtung Baby” and “Joshua Tree” (he directed several music videos for those records), as well as Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Bon Jovi, The Rolling Stones, The Killers, Simple Minds, R.E.M. and The Bee Gees.

Corbijn has transitioned into film, directing the acclaimed “Control,” about the life of tragic Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis; “The American,” a thriller starring George Clooney; and “A Most Wanted Man,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, adapted from a John Le Carré novel. He also helmed 2015’s “Life,” based on the friendship of James Dean and Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock.

"I hate to be described as a rock photographer," Anton Corbijn says. "I like to think that I’m a photographer who just happens to photograph some musicians now and then. I associate rock photography with very bad paparazzi work, photography with no aesthetics."

Over the past decade, however, Corbijn, who was born in the Netherlands and now divides his time between London and Los Angeles, has concentrated on capturing intriguing images of top international pop stars. Because of his memorable portraits of such musical artists as U2, R.E.M., Bryan Ferry, David Bowie and Sting, Corbijn is in great demand. His collaboration with Depeche Mode has been particularly rewarding. Corbijn, in addition to shooting album covers, related photos and videos, also designed the elaborate staging for the band’s recent world tour.

Corbijn didn’t grow up with any grand designs on a photography career. He was 18 when he began toying with a camera in Holland. "It was just because I loved music so much," he recalls. "I was shy. I borrowed my father’s camera. It gave me an excuse to go to the front of the stage. I managed to get these photos of a local band published. That got me hooked. But it took me a year to get any other pictures published."

While attending college, he earned money with his camera, and he briefly attended photography school. But, he says, "It was horrendous, almost put me off photography. It was very technique-based. I’ve always tried to steer far from that. I felt that any introduction of technique into my photography would inhibit the character or the atmosphere I was seeking. I was afraid that, if I focused on technique, I would lose my momentum."

Corbijn admits that professionalism has crept into his own work. "I really like the amateur approach; it’s a valuable thing. But I’ve been doing this so long, I’m sure that on some level I’ve become a professional. I can’t help it. But I’m certainly not working toward it," he says.

Gradually, Corbijn developed his own style, one that creates a sense of intimacy. "Style is something that just happens. If I have a recognizable trademark, I didn’t strive for that. I strive to give each picture its own value. Any connection running through my work comes naturally."

Corbijn likes to learn as much as he can about the musicians he photographs, but acknowledges that his preconceptions are sometimes off the mark. "In general, you expect these people to be very serious. But they tend to be more lighthearted. Michael Stipe surprised me in that way: He’s very playful."

The photographer has also found that Stipe and so many of his other subjects don’t hesitate to offer creative input. "The smarter people know how to use the visual medium. Bono is a good example. He may have originally seen it as a necessary evil, but he’s turned it to his advantage."

Corbijn shot the cover art for R.E.M.’s "Automatic for the People," as well as for U2’s "Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby." "At first, when I saw how Michael had used my photographs for ’Automatic,’ I thought, ’Oh my God !’ Then I slept on it for a few nights and started to like it. I like a single image on a sleeve.

"I had reservations about ’Achtung Baby.’ I thought it should have been one visual. Bono just kept pushing for the 300 shots on the cover. I kept fighting him. Of course, he won. Then, when I saw the result, I was so happy, that I faxed to him, ’You won, you bastard, and thank you very much.’ We’re both Tauruses, so we’re quite stubborn."

Corbijn enjoys making videos but isn’t blinded by the glamour involved. "I realize that it’s a commercial medium," he says, "but I try to make videos that have a life of their own. Now I have enough offers that I could go on making videos for the rest of my life. But photography is still my first love, so I keep much of my time for that. I don’t believe that making videos is a better profession or a higher art form than photography."