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January - Anton Corbijn.

Anton Corbijn grew up in an orderly, religious household in Holland with his father, who was a Protestant church minister, and his mother, a nurse. As a teenager he was a tall, shy person who loved music. His photographic career began as result of his urge to get closer to the stage.

When the family moved to another town when he was 17 there was a concert by the local band, Solution. “I desperately wanted to see it, but didn’t have anyone to go with, so I took along my father’s camera to give me some sort of excuse for being there. I took a few pictures and sent them to a newspaper, which published them straight away.” 

Crucial step

Success led to success. There were more concerts, and the leading newspapers in Holland were soon publishing his photos on a regular basis. After a couple of years, which included aborted photographic studies in The Hague and an eight-month stint as a photographer’s assistant, he moved to London in 1979. It was the music of the group Joy Division that convinced him to take this crucial step. He was so passionate about their music that he felt he just had to live near them. One of his first photos in the UK was in fact of Joy Division, with Ian Curtis in the foreground. The picture first became famous after Curtis’s death.


A magical combination

Whether it was chance or not that led Anton Corbijn into a photographic career it seems that his love for music and his natural affinity for the camera were the magic ingredients that nurtured his tremendous success as a photographer. In the 28 years that have passed since that Solution concert an impressive line-up of musicians, authors, models, actors, directors and other famous people have posed in front of his camera. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Don van Vliet (better known as Captain Beefheart), Frank Sinatra, Martin Scorsese, William Burroughs, Robert deNiro, Luciano Pavarotti, Nicholas Cage, Steven Spielberg, Naomi Campbell are just a small selection. And although Anton Corbijn now photographs celebrities in almost every sphere, he still prefers to work with musicians. “In contrast to actors and the like, musicians are usually themselves; they don’t need to play a role. Musicians are really an extension of the music they play”.

Seeing reality as it is

Corbijn’s distinctive photographic style has been shaped by his desire to portray reality as it really is. And in Corbijn’s pictures these normally unapproachable celebrities pose as the world has never seen them before: cold, vulnerable, gentle and sentimental all at the same time – in a romantic spirit that is Corbijn’s own signature. He has a great admiration for Robert Frank, Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky and Irving Penn.

Hasselblad and three lenses – no more

Corbijn decided at an early stage to be his own boss. He has one photo-assistant and one personal assistant. He is not one of those photographers who lugs around a mountain of equipment. All he needs are two Hasselblad cameras (a 501CM and a 503CW) and three lenses (60, 80 and 120 mm). His philosophy is very simple: no tripod and no studio, just available light and a hand-held camera. “Because I always work hand-held I sometimes catch unintended objects in the background. That’s part of the charm – I don’t want my pictures to be too clinical. It’s very rare for me to crop my pictures afterwards.” Corbijn really made the move to the medium format for the book Star Trak. “After 15 years of working with 35-mm film it was incredibly inspiring to tackle image composition in a new way.”



Long and distinguished CV

Anton Corbijn’s creativity spans a vast range. His CV is long and very impressive. Over the years he has worked on a prolific variety of CD covers, music videos, books, posters and exhibitions. In the mid-eighties he set up State, a company that produces his videos and film work.

Corbijn’s work has been published mainly in four books; most of them produced in the nineties. He is particularly pleased with “33 Still lives”, which he describes as “a fictitious documentary of the world of celebrities”, and a reaction to the current trend in photographing the famous, which he feels has lost spontaneity and become too clichéd. In the style of a paparazzo he has captured celebrities, with their knowledge and permission, and assigned them various roles he wants them to play. The photos resemble stills of imaginary films.

Is there anything more that Corbijn would like to achieve? " I have a dream", he explains.
"I want to do a  stamp for Holland. If I mention this often enough in interviews then it might actually happen one day", he says in a shrewd manner.

Inspired by meeting people

So what is it that still drives this man to continue travelling the world, snapping celebrities, after almost three decades? “It’s meeting people that motivates and inspires me. I have made lots of friends through my work. It’s a slow process. It takes time to build up a relationship, but it can last your whole lifetime. I have many friends who I have followed since the start of their careers and still work with today.”

One of Anton Corbijn’s longest and best-known relationships is with the group U2. They first met in 1982 and Corbijn has done the covers of six albums for them since. The most well known are The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, two totally different looking sleeves.

Anton Corbijn’s meeting with Depeche Mode in 1986 and their work together since then, has resulted in him being asked to design the stage for the group’s “Devotional Tour” in 1995–96, an enormous task that included designing two stages with eleven film screens. He has produced most of the group’s material, since 1986 including 17 videos, 5 CD album sleeves, some graphic designs for albums, posters, press photos etc. The book “Strangers – Depeche Mode” contains an enormous number of pictures from these productions that were never published.

Talent opens doors

But how does Anton Corbijn manage to get all these busy celebrities to open their doors so freely to him? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in Corbijn’s photographic talent. Talent begets respect, and Corbijn is a highly respected photographer.

Nevertheless, talent alone is not enough to succeed as he has done, and one cannot help wondering whether Anton Corbijn would have got so far if he had let all the praise go to his head. He has never shown any sign of that.

Another part of the answer lies almost certainly in his personality. Whoever comes in contact with Anton Corbijn meets a humble and friendly photographer, a man who takes his time, even though time is what he has least of. This is a man who loves meeting people, whether they are celebrities or not.

Kerstin Fiedler