S peaking recently on a Reddit AMA, former Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook had this to say about Anton’ Corbijn’s 2007 biopic feature ‘Control’. “I recognised my ex-bandmates very well in the film. Anton knew us very well and schooled the actors religiously to capture all of our little quirks. And to be honest, it was TOO accurate! It was a great film.”
From Joy Division to Johnny Depp, Ai Wei Wei to Naomi Campbell - the unique cocktail of character, truth, presence and creativity to be found in an Anton Corbijn portrait has informed some of the most potent pop culture visuals of the past half century. His distinctive monochromatic style has been enthusiastically embraced by the world's most influential artists, including Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Kate Bush, Björk, Morrissey - each of them alchemising magically, with Corbijn’s loose, spontaneous shooting rhythm. His cover images and designs, such as for Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, Depeche Mode’s Violator, U2’s The Joshua Tree or Bruce Springsteen’s Devils And Dust – endure the passing of time, from an era when album artwork was indisputably iconic and important. Corbijn's direct compositions cut to the chase. They have become definitive.
As WILLAS Contemporary brings a selection of Corbijn's classic portraiture across film, art, music and fashion to Sotheby’s in Stockholm in a selling exhibition on view between 30 September 2022 – 9 October, we sat down the man himself for an overview of his long, illustrious career.
We begin by asking him about his latest project, Squaring The Circle a documentary about the eccentric geniuses behind Hipgnosis, the design agency that flourished during rock music's imperial 1970s, which premiered at the Telluride film festival, a few weeks ago
You’ve just premiered Squaring The Circle, a film about the legendary album designers Hipgnosis at the Telluride film festival – how did that come about?
For people like me, who grew up in the 1970s, record sleeves were very important; they brought you closer to the music, to the function. You didn’t have Google, so all the information was on the sleeve. Funnily enough, vinyl is making a big comeback now, so there are a lot of record sleeves again, but the importance is different, you won’t get that importance back that we had in the 1970s because there was very little else out there.
Do you remember what the very earliest visual albums, album covers and sleeves that really impacted you?
I think album-wise, it probably goes back to the Beatles or Golden Earring, a Dutch band who were very popular. I guess Revolver and Rubber Soul are probably the album sleeves I liked a lot and then of course, Abbey Road, I guess, I liked a simple picture. When I became more aware of photography and started to take pictures myself, Atom Heart Mother [by Pink Floyd, 1969] was a big one, the one with a cow on the cover, it was fantastic. In this film, they talk about how [designer and eccentric founder] Storm Thorgeson took the concept to the band and insisted the only condition is, no title and no name of the band on the cover. They were like, yes, wow a cow on the cover, yes, let’s do that!
Of course, you became synonymous with Joy Division, shooting those iconic monochromatic band portraits as well as the video for Atmosphere and in 2007, the biopic Control. Are they still a band that have a very dear place in your heart?
Yes, but less so now than then. I think as your world gets a little bigger, things change over the years and the impact of music when you’re young is different to now. But I’m very grateful for the music, because it made me move to England and gave me a whole different life.
I’m very grateful for Joy Division's music, because it made me move to England and gave me a whole different life...'
How did you first get to meet them?
Initially, I moved here [the UK] in October 1979 and managed to meet them soon after backstage at a concert at The Rainbow [legendary London rock venue]. I persuaded them to do a picture with me - although my English was almost non-existent. I asked them to come to Lancaster Gate underground station, near my little basement flat because that was the only station I knew. They duly came on a Sunday morning, it was very quiet, they were all standing there shivering, and me being Dutch, I wanted to shake their hands. But they wouldn’t shake my hand. So, anyway, we did the pictures. My whole idea at the time, was to link the people in the photographs with the music they were making. Their album was called Unknown Pleasures, so I thought about how they were having a trip to unknown pleasures - and so if you look at those photos, that was how that was set up. They liked it but then of course, no magazine would publish the picture because you couldn’t see their faces. So, I sent it to the band, they loved it and used it on the Sordide Sentimental single sleeve, only sixteen hundred copies printed or something.
So what happened next?
They asked me to come to Manchester, for the recording of Love Will Tear Us Apart. Again, they wouldn’t pose, but they wanted me to hang around and that’s when I took a picture of Ian. A few weeks later, he passed away. I did the video for Atmosphere (1986) and then I did the movie Control (2007), which I wanted to make as honestly as possible. So yes, I guess in my life there have been these milestones of work with Joy Division and I’m so happy that it motivated me enough to make my first film because it’s just a big adventure, making movies.
Let’s have a look at some of the lots in the Stockholm exhibition. I’ve zoomed immediately onto Bowie. This 1993 shot is a very elegant, dapper David, in contrast to the loincloth-wearing star of The Elephant Man, which you shot in 1980…
So, when I was first in London in late 1979, I was living in a squat and taking pictures for the NME. Then I found a little flat in Euston and I was redecorating it before I moved in. My parents had given me some money for a cooker. But I decided to use the money to buy an airplane ticket to Chicago to see David Bowie instead. Because I knew a journalist from the NME who was going to interview him, and he’d agreed I could come with him, even though Bowie had said, no photographs.
' It was very hard to take a bad picture of Bowie!'
So, I went, and it was a bit of a gamble, but it all worked out really well, and he liked the pictures very much and was a gentleman to me ever since.
This photograph was from a good shoot - we did it in Primrose Hill. And he was just good in every frame. This was my favourite image from that particular set-up – Bowie was always keen to make every idea work. He was a great subject in front of the camera. And, because he looked so good, It was very hard to take a bad picture of Bowie!
Okay, so then we come to Ai Weiwei, Bamboo, Beijing!
I started to do a lot of portraits of artists around twenty years ago, I started it…the first one, sorry I should go back to the eighties with Imi Knoebel, he’s a German artist, he became a friend and I still do pictures with him. In the 1990s, I worked with Captain Beefheart and then Marlene Dumas, with whom I did three shows together in the late 1990s called ’strippinggirls’. Personally, I really enjoy the painting world, I also like paintings, my house contains paintings, no photographs.
I love that collaboration you did with Dumas – she took the images in one direction, you took them in another.
Yes, she went in a better direction than I did! But I mean she took Polaroids and painted much later from them. I had of course take the pictures there and then, and make up my mind very quickly what I needed to do. But it was really great to see that whole process with her - she’s still a good friend.
So – Ai Wei Wei
I really wanted to photograph Ai Wei Wei, so I went to Beijing as I had made an appointment with him. When I arrived in the compound [where he was under house arrest], he had just got a call from the police telling him he had to register again. He didn’t know if that meant he had to stay there for a day or a week, so I had very little time to take a picture because he had to leave. So, I did two photographs basically, the one you have here and another one which is a much more portrait with a bare torso. But I like the bamboo thing because it looks like… because he had to go to the police station, it felt like a prison almost and it’s very Chinese, so it was the culmination of these two things.
He looks regal and mighty. Like an emperor.
Yes, he was like a locked-up emperor. He was an impressive figure, like a Chinese warrior. He was quite stoic - despite the fact he had to go to the police station, he didn’t tell me, oh, you can’t be here. He just let me take my picture and then he left. He had an incredible strength, I think.
'Ai Wei Wei was like a locked-up emperor. He was an impressive figure, like a Chinese warrior...'
What are the differences in the way you would approach a portrait of an artist compared to a musician?
The thing that is different with the musicians I photographed; I hardly ever photographed musicians with an instrument. I find that boring and tedious. I wanted to elevate these musicians to [being] people, and when they have an instrument, you make a musician. But with painters, it’s very different for me. I am fascinated about their studio and I want to photograph them with their work or with their pencils. So, I did a series with Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, Chris Ofili, Peter Doig and all those people. For Peter Doig, I went all the way to the Caribbean to do a photoshoot with him, and Chris Ofili too. Just this last week, I went to see Kiki Smith in America. Taking artist's photographs is not a money-making machine but I really wanted to photograph her.
It's not in this exhibition, but your portrait of Lucien Freud is wonderful, his profile looks like it is on Mount Rushmore.
I wanted to do some other stuff with him but he wouldn’t, because he was actually painting, so he wasn’t wanting to be disturbed so much in the process of it. He was quite old at the time, but I remember spending time with him, going to Jeremy King’s restaurant The Wolseley... I remember being there one evening with him, at the famous table he usually sat at, it was an evening that some of his work was being auctioned, so he was on the phone keeping track of the sale, how high the price was going. I think he definitely liked the money!
So, the next photo we’re looking at is this one of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Again here was a fascinating, storied character - and a tragic premature passing.
Yes, I this was taken before I really got to know Phil. I went on to do his last movie, A Most Wanted Men. But on the day of this shoot, I had a meeting with him but on the same day, they had arranged for me to do a shoot for Vogue with him and Andrew Garfield, for the play on Broadway, Death of a Salesman. Phil, I guess, was obliged to do the pictures or do some promotion for it. He was not a happy fellow, being made to wear a suit by Vogue. I was a little worried that he would take a dislike to me, because I was the photographer for Vogue.
'[Phil] was not a happy fellow, being made to wear a suit by Vogue... I was a little worried that he would take a dislike to me, because I was the photographer for Vogue!'
It’s very deadpan, he wasn’t performing here, he was just like that. I did this picture and of course, in retrospect, a bit like the Joy Division photograph, with people dying in a certain way, it looks like there were signs along the way that you can see in the photograph. But I didn’t know any of that stuff when I took the pictures of Joy Division or with Phil. But this picture, I don’t think I published it at the time but after his death, it looked like it had some significance that I had never realised, prior to that. I was very, very fond of Philip.
What was he like, as a friend?
Oh, a good friend, very intelligent, obviously and very focused on the work. He had no vanity for himself, it was always vanity for the character that he played. If you look at his films, there is never a bad film with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it. He’s so believable in every role, it’s beautiful. We became friendly - my wife is called Nimi, and his wife was called Mimi and he thought that was quite funny. I had asked him to be in my last film and he was looking for a hole in his schedule to do that. We had dinner at Sundance, exactly two weeks before he passed away. There are a lot of filmmakers who have much stronger connections to Phil than I have, but I still felt it was an incredible loss.
Staying with actors, there is this marvellous photo of Johnny Depp, which captures him in his early 1990s, semi-metal phase…
This was the last time I took a picture of Johnny and I found him to be the most gentle of people and obviously, always interesting-looking or good-looking or whatever. I think this started when I was on a train between London and Paris and I walked to the bathroom and I heard a voice saying, “Hey Anton!” and it was him sitting at a table, doing an interview with a French magazine that I sometimes did photographs for. So, when we got to Paris, he said, come to the hotel for a drink. I suggested we do a photograph, so we walked from The Ritz to the Tuileries.
'I’m hopeless technically but I am very careful with how I print, that’s where I’m very hands-on... Then I suddenly become a perfectionist, I’ll try to balance any mistakes I made doing the shoot'
I love the halo effect of the big Ferris wheel in the background! Also, this photo has a rough, grainy quality to it, which is very characteristic of your work. Is that something to do with using the Hasselblad?
A Hasselblad is an incredibly good work horse, it always functions because it’s so simple, it’s a box, a lens and a film and it’s very reliable in that sense. Technically, I’m not so good but whatever you are seeing with the texture, I don’t work on that, that’s just there. So, I use a Kodak film Tri-X and while I’m hopeless technically I am very careful with how I print, that’s where I’m very hands-on.
The shoot and the developing are very different processes for you?
Yes, because I’m not so technical, I would say I have an imperfection in the way I shoot, I shoot by hand and I always move around a little, I focus not so well - I use a slow time usually, it’s not the sharpest pictures coming out of that but also not something that moves, so it’s in between. But I always feel that it shows that it’s a human taking the photograph, there’s a human angle to the process. Once the picture is taken and I have the negative, I’m very precise, I try to get the most out of the photo. Then I suddenly become a perfectionist, I’ll try to balance any mistakes I made doing the shoot.
So that’s where your technical focus tends to be
Yes, it’s like that but these days, I scan my negatives, so that the end bit of the process is digital so it’s the ideal dark room in a way. But I’m trying not to become too perfect in changing things, I’m just getting the best out of what’s in the negative.
So that’s how you balance analogue and digital formats and retain the spontaneity, that human element?
Yes, that’s very true and especially if you do things for people, they usually want things very fast and there is less money for cost and stuff. So, you go very quickly to digital. I’ve just published a book, a few days ago, of my phone photos because that was my first digital camera, and I was always very against digital but the ease of it just wins sometimes. So, you go for comfort over quality sometimes, but what I like about digital is that even when there is hardly any light, you can get a photograph. That’s remarkable.
Let’s pick another one. This one is Naomi Campbell.
Yes. There was no budget for clothing (laughs). I was never sure what to do with clothes, I was insecure about the beauty of the girls and what to do with clothing. So, once I got to know the girls a little bit, through socialising, or they were friends of friends and stuff, I found it much easier and then I found it also more interesting to photograph them naked than with clothes. That’s not a cheap excuse, that’s just how I felt more comfortable and of course they all have very beautiful bodies. So, this was for a shoot for a German magazine, it might have been Stern and was the second time I photographed Naomi. and she is just very beautiful and I liked this picture.
It's a fantastic composition, her body framed within the window and the billowing drapes…
If you photograph somebody standing in a doorway, and it’s a dark body especially, it’s nice to have something there so that you can see the outline, it doesn’t disappear into the darkness of the room, so it’s practical. I’m very intuitive - there was nothing planned, I have no images in my head, there was no, what they have these days, mood boards or any of that.
'Tom Waits always has loads of ideas to bring to a shoot – it’s just him and me, no assistant, no PR. It shows you how he looks at the world... He's a great guy'
I love this image of Tom Waits. With a – small child and drum? Looking like a street performer, from a travelling carnival?
I think he likes it if you think of him like that. Tom always has loads of ideas to bring to a shoot – it’s just him and me, no assistant, no PR. It shows you how he looks at the world. In this picture, it’s exactly the opposite of what I said initially to you that I don’t want to photography musicians with instruments. But this is him playing a one-man band and the interaction between him and the child is just wonderful. We just go out and take photographs, he’ll bring something like a guitar, amplifier, or fireworks or whatever.
Yes, once he just brought them, we would go into San Francisco and set off fireworks at night and run away. He’s wonderful, he’s so creative and I think he’s happy for me to be intuitive like this, when we shoot and I’m very proud of the book we did. A book for € 150, six thousand, six hundred copies and I think it was gone in about ten days. it’s a great example of how you can find other things with the same person, over so many years. I like Tom very, very much. He’s a great guy.
It looks spontaneous, raw and of the moment
I photograph very fast and I think it’s also because I’m influenced by documentary photographers, that was very big in Holland in the early 1970s - the magazines were very social, with political involvement, photographers who would go to South America, where there were coups happening and whatever. They were there and it’s all these black and white documentary photographs and I think that influenced my style. I was quite shy when I was young and I was not so in control of what happened in front of the camera because I didn’t dare to express myself that way, It was only after I started doing videos that I learned to be more involved in what happens in front of your camera. So, that was a change in thinking, but I fall back very easily on the documentary approach to things and that helps in the speed in which I photograph and in getting an image that isn’t planned.
Anton Corbijn's selling exhibition is at Sotheby's Stockholm between 30 September - 9 October
Sturegatan 24, Stockholm
Opening hours: 13:00-16:00 or by appointment
All images presented by WILLAS Contemporary