This documentary has to look good to do its subject justice. It works, brilliantly showing the loner photographer to the stars.
Time: 78 minutes + trailer
Director: Klaartje Quirijns
Language: Dutch with English sub-titles
Given the stark and creative style of Anton Corbijn’s photography, this documentary had to look good, or it would not have got past him. But its strength is not just in the framing and textures of its images; this digs as deep as Corbijn would let it, vividly portraying the solitary figure as he meets the Bonos, Arcade Fires and Lou Reeds of the world, capturing the essence of their work and expressing it with an austere dignity.
“My subjects were musicians,” he comments, recalling the early motivation for his work, “It was the only thing I was interested in. Gradually, I developed a love for photography in itself.”
It was the intensity of the music that drew him and that is reflected in the striking depth of his portraits. He has a distant Iggy Pop crawling naked trough Central Park; his Miles Davis looks haunted, and his camera climbs the craggy topography of Tom Waits’s face. They often stare intently at the camera, daring the viewer to look away.
Quirijns’s film shows Corbijn working with artists such as Arcade Fire, U2 – whose albums probably brought his name to the masses more than any other commission – and a Lou Reed / Metallica collaboration.
Bono shares a lot of experience and humour with Corbijn. It is easy to see how they work well together. The singer observes (somewhat pretentiously) how U2 and the photographer both have “an obsession with light and it being extinguished too easily.”
The film leads its own script. For example, it gives a strong impression of Corbijn’s loneliness several minutes before it gets a specific mention.
Who knows whether his solitary spirit came from nature or nurture? Either way, it developed easily under the quiet and heavy presence of his Dutch Reformed Church pastor father. Corbijn recalls how dinnertimes hardly flowed with easy banter. With pastoral responsibilities and plenty of funerals taking up the preacher’s time, including weekends and evenings, he remembers spending little time with his father and that “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders was my parents’ vibe.”
Towards the end of the film, a revelation by his mother helps to understand the sadness more deeply. But there was redemption at work. So much time on his hands meant that Corbijn was free to devote his leisure hours to his craft, even though it was not one that won easy approval from his father. Corbijn clearly wanted – and still does – approval for his work. “My father said he ‘was proud of all his children.’ That was a typical answer of my father,” reveals the photographer, clearly aching for direct and specific encouragement.
While his Dad found it hard to understand the art, he liked it more when his son portrayed “the core of a person.” That is plainly visible in Corbijn’s work and maybe his father’s remark showed a deep and relevant insight into how people connect with art; one that influenced the photographer more than he admits.
The documentary also covers his two films: it skirts around a biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis long enough to show that, significantly, he was another loner; but it shows more from George Clooney featuring in The American. After a lengthy spell of monochrome, the colourful landscape for this movie is striking. Like much of this film, its geometrical framing, shapes and textures echo Corbijn’s own strengths.
Aptly titled, this work brings the inside of Corbijn out – although there is one moment at the end, where he clearly has reached the limit of his self-exposure and quietly walks away. But this is not in any way sensationalist. It shows the man and his work, doing so with integrity, respect and a gently probing.