As older and more loyal readers will be aware if there is one thing we really, really dislike, more so than even “street food” or swans, it is black and white portrait photography.
Which of course explains why we are so fascinated by the black and white portraits by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn……..
Born in Strijen, Holland as the son of a clergyman and nurse Anton Corbijn taught himself photography in his teenage years and cut his professional teeth photographing local musicians in and around Groningen before moving on to work with an impressive roster of international music publications for whom he photographed…. well pretty much anybody who has ever achieved any sort of musical fame. Most notable are perhaps his long associations with Depeche Mode and U2 for whom he has, largely, devised the bands’ visual identities, and in the case of U2 even coming up with the name for their 1987 “Joshua Tree” album. In addition to photography Anton Corbijn has also produced videos for the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen, Golden Earring or Nirvana and more recently Anton Corbijn has moved on to directing feature films including Control, The American and the James Dean bio-pic Life
In summer 2015 the Gemeentemuseum The Hague staged “Hollands Deep” and the Fotomuseum The Hague staged “1-2-3-4” by way of a two part retrospective to celebrate Anton Corbijn’s 60th birthday, and until the end of January both shows are unified in one exhibition at C/O Berlin.
Presenting some 600 works Hollands Deep & 1-2-3-4 provide in every respect a fulsome overview of Anton Corbijn, his life and his work.
In the upstairs gallery 1-2-3-4 is devoted entirely to Anton Corbijn’s music photography and for the exhibition Anton Corbijn returned to his personal archive, searched through lost experiences and selected his personal highlights. The result is a largely thematically organised presentation – Nirvana there, R.E.M there, Metallica over there and Nick Cave next door – interspersed by individual portraits of the great, the good and the downright awful from the past forty years of rock n’ roll. And thus serves as much as a neat documentation of the past forty years of rock n’ roll as it is a retrospective of Anton Corbijn’s career thus far.
Downstairs, Hollands Deep provides a more general overview of the Corbijn oeuvre, largely through presentations of several of the book and exhibition projects he has been involved with over the decades. And its not just musicians, its also actors, sports folk, artists….. and Stephen Hawking looking perhaps the most rock star of any one in the exhibition. Nor is it all black and white. In 2001 Corbijn returned to his home town in an attempt to try to find answers as to why his life developed as it did. The result, via a process of self-reflection and analysis is the collection “a. somebody”, a series of colour “self portraits” of Anton Corbijn disguised as various deceased rock stars. There is, for example a very nearly Kurt Cobain on a park bench, a very nearly Ian Curtis in a field and a very, very, very nearly Elvis in a scrapyard. But perhaps just as interesting is the juxtaposition of colour in a pretend world and black and white in the real world. It’s the sort of thing that could keep psychologists, amateur and professional, busy for years.
For all wanting more substantiated information, the succinct exhibition signage provides an excellent introduction to the works, their origins and how Anton Corbijn thinks and works.
But ultimately it is all about the photos. And they are plentiful.
At the risk of over generalising to the point of talking senseless rubbish, what attracts us to Corbijn’s images is their inherent honesty. Or perhaps better put, their inherent honest and the associated deceit.
With the musician photos, it is clear that they are staged scenes, staged scenes intended as promotional and editorial material and thus completely devoid of or intending to achieve any form of critical distance or independence, and further, are staged scenes intended as promotional material in one of the most ego centric and self-promotional industries on our glorious green and blue planet. Anton Corbijn is aware of the power of his photos, yet doesn’t appear that interested in the fact. Much more his motivation appears to be developing as a photographer, of exploring what is and is not possible. And as such his photographs remain true to his own ideas on composition, aesthetics and the function of photography rather than simply being created as part of a corporate package deal, a commission undertaken for the cash. The cash is unquestionably welcome, but is not the raison d’être. The result is photographs which are alluring, convincing, alive and ultimately, honest. When Bono looks you in the eye you know he wants you to buy his new album, yet the photo isn’t trying to sell you a dream. It is just photo of Bono.
With the musician portraits this inherent honesty, this ability to present the subject as themselves rather than the product they, also, are is often credited with being down to the close personal relationships Anton Corbijn enjoys with his subjects. And while to an extent that must be true, we, for example, imagine that it is quite difficult to arrange to photograph a naked Michael Stipe if your not on good personal terms with him, it isn’t true in every case. And it certainly can’t be true of all the individuals portrayed. That would be ridiculous.
Much more we think it is related to Anton Corbijn’s preferred way of working: with minimal technology, minimal fuss and minimal props. Which in practice often means little more than Anton Corbijn, a camera, a subject and a car park. In effect he has to make do with what he has and over the years has learned to do just that with a delicacy, a keen eye for the real subject and an understanding of what is genuinely interesting that very few others have managed. For us it is a classic case of restrictions supporting creativity, of limiting the possibilities to the extent that one increases the focus and thus ultimately arrives at the best possible solution.
And we think that is why we are able to look beyond the monochrome and appreciate the works, because in their unassuming honesty they remind us how simple life can be if only we’d stop making it all so complicated for ourselves.
Anton Corbijn – Hollands Deep & 1-2-3-4 run at C/O Berlin, Amerika Haus, Hardenbergstraße 22-24, 10623 Berlin until Sunday January 31st
Full details can be found at www.co-berlin.org