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July 2001

Hot Shots

The Star-studded portfolio of Anton Corbijn

You may not have heard the name Anton Corbijn, but you probably know his work. The photographer has been image-maker to the likes of such rock giants as U2, REM and Depeche Mode and has taken portraits of such musicalluminaries as David Bowie, Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis. Until September 2, the Münchner Stadtmuseum will be home to over 200 photographs spanning Corbijn’s 25-year career, together with a selection of his album cover designs and music videos. It is an exhibition of interest to fans of celebrity, popular culture and photography alike.
The Dutch-born photographer first took up a camera at age 17, using it as a prop to give him the courage to attend rock concerts alone. His photographs of live shows performed by local band Solution were immediately printed in a music magazine, marking the start of the youngster’s photographic love affair with music. By 1979, Corbijn having exhausted the possibilities of the music scene in the Netherlands, was drawn to England (where he still lives) by his passion for Joy Division. His moody, black-and-white shots of the band, typical of his style, became cult images after singer Ian Curtis’ suicide.
Corbijn was also attracted by the prevailing punk ethic of “anyone can do it.” He happily admits to being technically unaccomplished. Working with a hand-held camera and just two or three lenses, Corbijn shoots nearly all his photographs on location, using the available light to best effect. Despite his own and his subjects’ increasing fame, he has consciously striven to keep a quality of imperfection in his work. The photographer works with just one assistant, refusing the more usual army of stylists, makeup artists and lighting experts. By limiting the paraphernalia of a shoot, he is able to establish a personal relationship with his subjects, which is what delivers the results he is looking for.
Corbijn also prefers to work quickly. Two of his most famous images were taken when granted just five minutes’ audience with the subjects: a fragile David Bowie in a loincloth, taken backstage at a Chicago theater where he was playing the Elephant Man; and Miles Davis with hugely dilated pupils (you can see Corbijn’s reflection), his fingers spread in front of his face. Corbijn finds that people are more vulnerable, and reveal more of themselves, at the beginning of a shoot. He is usually finished within half an hour.
Corbijn’s portraits tend to be austere and serious, yet they also have an intimacy not often seen with such famous subjects. His aim is to show people as they really are, and it is this honesty that makes his images of enduring interest. “My biggest fear always is that I’ll photograph an idea rather than a person,” he says. Although his portraits may become highly acclaimed, he does not set out to cater to the tastes of the masses, in contrast to the illustrious photographer of celebrities Annie Leibovitz. What we see is only partial, leaving space for the viewer’s own response.
The exhibition devotes a whole room to photographs of Bono and U2, the band with which Corbijn has had his longest-standing and best-known collaboration. He first met the band in 1982. Four years later it was Corbijn who suggested that the desert “Joshua” tree would look great on the cover of their new album. The result was one of the most powerful images in rock music. Coarse, grim shots of the band epitomized their image for the 1980s. Remarkably, it was Corbijn who revamped that image. His own move to garish color translated into the cover of Achtung Baby and the playful, almost glam 1990s version of U2. For last year’s All that You Can’t Leave Behind, Corbijn gave us a mature, at-ease U2, between flights at the beautifully sleek Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Corbijn’s portfolio has branched out from music in latter years to include models, actors and film directors. The exhibition features a pensive Jodie Foster, an enigmatic Martin Scorcese and a striking double-profile of Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. Also on display are photographs from Corbijn’s most recent book, 33 Still Lifes (1999). This series of “fake documentaries,” shot in monochrome blue with red highlights, recalls Cindy Sherman’s “film stills.” Featuring his celebrity pals playing dress-up, the photographs mark a playful departure from Corbijn’s usual style. <<<

The Stadtmuseum retrospective offers a fascinating insight into the world of rock music, and is, at the same time, an arresting and thought-provoking collection of photographs. For more information, call (089) 233 22370 or visit

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