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 Anton Corbijn, Rick Owens, Paris (2018)
Anton Corbijn, Rick Owens, Paris (2018). Pigment print on Hahnemühle fine art paper, mounted on aluminium. 99.5 x 142 cm (image size 82.5 x 125cm). Edition of 5 plus 2 AP’s (#1/5) (CS 060)Copyright Anton Corbijn

See Anton Corbijn’s striking photos of Rick Owens, David Bowie, and more

We speak to the eminent photographer and filmmaker about a new exhibition featuring his iconic portraits of David Bowie, Naomi Campbell, Virgil Abloh, and many more

There are very few noteworthy individuals of the past 50 years who have eluded the penetrating lens of Anton Corbijn. Since starting out almost exclusively shooting musicians in 1979, he made a swift ascent to become one of the world’s most renowned photographers, taking portraits of almost everyone you could care to mention before evolving seamlessly into the world of moving image. As a director, he has made over 80 music videos, working with the likes of Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Joy Division, and Depeche Mode, before directing his first feature film, Control – the acclaimed biopic of Ian Curtis – in 2007.

Corbijn’s enduring, distinctive black and white images are saturated with atmosphere, shot using a singularly slow shutter speed and preserving the idiosyncratic imperfections of film. His vast archive of portraits is a constellation of the most glamorous, gifted, and charismatic figures of the late 20th and early 21st century (plus U2 and Coldplay). 

A new exhibition – available to view at de Pury online and on display at Corbijn’s studio located in The Hague, Amsterdam, by appointment only – brings together a selection of the artist’s rarely-displayed work, including portraits of Donatella Versace, Naomi Campbell, Iggy Pop, Gerhard Richter, Rick Owens, David Bowie, and many, many more. 

Below, Anton Corbijn tells us about his new exhibition, discusses the enduring appeal and beauty of photography, and shares his advice for aspiring image-makers. 

This exhibition features rarely-seen works from your vast archive. Please could you talk us through some of the works going on display?  

Anton Corbijn: They are mainly rarely seen in the UK I would say, as I have never had a museum show there, but this is an online show so it will reach a lot of people in many countries. When I came to live in the UK in 1979, I was only photographing musicians as music was my big love but over the decades I have expanded my horizon and worked with a lot of other artists from different disciplines… painters, actors, designers, models, directors, etc. I still photograph musicians too but, mostly, people I know well. Basically, I still love to go out and take a photograph of someone that I find interesting.

Coming back to your question, there are photos of Naomi Campbell, U2, Iggy Pop, Gerhard Richter, Coldplay, Rick Owens, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Miles Davis, and others.

David Bowie must be one of the most recognisable and photographed figures in the history of popular culture, but your 1980 portrait of him is so incredibly distinct. Please could you share your memories of this shoot and how you arrived at the idea of photographing him in this way? 

Anton Corbijn: I cannot claim credit for the way he dressed, he was dressed that way as he was an actor in a play called The Elephant Man. But I love to take some credit for the way he came across in the photo… David was a very special man, a gentleman with humour, and an artist. I am very grateful that he gave me this moment backstage in Chicago. We took some more photos as this particular photo ‘shoot’ only lasted 5 minutes or so, and so the next day we met in a bar that also resulted in some photographs I love. 

My training ground, if you like, is documentary style photography so I adapt quickly to situations and feel I can shoot anywhere and fast.

“I tend to look at my style as my inability to shoot any other way” – Anton Corbijn

What elements do you think, for you, make an especially fascinating portrait? 

Anton Corbijn: An interesting person in front of you to start with mostly, plus a take that is fresh.

How would you characterise your style of image-making? And how did you find that translated when you moved into moving image? 

Anton Corbijn: I tend to look at my style as my inability to shoot any other way. It was very difficult to translate this to video making or filmmaking, to be honest, and I am still struggling to find a way or, at least, I am still insecure. The beauty of photography is that it is so simple, just you and a camera. It breathes life.

You once said, ‘Analog is more beautiful than digital.’ Can you elaborate on that idea? What do you think has been lost for the generations growing up in a digital age? What are they missing out on?

Anton Corbijn: I feel that this is still the case, but I must admit I shoot digitally now more than half of the time as it has advanced and you can shoot in very low light. Also, costs and time are now factors that come into play. My initial reluctance to shoot digital is that I like not to see the photo until later, as while we all tend to want to create perfect pictures that is, ultimately, not rewarding. 

With digital, you will change how you shoot to make it perfect. The imperfection inherent to shooting on film without a tripod is closest to life and therefore speaks to more people in the end. 

But that is looking at the past, and I loved the tension between the moment of the shoot and the moment you see the contact sheets. That could be a few hours but also could be days or weeks. However, I do like the digital darkroom so even my negatives get digitalised now. I am happy to not have 100 per cent control when shooting, yet I crave it once the photo has been made. The digital darkroom gives me that control. 

What advice might you share with emerging or aspiring photographers? 

Anton Corbijn: Well, don’t do it! But you insist, then go for it. Have fun, have discipline, be hungry – literally.

de PURY Presents: Anton Corbijn will be available to view via and on display at Anton Corbijn’s studio located in The Hague, Amsterdam by appointment only