iconic photographer anton corbijn on shooting patti smith and david bowie

Anton Corbijn talks to i-D about documenting music’s biggest names, and why actors are the hardest subjects.

by Ann Binlot
07 June 2016, 3:00pm

Patti Smith, New York, 1999, photo © Anton Corbijn

As the mastermind behind the classic early-90s Bryan Adams video "Do I Have to Say the Words?", the London-based Dutch photographer, director, and graphic designer Anton Corbijn captured the Canadian rocker roaming the streets of Istanbul.

Nearly 25 years later, Corbijn — who made his name shooting musicians like Depeche Mode and Prince — returned to the Turkish metropolis to open "Number 5," an exhibition that runs through June 30 at Istanbul'74's Galatasaray gallery space. The event also kicked off the sixth annual Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival, which wrapped up on June 5. "Number 5" shows six large-scale, black-and-white photographs from the 90s (exhibited together for the first time) of Patti Smith, Nick Cave, David Bowie, Henry Rollins, Dave Grahan, and Johnny Cash. The iconic photographer, who is now primarily a feature filmmaker — he's currently finishing up a Thurgood Marshall biopic — spoke to i-D about the show, his process, and his dream subject immediately after the opening.

What drew you to music?
The excitement of it, I think. I grew up on an island in a very strict, protestant environment, and the music that happened in 1964 and 1965 sounded like the sounds of a world very attractive to a boy living in a village on an island. It always felt like there was excitement on the other side of the water.

Tell me about your process and setting up a shot. How often is it spontaneous?
I don't use lights. I don't set up a shot really. I shoot by hand. In a way, it's like documentary photography, but very controlled. I still use film. The problem with today's shoots is that they're all art directed. There's a person saying you should shoot it like this, or shoot that, and that's why you don't get great pictures, because it's somebody else's idea to work through somebody else. My pictures are very much my story, and that's what makes them different from anybody else's, and I think that's really important.

Nick Cave, London, 1996 © Anton Corbijn

You first shot David Bowie in the early 80s, and then throughout his career. What was it like photographing him over the years?
I think my first shoot with him was probably the most significant, because the others were just for magazines. The first shoot was The Elephant Man picture, and I did a few other pictures the day after in a café, and he liked those pictures very much — but he was always a gentleman to me. I liked him very much. I just don't think I contributed much to his visual history in that sense. Only The Elephant Man.

Can you describe what you're trying to capture when you photograph a subject?
I like to show something that people haven't seen before. I like to show something of that person, and I like to show something of myself — those three elements.

What was going on in the Patti Smith image that's included in the show?
It's a picture of Patti Smith. If I start telling you what the picture was like, that takes away from the power of photographs, so I don't do that. The beauty of photography is that you can make images your own, you can make your own story around it. By explaining stuff you lose some of the magic.

You've also shot a lot of non-musicians — Gerhard Richter, Robert De Niro, and Naomi Campbell, among countless others.
In the 70s and 80s, I just shot musicians. In the 90s I started to shoot a lot of film people, and this century I did a lot of painters.

Is it all the same to you, or are the musicians different from the artists, the artists different from the actors?
Actors are the hardest.

Henry Rollins, Los Angeles, 1993 © Anton Corbijn

Because they're the least master of their own product. Musicians are always very much of their own making. The way they look is part of what they make, and all that. Actors are always playing somebody else. It's difficult for them. But I'm interested in art, whether it's music or theater, or film, or paintings. People that I admire, I try to meet them and take a photograph. That's how it is.

Who is your dream subject who you haven't shot yet?
I would like to photograph Frank Auerbach. I like his work a lot.

What about social media? Are you embracing it? Do you think it's democratizing photography?
Yeah it is, but also…

Do you think there's a lot of crap?
Yeah. That's what it is.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Make your own world, because everything is being photographed now, and everybody thinks they're very important in what they make. It's a great time for photography, and a very hard time to be a photographer.

"Number 5" is on view at Istanbul'74 Galatasaray through June 30.


Text Ann Binlot
Photography © Anton Corbijn

david bowie
Henry Rollins
Anton Corbijn
Patti Smith
Nick Cave
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