‘I don’t like having cameras with me at all. Then you are such a photographer. It never suited me.’ A perhaps slightly unexpected statement from Anton Corbijn (67), who made a name for himself as a music photographer from the 1970s. He took analogue high contrast black and white portraits of artists such as Miles Davis, Nick Cave and David Bowie, he shot the most famous music videos of U2 and Depeche Mode and his films A most wanted man and The American was shown in the cinema. A glance at his work shows how skillfully Corbijn uses his camera. Still, he doesn’t want to call himself a ‘camera geek’: ‘I like cameras, but lugging them around is always such a hassle’.
On the road, Corbijn does not take a heavy camera bag with him, but takes his mobile phone. Where photography used to be just work, on set, that changed in 2011 when he first got his hands on a phone with a built-in camera. Every place became a backdrop and his friends and beloved Nimi became the main models of his mobile photos. And now his mobile photo library is a book: instanton.
instanton was recently presented in Amsterdam during the photo fair Invisible. The photo book looks different in many ways from the work for which Corbijn is known. instanton is colourful, personal and playful. ‘I see something and take a picture of it. It is different than often in my work. Then I work on what to photograph, how to do it, and what I want to get out of it emotionally or whatever. I don’t have that here’.
The pictures in instanton was not made for the book, but comes directly from Corbijn’s phone. It makes it somewhat undirected and disjointed. But together, the ten year snapshots make up a story. ‘It makes it feel like a kind of diary,’ says Corbijn. ‘You see what I look at every day and that I have something more funny have in my life than my other books suggest.’
Flip through the first pages and the diary atmosphere is immediately palpable. You imagine yourself in Corbijn’s world, which means: anywhere in the world. The photos are often taken on the road, from the car or plane, in a hotel or on a film set.
In the book, Corbijn shares some thoughts on digital, mobile and analogue photography. He writes how he has been shooting with the same black and white camera since he was 18 and has let all technological innovations in photography pass him by. Because he likes the tension between the moment an analog image is taken and the moment the result becomes visible.
Corbijn sees this tension as a ‘natural imperfection’ that digital photography lacks: ‘People look behind the digital camera and try to take the same picture over and over again, and then the picture quickly becomes too perfect.’
Corbijn appreciates the imperfection of his handheld analog work. In his view, the digital age has spawned both a pursuit of perfection and an endless collection of visually uninteresting images. The camera in your mobile invites you to record everything at any time, which Corbijn describes as a ‘point and shoot’ mentality. ‘Everyone is a photographer these days. So much is being recorded worldwide; From your food to selfies with friends. We are drowning in a lot of nothingness – we are drowning in a sea of nothing.’ But do instanton isn’t it too? In any case, there is no shortage of selfies and beautiful plates of dishes that can be Instagrammed. ‘I was really afraid to contribute to it myself.’
Photo 1: New York and Nimis’s reflection, New York 2016
‘Nimi reflected beautifully in the window and this amazing hotel building reflected in the other building. As soon as I see it, it’s almost in the picture.’ point and shoot. However, Corbijn always brings his experienced photographic eye to bear, no matter how quickly he captures something. ‘Composition is the easiest for me. It goes so naturally. The images are therefore actually composed as photos.’
A game of reflections, lines and colors flows through the book. According to Corbijn, the mobile camera may ‘miss the craftsmanship of analog photography’, but it’s clear that he can shoot professionally with a phone. Skilled, without striving for perfection. Analogue, I shoot handheld and use slower shutter speeds. People who only shoot digital usually think it’s a blurry image, but I think that way you allow something of a soul. I also try that with my phone. I will continue to make imperfect photography.’ The reflection of Nimi in the window also shows movement: ‘It’s not a moving photo, but a photo with a little movement.’
Photo 2: Arriving at Charles de Gaulle in the early morning, Paris 2015
Mobility can lead to an image appearing painted, as seen in the environmental images that Corbijn mainly captured while driving, flying or sailing. As the plane lands at the Paris airport, Corbijn took a picture of the French countryside. The high horizon, the warm colors of the morning light, and the speckled imperfection he loves so much make the image almost look like a painting. The patches of color appear to have been applied with a brush.
Give dreamy travel photos instanton something report-like. It shows not only an intimate diary atmosphere, but also the story of success, fame and fortune. Because that’s Corbijn’s life: attending a Bruce Springsteen concert in Berlin, filming a music video in Montreal and eating out with Bono at Noma in Copenhagen (the restaurant has topped the list of the best restaurants in the world for five years).
“It is nonsense to deny that I live this way. I travel a lot because I don’t shoot in a studio, but where people are. I have been doing this since the 1970s and by now know many people who sometimes appear in the pictures’. instanton let yourself fly, far from home, far from here and now. Pictures from the plane show the different places where Corbijn took the pictures for his diary.
Photo 3: Selfie with Francis Coppola, Marrakech 2015
The intimate insight into Corbijn’s life, there instanton also creates distance between him and the audience. In one picture Corbijn feels close, in the other far away. Some photos do both, like the black tie selfie with film director Francis Ford Coppola, known for The Godfather and Apocalypse now. The background is a red carpet with press, limousine and bright lights.
Corbijn takes the picture and looks directly into the camera, even though he is only half there himself. Coppola turns to Corbijn and looks straight at him. He seems to have just realized that Corbijn is taking a selfie with him, but is too late to look into the camera and be ‘good’ in the picture. The result is a somewhat awkward selfie where fame is depicted in an intimate and funny way. Corbijn plays with it. ‘I don’t experience the glamor side that way myself’.
Photo 4: Nimi in the kitchen, The Hague 2022
When Nimi enters the picture, Corbijn gets really personal. ‘Nimi is a big part of my life. We just got married, but have been friends since 1994. When you are with someone, you quickly take pictures of them. And it’s fun.’ In the many pictures with Nimi, intimacy is in the foreground, and the ‘fun’ even becomes tangible.
The image of Nimi sticking out a ‘cucumber tongue’ immediately brings a smile to Corbijn’s face. “It was in the kitchen while you were cooking. You see a cucumber, but if you look closely, you see a cucumber with a piece bitten off. I bit that part. It looks like a very long tongue.’ These kinds of images also mean that the diary atmosphere goes beyond a ‘peek’ into Corbijn’s world. The bitten piece of the cucumber makes Corbijn visible in the picture together with Nimi. The cozy legend penetrates through all the senses.
Photo 5: Tui, the neighbor’s puppy, Shela, Kenya 2022
Corbijn does not fall for a pursuit of perfection, not even with his mobile phone. ‘It’s nice that you don’t actually see any details. It’s almost a black mask,’ he says of the almost touching image of the neighbour’s dog in Shela, where he and Nimi partly live. The frayed edges, noise and black are reminiscent of his analog work. Underexposure makes it unclear where the ear ends and the head begins. It is precisely the imperfection found in the dark surfaces and graininess that brings the image, and thus the dog, closer. ‘With noise, you have an idea that it is part of life that you grab something. A photo must always be a bit of a stolen moment for me.’
In 1986, Corbijn photographed U2 for the new album the band had planned. Corbijn wanted a picture of the band and a Joshua tree. The result was the album cover and The Joshua tree became the title. Since then he has been the house photographer and a good friend of the band members. In 2005, Corbijn published the photo book U2 & me with all photos between 1982 and 2004. I instanton Bono can also be seen in a number of photos. These photos show the close friendship between Corbijn and Bono.