If you’ve listened to Depeche Mode, U2, or Joy Division, chances are that you’re also a fan of Anton Corbijn. Dutch photographer, film, and music video director is among the most popular music photographers of today. I personally am a big fan of his unique style, and if you are too, this video is perfect for you. Alex Kilbee of The Photographic Eye guides you through Anton Corbijn’s career highlights but also breaks down his photographic style to give you a better insight into what makes it so special.
I first encountered Corbijn’s work through the video for Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box that had me staring at the screen in awe. I was in my early teens then, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I learned who directed it. I’m old enough to remember the days without internet, so I only learned more about Corbijn once I got it. Needless to say, I fell in love with his work just like I did in the bands he worked with.
Corbijn took photos of bands and performers such as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Nirvana, Sex Pistols, U2, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, David Bowie, and many, many more. Alex points out that he mainly photographs performers whose “aura” fits his photography style.
It’s interesting that people today mainly connect Corbijn with Depeche Mode and U2. However, early Depeche Mode didn’t really fit his style. They were too “bubbly,” a bit childish – but hey, no wonder, they were teenagers when they started. However, their later albums got a bit darker and more mature. So today, they’re practically a synonym for Anton Corbijn’s photography and directing. He directed music videos for a bunch of their songs, including the greatest hits like Personal Jesus, It’s No Good, Enjoy the Silence, Walking in My Shoes, to name just a few. He’s also a friend and a house photographer for U2 since their earliest days, and they even call him “the fifth member of the band.”
Other than Corbijn’s career, Alex also talks about his style of photography. There are two things that are most prominent and obvious about his images: grain and differential focus.
Grainy, gritty images
Corbijn’s early work consists mainly of gritty, grainy, and contrasty photos. Back in the day, they were mainly black and white. But a fun fact is that this wasn’t on purpose. As Alex explains, this was because he had no money at the beginning of his career. He shot both in the evening and during the day, but he couldn’t afford multiple film stocks and cameras. So, he would just use the fastest film and use it both at night and during the day.
Instead of deliberately choosing the grit and grain in his images, Corbijn was a victim of circumstances. However, those turned out to be lucky for him as they made his work instantly recognizable. After all, he embraced the look pretty fast and I think that it fits in perfectly with the musicians he photographed.
Another very distinctive feature of Corbijn’s images is that he chooses to have a part of the image in sharp focus, and allows other aspects of the image to be out of focus. This isn’t just about shooting wide open. It’s about using elements within the frame to add layers to the image. As Alex puts it, it’s about “photographing the world in a way that we don’t necessarily see with our eyes.” I think that’s the best description of this aspect.
When Alex mentioned this element of Corbijn’s work, the first thing that came to mind was the video for Depeche Mode’s useless. Although it’s a video, I think it’s a great example of differential focus Corbijn uses in his photographic work as well.
What I’d personally add as a recognizable trait of Corbijn’s work is high contrast. I’ve noticed it in many of his photos and videos, both color and black and white. I also believe that he captures emotion and soul really well in his images. And when you pair it with the other characteristics – you get a style that’s really unique. While it may not be as difficult to replicate from a technical standpoint, I believe that capturing people’s souls in his images is what’s making him so recognizable.