(02-15-2005) The Silent Partner -- The Times* - U2 Feedback

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Old 02-15-2005, 12:31 PM   #1
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(02-15-2005) The Silent Partner -- The Times*

The Silent Partner

Joanna Pitman
One of Anton Corbijn’s earliest professional assignments was photographing U2, and he hasn’t finished with them yet

WHEN Anton Corbijn is not circling the globe on his various photography, book and film projects (he’d zoomed off to Munich, New York and Oslo in the four days before I met him), he is to be found holed up in his quiet roost of a studio, hidden behind the fast-food shops that fringe Shepherds Bush Green. The chief photographer for NME during the 1980s, exhaustive chronicler of U2 and Depeche Mode and maker of more than 100 rock videos, Corbijn has just been asked to direct a feature-length biopic about Ian Curtis, the late Joy Division singer who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. For Corbijn it is a dream job.

“It’s really great news for me and the reactions have been amazing. I’ve just finished the book of my photographs of U2 from 1982 to 2004, and doing that brought back memories of when I first came to London from Holland aged 24. Actually the reason I came was to see Joy Division, and within two weeks of arriving I was photographing the band on spec in an Underground tunnel. I remember I was very shy and formal and tried to shake hands with them, but they refused. That was November 1979. I met Ian once more and then he was dead. All the emotions of that period are fresh in my mind again because I’ve been going through all those early photos.”

Corbijn is extremely tall and thin, with a wicked smile and a generous helping of the buffoon in him. He bends low like a gallant giraffe to hand me his new U2 book and then gangles off again, looking all about him from a great height, pointing out his favourite shot of Bob Dylan on the wall, giving me a little demonstration on his drum kit and gathering up some more of his photography books to show me.

Most of his work over the years has revolved around music, but the most surprising one is a slim volume called a somebody in which Corbijn photographs himself disguised as a series of deceased musicians — John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious and Frank Zappa among them — complete with the sort of false noses, wigs and other disguising props which would do Cindy Sherman proud. “I guess I always wanted to be ‘a somebody’, and I only admitted this to myself in my forties.”

The son of a peripatetic vicar also named Anton, Corbijn Jr grew up in a small village on a small island off Rotterdam. His early life was moulded with the single intention of getting out of that village at the earliest opportunity. “There was nothing there. To me, everything outside the island looked mysterious and exciting,” he says. “So I set the photos there. I wanted something to happen there. I thought it would be funny to photograph Jimi Hendrix visiting my tiny village.”

His U2 collaboration began soon after he had joined NME in London, when he was sent on a routine commission to photograph an unknown Irish band in New Orleans. Bono asked Corbijn to make him look tall, skinny, intelligent and with a sense of humour. “So you wanna look like me,” Corbijn countered.

In his book U2&i and in the accompanying exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, 22:U2, he offers an intimate chronicle of the journey of four men from obscurity to legend. Corbijn comes across, as Wim Wenders points out, as “the fifth band member, who plays a silent instrument”. “Each time they went anywhere,” Corbijn says, “they said, ‘Can you come?’ Each time I thought it would probably be the last time they’d use me. But I don’t know anyone else who’s photographed a band for over 20 years. You see in these photographs their ageing, the change in their attitudes to being photographed, and also my development as a photographer. I taught myself, and I think over the years I’ve moved from being intuitive to being more conceptual. I never want to be predictable in my work.”

The narrative of the photographs also betrays his growing understanding of the band members, and their mutual respect and trust. Unimpressed by celebrity, by sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, Corbijn really got under their skins. He even persuaded them to allow him to take pictures of their fathers performing as U2 members.

Corbijn’s world has been music. He spent 18 years photographing Depeche Mode, designing their album covers, their stages and making 16 videos for them. He has made penetrating portraits of many of the greatest musicians of our times — Miles Davis, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and many more. Recently, Corbijn has been hoping to ditch the “rock” part of his “rock photographer” label, but given his new Joy Division project, that is going to be difficult.

And anyway I think it suits him because in some ways he is a musician manqué. A few years ago, he achieved an ambition by playing drums with Depeche Mode on Top of the Pops. “They were missing a drummer so I just stood in. The BBC paid me as a musician. That was really a great moment for me.”

As he gangles off again, to talk to Michael Hoppen about his first London show, it is hard to suppress the thought that Corbijn is actually much more interesting than U2.

Anton Corbijn 22:U2 is at Michael Hoppen Gallery, SW3 (020-7352 3649), from Feb 23 to March 31. U2&i is published by Schirmer/Mosel Verlag.

--The Times
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