In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by an endless array of food porn, cat pics, and selfies, it’s probably safe to say that photographic images don’t possess the gravitas they once did. Or perhaps, the opposite is true: with thousands upon thousand of poorly composed, under- and over-exposed, and out-of-focus pics “published” to Instagram and Facebook accounts everyday, maybe the truly exceptional stand out all the more. Either way, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the 300 portrait photographs contained in 1-2-3-4 (Prestel Publishing), a 352-page overview of the work on Anton Corbijn. Corbijn, who has since ventured into feature films after first transitioning from music videos to the Joy Division biopic, Control, began photographing musicians as a teenager in Holland and in the subsequent years has worked with artists from nearly every pocket of popular music. This book is a retrospective of his photography from 1972 to 2013.
As he states in the book’s intro, Corbijn doesn’t seem himself as a “rock photographer,” as he is often labeled. It’s a fair pronouncement, as Corbijn has photographed people from many walks of life, but also because his photographs aren’t simply images of his subjects plying their trade as that label would connote. Though this volume focuses solely on his work with musicians (the title is a reference to the count a drummer often gives before starting a song), these images are as artistic as anything you’ll find in MOMA. Drawing on the work of photographers who came before him like Robert Frank and Man Ray, Corbijn creates photos that are startling not so much for who is in them, but for the images themselves. Indeed, were one to strip any knowledge of the subject matter away, they would still be striking. Working primarily in black and white, Corbijn has created his own palette of gritty greys, greasy blacks, and bleached whites, and that his style has become as instantly recognizable as, say, a Cindy Sherman or an Ansel Adams—not only in his photos, but in his videos and films as well—is further evidence of the artistic nature of his vocation.
Of course, when combined with the strong personalities of artists like Siouxsie Sioux, Nick Cave, and John Lydon, Corbijn’s photography takes on an added dimension. With the volume of photographs contained in this book, which was produced in tandem with an exhibition of the same name at The Hague Museum of Photography that is closing this week, one also is able to see the trust established between Corbijn and many of his long time collaborators. With commentary from many of those repeat subjects (Sioux, Depeche Mode, U2, Metallica, Rolling Stones, etc.), it is abundantly clear that he has developed relationships that aren’t simply business-like arrangements between artist and subject, but rather are based on mutual respect.
If the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true, then 1-2-3-4 is an epic tome. But to concur with the commentary of Martin Gore, what these photographs do is capture the intangible, that which can never be put into words. They are, in a sense, like music, in that there is a lightning storm of thought and emotion in every subtlety and our task isn’t so much to interpret, but rather bask in the radiant glow.