This portrait of the renowned photographer enhances the Corbijn brand, but ultimately adds nothing.
One scene in this film is more telling than the rest, stripping the entire skin of the film to its bones – Anton Corbijn is standing in the space that will come to be his studio, and says “If I have this space, then hopefully one day I will want to use it”. This cuts straight to the core of Corbijn himself, his work, and this beautiful looking but slightly cold documentary – searching about in the dark, hoping that something good comes from it.
Corbijn is probably most famous for his iconic photography of various musicians (most notably U2 and Depeche Mode) and for directing some phenomenal music videos including “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana, among others. His work is singular, distinctive, and of a very particular vision – that of perfect lines, monochrome beauty and moments of unguarded warmth. What this documentary seeks to do is to give us a glimpse at what gives such a totemic figure inspiration, after thirty years of doing what he does. How is he still excited by the medium? How have his working practices changed? What does he do in his free time?
Answers there are frustratingly few. For much of the film, Corbijn cuts a lonely figure, walking alone on empty beaches or through forests. He only becomes cheerful when surrounded by his family, or with a camera in his hand – scenes shooting U2 on a muddy beach and against a wall are where we see him at his most friendly and open.
His family worry about his workload and lament how little they see of him, which leads to a pivotal scene in which he and his mother share their thoughts and memories on growing up. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the first time that the two have ever communicated this way. Aaf, Anton’s sister, points out how distant the family were from each other, their father working all week as the local preacher and their mother struggling to look after the household – it’s not difficult to see where Corbijn’s work ethic comes from.
It seems that Corbijn takes these photographs because he finds it a handy distancing tool, and that by being merely a conduit for a split-second in time, he is able to simultaneously be in that moment and outside of it, distanced, through the act of recording it. He himself says that he feels like he is “not good enough at being human, so [he] tried to be good enough as an artist”. This distancing, while it helps with his work, doesn’t make for a very welcoming subject for a documentary.
While celebrity cameos from the likes of the Arcade Fire, Lou Reed, Metallica and U2 goes some way to show the man behind the lens, ultimately he comes across as someone unwilling to reveal too much, lest he lose that distance he craves, and perhaps needs, for his work.