Anton Corbijn – In and out of focus

My thoughts on ‘Anton Corbijn Inside Out’, a new documentary on the Dutch photographer by director Klaartje Quirijns.

“I hate digital cameras, you can’t even see what you’re doing!” says Anton Corbijn as he snaps a shot on a recce. Every time I see him on camera, he seems to struggle with technology, like the rented gear that won’t focus properly on the Joshua Tree shoots. And there was that time he took polaroids of me while complaining it was a borrowed camera and he didn’t know how to work it. The shots were blurry. In Quirijns documentary too he keeps saying: “That’s not in focus!” and claims his work is never “perfect”. But we get a very clear picture of him.

What a touching, skillful documentary it is. I love the shots of Anton alone, standing front of stage watching the Arcade Fire soundcheck, and the blurry shots of him watching them play table tennis. I almost felt a kinship with him. If only I were as tall, as talented.

The score, composed by our mutual friend, is very prominent and it does two things: It makes the documentary more of a “movie”, a drama. And it echoes the roar of the sea that also features strongly.

It’s the sound of this constant, stifling Dutch protestant oppression going on in the guy’s head: “must work harder, must be worthy”.

“I love this coast line,” Anton says walking on the beach near The Hague, “But I usually see it from up there…” The camera turns around and you find out he means he only ever sees it from an airplane. He’s always on the move, living out of suitcases and he says he loves travel, loves the idea of going somewhere and then bringing part of it, the experience, home. But his sister worries about his crazy work schedule and that one day, he might collapse.

Much is made of his ability to see things. See more of things. More than other people. Bono talks about ‘light’, the medium Corbijn works with, and framing it with shade, or darkness. I think his height helps too, a different angle on his famous subjects, who are so often vertically challenged.

There weren’t any icons on the wall when Anton grew up, not in his religion. His – mostly absent – father was a minister, his mother a minister’s daughter who wasn’t allowed to marry her real love. (“But you were happy with dad, weren’t you?” Anton asks her. “Ach, well,” she answers.) There was chapel, and at the dinner table talk of sickness and death passed as conversation. But never icons.

So he’s drawn to them and creates them.

After the screening, he’s called up on stage after the producers stumble through their presentation, cue cards in hand. Don’t let the Dutch speak in public. We’re not good at it.

Corbijn, in comparison, is eloquent for a self confessed loner. He thanks the director, in particular for the footage of his mother who died shortly after the documentary was finished, and he states:

“I’m glad we can go back to focusing on my WORK rather than my person.”

John Calvin has a lot to answer for.