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Artist of the Portrait

Photographer Anton Corbijn ardently pursued starry subjects for his book 'Star Trak.'

June 29, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

'I started taking pictures when I was 17 because I loved music so much," says Anton Corbijn, a Dutch photographer whose debut exhibition in L.A. opened last week at the Fahey/Klein Gallery.

"I tried being a musician but I didn't have the talent," he says, "so I turned to the camera as a ticket into that world. That was 25 years ago, and though music is still central to my life, my interests as a photographer have expanded far beyond it."

In Corbijn's third book of strikingly simple portraiture, "Star Trak" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1996), one gets some sense of the breadth of his involvement with the creative community. Keeping company in the book are sci-fi guru William Gibson, ranking beatniks Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, opera star Luciano Pavarotti, punk icon Iggy Pop, beleaguered author Salman Rushdie, tunesmiths Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash and a recent picture of the elusive Frank Sinatra, among others.

"In Europe I'm seen simply as a photographer," says the 42-year-old artist, who was recently the subject of a museum retrospective at the Deichtorhallend in Hamburg, Germany, and has another one on view through the summer at the Castello di Rivoli Museum in Turin, Italy. "In America I'm more an underground artist and the people who know my work here think of it as rock photography--which is a perception I'd like to change."

Corbijn, the oldest of four children of a minister, was born in the Dutch village of Strijen. He began taking pictures (using his father's camera) in 1972, and despite his youth he had no trouble selling them to various rock magazines. In 1979 he moved to London--"because I loved the music of Joy Division so much I felt I had to be around them," he says, referring to the now-defunct British band--and he quickly became the star photographer for British music weekly New Musical Express.

Corbijn's first book of portraiture, "Famouz," was published in 1989, and it was followed by "Allegro" in 1991. At this point he has done more than 100 album covers, has had gallery exhibitions throughout Europe and Japan and is partners with Richard Bell in State U.S., a production company launched in 1987 with offices in L.A. and London, for whom he has directed film shorts, documentaries and more than 50 music videos.

"My pictures are about meetings between people, and the images are shaped by where I meet people and how I feel about their environment," Corbijn says during an interview in a Hollywood restaurant. "I travel a lot--I haven't been in one place for more than a week in the last 10 years--but I don't run around with a list of people I want to photograph. What happens is I'll meet someone, read a book or see a movie that affects me, and I'll feel compelled to make a photograph.

"If you take pictures long enough you inevitably develop a degree of professionalism and that's something I'm always on guard against," adds Corbijn, a soft-spoken man whose graceful demeanor is no doubt key to his ability to get his remarkable pictures. "Skillfulness tends to take over and it can drain a picture of honesty and freshness, so I build things into the way I work that will help me make imperfect pictures. For instance, I always travel to take a portrait, so I'm usually unfamiliar with my environment, and I only use hand-held cameras--which often arouses suspicion. People expect me to bring a circus because it's what they're used to, but I prefer to work in a low-key way; I like the idea of two people having an encounter that results in a photograph that's nothing more than an impression."

Whereas Corbijn's previous books were random collections of his commercial work, "Star Trak" is a series of images made with this book in mind.

"I pursued people for this book--which is why I called it 'Star Trak,' " he says. "Getting some of the pictures took a lot of tracking too--it took three years, for instance, to get the picture of David Lynch, and Jodie Foster took 18 months."

Flipping through the book with Corbijn, one discovers that he is decidedly circumspect in discussing specific sessions.

"I don't like to 'explain' how a picture came into being, because doing that makes the viewer experience them differently," he says, adding that he is, however, willing to go through the book and comment when it seems appropriate.

Of the portrait of Ginsberg that opens the book, he says: "Anyone who knows Allen's photography will recognize the window in my portrait of him, because it appears in many of his pictures as well. I like that the photograph conveys a sense of Allen looking out at the world--and a book, of course, has the capacity to take one into a world.

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