Portrait photographer Anton Corbijn doesn’t much like to look back at his work in the music industry. But for the Hague Museum of Photography’s forthcoming exhibition 1-2-3-4 he has done just that. Searching his archive, he has selected more than 300 shots of bands and singers: everybody from Nirvana, U2 and Nick Cave to Siouxsie Sioux, REM and the Rolling Stones. Many of the photographs are now going on show to the public for the very first time.

Anton Corbijn (b. Strijen, 1955) has had a major influence on international music and portrait photography. The creative, off-beat way he has photographed performing artists since the 1970s has become his personal trademark. His striking portraits strip away the mask, often at lightning speed, to reveal another aspect of the subject’s personality. Or, indeed, they impose literal masks, as in the case of the Rolling Stones, U2 and Arcade Fire, to lend the subjects an almost mythic aura.

Even without masks, however, Corbijn’s photographs always have an air of mystery. Time and again, he endows his work with an extra layer of complexity by the way he depicts the subject and through the use of an array of photographic techniques. The physical setting also plays an important part in his work. Most of his photographs are taken outside the studio and are loosely staged. For this exhibition, Corbijn has selected from his archive dozens of works in which the background location is important.

Corbijn regards himself as a cross between a traditional portrait photographer and a documentary photographer out to record people in their own physical surroundings and social circumstances. Inspiration for the dramatic effects he achieves in his photographs, including their strong contrasts and graininess, came in the 1970s from the determinedly unorthodox documentary photographs of people like Ed van der Elsken and Koen Wessing.

Lasting partnerships of the kind that he has had with many singers and bands are a rarity in the music world. His working relationship with U2 and Depeche Mode (DM), for example, goes right back to the early eighties and there is good reason why Corbijn is often called the fifth member of U2 or the fourth of DM. The pictures, album covers and video clips he has produced over the years have had a major influence on the images of those and many other bands.

For Depeche Mode he has gone further, designing not only the band’s logos and record covers, but also (since 1993) their stage sets. Corbijn’s work for DM will be displayed separately in this exhibition and presented as a single great Gesamtkunstwerk. In 1980 Corbijn was briefly on the road with female punk group The Slits. His reportage now goes on show to the public for the very first time.

These days, Corbijn is more than just a photographer. His work as a director of music videos (since 1983) and feature films (since 2007) takes up an increasingly large proportion of his time.

Supported by G-STAR RAW.


Both exhibitions will be accompanied by a catalogue (1-2-3-4 at the Hague Museum of Photography & Hollands Deep at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag).

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  • - Hollands Deep, 49,80 euro, ISBN: 978382960683.
  • - 1 – 2 – 3 – 4,  64,50 euro, ISBN: 978949208143.