Through three decades or so, Anton Corbijn has taken the pictures for U2's album covers which in its own way guarantees him a sort of iconic status, setting aside everything else he has done. Given the ubiquity of that band and the little that is known about the rest of his career, you might be forgiven for thinking that he was a monkish individual who was kept going solely by U2 covers. A man who only came out from his Low Country into the light – or into the dark, whichever it is – every time there was a U2 album cover commission.
That would be wrong, given how busy he has been aside from U2, not least his well-received film Control about the life of Joy Divsion's Ian Curtis, his pictures of Bjork, Kurt Cobain, Miles Davis. That word ‘monkish’ though might be right. He spends his life travelling the world photographing musicians or making the odd film, but ultimately he is, well, monkish. The sense you get of Corbijn from Inside Out is of a man who is essentially alone, who reflects deeply on his work, on his own, even when he’s in the chaotic thick of creation. But some things must have come easy too, like his shot of a mischievous Memphis Slim or that striking image of John Lee Hooker's open palm.
He takes pictures from the windows of the hotels he has stayed in around the globe, and we see a fascinating set of images taken from hotel rooms in New York, Montreal, Dublin, Stockholm, Estoril or Las Vegas. The view from the monk's cell, perhaps and he has used monkish figures in video work. He photographed a robed and cowled - and apparently bemused - John Martyn for the cover of No Little Boy.
There is a kind of overaching religious thing in his life anyway. They used to say 'once a Catholic, always a Catholic', but the same might readily be said about Protestantism. Corbijn was reared in the Dutch Reformed Church, within which his father worked with great dedication as a pastor. So much so that Anton and his two brothers and one sister saw little of both parents, who were busily engaged in church activities.
Being the son of a pastor isolates a son and Corbijn, who was born in 1955, remembers other boys pointing their finger at him and shouting an insulting rhyme. He used to hide a lot, and paddle a canoe around the canal on his own. Anton was often lonely, says his sister. When you are lonely you begin to look around and notice things, she says, explaining why he was attracted to photography.
His parents lived frugally enough and had certain ambitions for their children. They had to accept their wilful son giving up school to become a photographer. Rock music animated young Anton, he was fascinated by musicians, it was such a contrast to “the white walls” of his childhood home, where pin-ups were presumably discouraged. His younger brother and sister both worry that Anton works too hard, people are always grabbing on to him. He moves from project to project, he doesn’t get enough sleep, or time off. And that Tom Waits book has to be finished too.
There are distinct echoes here of the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, who was also the son of a Protestant pastor, albeit in a previous generation. Bergman also endangered his health through the intensity with which he approached his work.
Like the great film director, you sense that Corbijn may be trying to prove to the shadow of his father that he can be so busy that all this art-making must be virtuous in the end. Like father like son then, and the film-maker does perhaps work too hard. Anton Senior died five years ago, and his son once asked him if he was proud of him. The man replied typically, according to his son. “I am proud of all my children,” he said.
Anton himself tells a particularly Bergmaneseque story about himself as a young fellow, carrying his sister to the baptismal font. Thus, the brother bearing the precious new life, walking atop the tombstones of the dead, encrypted underneath the aisle. His inkily stark, sometimes delberately grubby pictures are haunted by frailty and mortaiity. He hasn't put the church behind him either and he is filmed snapping the camera in the pulpit of his father's church.
George Clooney starred in his 2010 film, The American and we see the actor engaging with the crew in some kind of pitch and toss game, involving abandoned concrete blocks. So that's what this silver fox gets up to between scenes. U2 get their photos taken on Sandymount Strand and also against that grimy Dublin wall Anton has been looking for. The film shows us the result, the soot-stained pebbledash echoed by black facial shadow. It is rather brilliant.
Naturally, it is Corbijn himself who fascinates the most in this fine film, which was part- funded by Bord Scannáin na hÉireann. He does not glory or revel in the work he does, looks mostly insecure, vulnerable, aware that nothing he makes is perfect, but that this is its virtue too. In his own way, this justly-celebrated photographer has listened to his father and resisted shallow celebrity, either his own or anybody else's. So he is looking for something else when he trains his lens on his subjects, no matter how famous they are.