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Northern exposure

Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn has many fans. Bono, the lead singer of U2, told The Observer earlier this year: "He shoots the music you are making, who you can be - rather than who you are."
An exhibition of work by Corbijn, who recently published "U2 and I: The Photographs 1982 -2004," opens Friday at the State Russian Museum's Stroganov Palace.
The show explores Corbijn's unique vision and instantly recognizable style in his approach to portrait photography.
Responsible for rock's most iconic images, such as the cover for U2's 1987 album "The Joshua Tree," Corbijn traveled to St. Petersburg to oversee preparations for his first exhibition in Russia and attend its opening in person.
Called simply "Foto," the exhibition features 80 photographic works with subjects ranging from Icelandic singer Bjork to U.S. film director Martin Scorsese.
Even if many of the subjects of his photographs are rich and famous, Corbijn denies any interest in celebrity.
"Although some people think I am a celebrity photographer, I am really not; I photograph artists. And a lot of these artists are famous people, but not all of them," he said, speaking to The St. Petersburg Times at the Stroganov Palace while workers prepared the exhibition works on Wednesday.
"I'm not interested in Madonna, I'm not interested in the Spice Girls," Corbijn said. "I'm really interested in what people are making, how they express themselves, whether it's through films or through music."
Born in Strijen, the Netherlands, in 1955, Corbijn's interest in photography evolved from his interest in music. In the early 1970s he was a regular at rock concerts, taking pictures of local bands with his father's camera.
"My biggest love is music," he said.
"I borrowed the camera from my father and just took a few pictures. I wanted to be close to the music, and the camera gave an excuse for me to come close to the music.
"I liked the process of taking pictures at concerts. So I did a few more [and] my biggest love became photography."
Music is broadly represented at the exhibition. Corbijn's images of David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey and many others are displayed.
Photographing musicians has been the backbone of Corbijn's career and although he has branched out, they are still a subject he is interested in.
"In the 1970s and the 1980s, I photographed only music. And then in the late 1980s and 1990s it changed a lot to many different art forms, like movies. I started to photograph painters and writers and actors and directors and some models, and some scientists, all kinds of people.
"But I think music is still a very interesting subject matter."
In 1976, Corbijn became chief photographer with the leading Dutch pop music magazine Oor. His love for the British post-punk scene prompted a move to London in 1979 and he began a five-year stint with the British music weekly New Musical Express, or NME, the music fan's bible at that time.
His first session with the band Joy Division later that year launched a series of well-known images of rock musicians in Corbijn's distinctive, mostly monochrome, style.
"I liked a lot of music that came from England, especially after punk, like Public Image Ltd., I liked Magazine, I liked Joy Division. In England they call it 'postpunk.'
"I connected very quickly with these people and I started to work for [the NME.] And through that music paper I met so many people, so I started to work for these people and I stopped working for the magazine."
Corbijn said that however important it was, the NME has lost its impact since then.
"The NME? I don't see it anymore. I think in the 1970s and the 1980s it had a function. It was a real underground thing, independent labels... There was a space... before bands got signed, or when bands get signed by the small labels to bring it to a bigger audience. The NME had this function.
"Nowadays as soon as a band is new, they're already on TV and radio, because people are so desperate for new things, so this whole function of transition has disappeared.
Although much in Corbijn's life connected to rock music, he hates the term "rock photographer."
"I am a portrait photographer. For a 'rock photographer' it's only important who is in the picture - it doesn't tell you anything about how it's photographed. It's only who is photographed, not how. And I'm more interested in... what do you do with the person you photograph."
Corbijn said his different style stems from turning a weakness into a strength.
"This is something that has developed over the years. I think that when you realize that, your handicap becomes your greatest asset," he said.
"I can't take pictures any other way; this is the only way I can take pictures. I can't do normal family portraits, you know, I can't do normal pictures. I can only shoot this way. And that becomes your style. Because I never studied how to take a picture. I taught myself.
"So that's when you become unconventional... that's what people call style."
Corbijn is widely recognized as the man who created the entire images of both U2 and Depeche Mode with the photographs, album covers and videos he has made with them.
"You meet people, you take some pictures and then a month later they call and say, 'Can you take some more pictures?' So slowly these things develop. They never ask me, 'Can you do our record cover?'"
"With Depeche Mode, I was asked a few times to take pictures of them, and I said, 'No, I don't like them.' Then they asked me to do a video and I said 'O.K., I'll do the video.' After the video, I started to take pictures... With U2 I started with photography and then did some videos. It's something that has grown naturally."
Although Corbijn is frequently described as an "icon-maker," his subjects are often shown in an unusual settings, and sometimes in a strange poses.
"I don't have a studio actually, I go and meet people. And depending on what they are, some pictures are just natural, some pictures people do something. It's a mix. I work where I find people, and sometimes I use something that I feel is appropriate for that person."
Corbijn's pictures contain an intimacy that suggests that he is a long-time friend of people in them, but this impression is often deceptive, he said.
"Sometimes I meet them only one time, sometimes I meet a few times," he said. "With some, we're friends. Brian Eno is a friend, and he lived in the same house as me for a long time. Mick Jagger I know. One of my friends is [R.E.M.'s] Michael Stipe."
According to Corbijn, he put the St. Petersburg show together with no big idea in mind but chose the pictures according to their size since the rooms at Stroganov Palace are rather narrow.
"It's different periods of my work, different sizes of the work," he said.
Among his smaller works are Corbijn's lith prints, made with a special process that adds a brown tone to the photographs.
"My black and whites are much bigger, and also the blue ones are big and the self-portraits are big... So I selected the works because of space, and no other reason."
This is Corbijn third visit to St. Petersburg; he said he came to the then-Leningrad in 1982 and 1986, the first time as a tourist and the second time to take pictures of the British reggae band UB40, who were the first popular Western band to tour Moscow and St. Petersburg at the start of the glasnost era.
"It was very influenced by Dutch and Italian architecture, so part of me feels at home [in St. Petersburg.] The buildings are beautiful. And I prefer it to Moscow," he said.
Corbijn did admits to having been influenced by Russian culture, even if it applies mostly to his video and film work.
"One of my favorite filmmakers is [Andrei] Tarkovsky, so that's the imagery I love," he said.
"My videos and films are between the two T's of Europe - Jacques Tati and Tarkovsky. One is quite funny, fighting against modernism, and Tarkovsky is very emotional and heavy. So these are my favorite people, and I think what I make is between these two people. I'm influenced by both."

"Anton Corbijn: Foto" at the Russian Museum's Stroganov Palace, April 15 through May 10.

Issue #1061(27), Friday, April 15, 2005
Anton Coribjn
Anton Coribjn
the masses
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