Prose often reads differently when it’s been crafted by a poet. The sentences are usually more potent, throbbing with extra sensitivity to words. (Nicole Krauss's overlooked debut, "Man Walks Into a Room", is a fine example.) Something similar happens when photographers venture into filmmaking. Anyone who saw "Ratcatcher", Lynne Ramsey’s 1999 debut, had to sense that it was created by someone accustomed to composing the perfect still shot. Ms Ramsey patiently filled each frame, lending something luminous to an otherwise dark film set during the garbage strikes of 1970s Glasgow.
So it is with Anton Corbijn, a director most recently of “The American”, a film starring George Clooney, as well as the smaller Joy Division biopic “Control”. That he was a portrait photographer before he became a filmmaker shouldn’t be surprising, given the rapt stillness of his features. Indeed it was this very patience (and the patience it demands) that left American audiences disappointed with “The American”. The problem was arguably not with the film, which is slow but rich, full of atmospheric scenes and long stretches of portentous silence. The reason why so many viewers stormed out of cinemas demanding their money back was because they had been wrongfully duped into believing they were buying tickets to see a fast-paced multiplex thriller. (Such bait-and-switching has become inevitable, now that the film industry measures success according to opening-weekend gross. Who has time to make money from word-of-mouth campaigns anymore?) “The American”, which opens in Britain later this month, feels like a classic, like it could have been made 50 years ago, down to its somewhat over-wrought ending.
[T]here’s an appeal to me in the life of the photographer—one camera and meeting people,” Mr Corbijn recently told the New York Times. “No lights, no assistants, just me taking the photograph.” There is indeed a back-to-basics feel to his portraits of “people who make things” (eg, Tom Waits, Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter, Tricky—who is pictured), which can be seen in “Inwards and Onwards”, a solo show of his work that opens tomorrow at Stellan Holm Gallery in Manhattan. That these photographs are all of famous people is initially disheartening; isn't it a little boring to look once again at a familiar face, or to give yet more attention to an already celebrated subject? (And where are the women who make things?) But these images are arresting for the way Mr Corbijn seems to find something personal in these people. They seem disarmed, and so are we.
Tricky, Los Angeles, 2002, ©Anton Corbijn, courtesy of Stellan Holm Gallery