Celebrities have their picture taken on an almost constant basis. Often by fans, sometimes by professionals, but only occasionally by certain photographers who have a knack for showing a side of the celebrity that is never seen on camera, often they can capture the loneliness that comes from lack of anonymity. For rock stars in particular, that photographer is Anton Corbijn. Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn centres the biography of the famed artist around the making of his first feature film, Control. For nearly thirty years, Corbijn has been photographing such bands as Joy Division, U2, Nirvana, and Coldplay, as well as directing music videos. In fact, as one of the first photographers to capture Joy Division, he was seen as the perfect choice for directing the film. This documentary is not your typical biopic, although it does discuss Corbijn’s childhood briefly, and his reasons for moving to the United Kingdom from his native Holland.
Perhaps it is because of the age of the artists, but there was a definite trend at Hot Docs this year of artists who began their work in the early 1980s, are now close to or in their fifties, have enough work for a documentary to examine, and are still considered relevant, or have been recently rediscovered. Certainly, Anton Corbijn has been a name that most music fans know (he is to music photography what Annie Liebovitz is to film photography.) His work sets itself apart by being rather dark, sparse, and minimalist; in other words, I doubt you will see him working with Britney Spears or Taylor Swift anytime soon. Interviews with artists such as Bono and Chris Martin of Coldplay reveal that the reason musicians like working with Corbijn is that his minimalist style tends to bring out a part of their soul, even a part that does not come through in their music. Corbijn also tends to work almost exclusively in black and white (and still uses film as opposed to digital.) Orson Welles once said that black and white should always be used in film, as it forces the viewer to pay attention to the performance. The subject cannot hide behind a flashy costume or heavy makeup. Color tends to distract in moving and still pictures; in black and white, we look for what is behind someone’s eyes. And in capturing all these various musicians, Corbijn captures himself as well. Black and white means shades of gray, and Cobijn is found in these shades. Corbijn’s few failures and difficulties, such as the (at the time, unbroadcast) U2 video for “One”, are examined, but overall it is clear that for director Josh Whiteman this film is a labor of love. Not that Corbijn doesn’t deserve it; his relaxed nature comes through readily in the doc, showing why so many musicians love to be photographed by him.