Thursday, September 11, 2014


Anton Corbijn, Toronto, October 1987

MY FRIEND CHRIS BUCK IS OPENING A PORTRAIT SHOW at a Montreal gallery today. Since I've already written one very nice post about Chris this year, I thought it would be a good time to recall a career-altering moment we experienced in tandem.

In the fall of 1987 I had owned a camera for just over two years and Chris had just graduated from Ryerson's photography department. We were barely in the foothills of our careers and busy trying to digest a thick stew of our influences when we learned that a photographer whose work we both admired would be in town, attending a Tom Waits concert.

Joy Division by Anton Corbijn

We had seen Anton Corbijn's work in the British music press for years, and by this point he had moved past the ink-smudged newprint weeklies to glossy mags and album covers for big-deal acts like U2. (The Joshua Tree had been released in the spring of 1987, and it was a publicist at U2's label who'd tipped Chris off to Anton's visit to Toronto.) Corbijn was still at a point where only other photographers would recognize his work, and we both agreed to stake out the box office at the hall where he was supposed to pick up his tickets for the Waits show and see if he'd consent to being interviewed by two eager fans and (we hoped, one day) potential peers.

Chris Buck shoots Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987

To our great surprise he agreed, and told us to meet him where he was staying the next day. The motel isn't there any more; it had been the flagship of the Four Seasons chain when it had opened over a quarter century earlier, but after new owners and a name change it was getting a bit shabby. Anton greeted us a bit warily but invited us in to do an interview before we took photos. Chris sent me a transcript of our chat a while ago, and it's a fantastic record of two novices rather nakedly trying to winkle tips and advice from someone we'd studied perhaps a bit too intensely for his comfort.

Miles Davis by Anton Corbijn.

Rick: Tell us about your Miles Davis shoot. 
It was done on assignment for the NME in Montreal, where he was playing. For him I was just a photographer for some music magazine so I had just six or seven minutes in his hotel room - one just like this. 
Rick: How did you get him to pull on his face? 
I just asked him to do a few things like that and he did it. Basically, you sit with someone and they do something like this (rubs his eyes) and you watch. It looks good so you build it up a little bit. It's really an unprepared sort of thing, I didn't know what I would get with him. 
Rick: Do you think you'll do much more magazine work? 
I'm now looking for somebody to represent me in America, and maybe do some things in American magazines. I would continue to do some album sleeves, though not that many. I really would like to move more into film. 
Chris: Is there anyone who you want to photograph but can't? 
I've been trying to get a hold of Bob Dylan for a while, but I'm not sure I'll manage in the end, you just need patience, you know? Tom Waits I've tried for ages, I started like 10 years ago.

Chris Buck and Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987
Me, Spotmatic and Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987

Finally it came time to do the portraits, and I could tell that Anton was more uncomfortable with this than the interview. I don't know who started shooting first, but I do know that we began by the window to the motel courtyard when Anton stopped us and said that it would probably look a lot better if we moved back, to where the light was a lot flatter and dimmer.

I panicked. The last two years had been a steep learning curve, but I was still struggling to get the best results possible with my tools - Pentax Spotmatic with Ilford HP5 through D-76 developer, basically - and finding enough light was a constant battle. Moving a few paces deeper into the motel room, where the typically overcast Toronto autumn light almost disappeared, would mean pushing my film at least two stops, with the resultant loss of shadow detail and explosion of grain.

Still, Corbijn stood up and sat on the bed by the wall and we kept shooting. Perhaps we saw it then, or maybe it only became clear when we developed our film and made contacts, but it turned out Anton had given us a little gift.

Anton Corbijn by Chris Buck, Toronto, Oct. 1987

Moving into the shadows meant pushed film and more grain, especially when you boosted the contrast to get some separation between the grays, but as soon as the first test strip bloomed in the developer it was obvious that Anton had given away a trade secret of sorts. For the next few years both of us would lure our subjects into the shadows and push our contrast and harvest what we learned on that one autumn morning. It would be the closest thing to a masterclass that I would ever experience.

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987

The two shots above are the ones that ran in the story Chris and I published in Nerve. I'd like to think that, anxiety of influence aside, Chris' style is already visible in his portrait, while my own shot is a bit more Anton-alike, though I've always been proud of it.

The photo above is the print I took in and out of my portfolio for years, but it's the portrait at the top of this post - scanned and blown up for the first time in nearly thirty years - that does a better job of summing up the wariness of a subject who was, all the same, startlingly generous to two young photographers.

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Sept. 2007, Canon EOS digital

IT WOULD BE TWENTY YEARS before I met Anton again, when he came to the film festival with Control, his debut feature: He had, after many years, moved into film. The movie was a biopic about Ian Curtis and Joy Division, and as a fan of the band and Anton I pleaded with the free national daily to let me do the story.

I showed up with a print of my portrait, and was grateful that he remembered our interview, two decades previous. He was obviously aware of Chris and his work, and tactfully didn't bother asking what I'd done since then.

We chatted amiably, but when it came time to do the photo, Corbijn insisted that he pose in front of a poster for his film. I don't deny that I was desperate to re-create the photos I'd taken twenty years before, but he would have none of it; I suppose you can only be really generous to a stranger once in a lifetime.


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