Three Great Things: Anton Corbijn

The legendary photographer turned filmmaker, whose new doc, Squaring the Circle, is out now, on nature, food and friendship.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release in theaters of Anton Corbijn’s new documentary Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), the Dutch photographer turned filmmaker shared some of the things he loves most in life. — N.D.

I was wondering, what do I actually like in my life apart from my work? Well, one thing I know for sure is I really love nature. It is so magnificent in its aesthetics, as well as what it gives you. I think as an artist, you’re always competing against nature because it’s so beautiful; you can never beat it. It’s a massive inspiration for a lot of painters and photographers, and whether it’s going to the mountains, the ocean or a forest, or just looking out of a window at a tree, I really, really like it. Nature gives you a lot if you sink into it and let the sound or the visuals take over.

My wife and I live in Amsterdam, near the water, and we also have a place on an island off the coast of Kenya, on the Indian Ocean. It got a little murky during Covid and I wanted to go somewhere where I could be outdoors, so we followed a friend who has a place on the same island. We then fell in love with the place and decided to stay there.

Being in nature helps me in various ways. Sometimes I’ll walk somewhere to get my mind into a different space, sometimes I’ll go and sit somewhere and let nature take over, and sometimes I look for locations for my work. When I’m out in nature, I’ll sometimes bring a camera, but mostly I take pictures with my phone, which turned out to be my first digital camera. I was always against digital until I had a phone that took good pictures. I published a book recently called Instanton, made up of my favorite pictures I took on my smartphone. In a way, it’s my most personal book, because you see what I’m looking at, where I live, how I travel, plus you see my wife and all these other elements that are personal, because I didn’t bother going to find a camera, put a lens on it, etc., which I would have done with a “proper” camera. And by the time you’ve done that, the moment has usually passed. So the smartphone is a great way of capturing your world.

Good Food
I can’t cook, and yet I really like good food. My wife and I are lucky to be friends with some amazing chefs and other friends have taken us to incredible restaurants, whether it’s Noma in Copenhagen or a bar in Greece that serves delicious ceviche. Eating really good food is a kind of escape; you just concentrate on the pleasure in your mouth.

It’s incredible how sophisticated chefs are with very sharp knives. And of course, all the detail that goes into the food and all the influences from Asia and so many other places. I’m somebody who grew up on meat and potatoes, so the variety of food that exists at the moment is remarkable to me.

Having good company is a big part of my enjoyment of food, and my wife is often with me when I eat. She is a very good cook, so she can actually explain to me what I’m tasting, rather than me just thinking, “Well, this is something I’ve never had before.” We live in Amsterdam and there’s good restaurants in Holland, but there are also some very good ones in Antwerp, Belgium, so we go there quite often, because it’s only a two-hour drive.

My best food experience may have been the first time I ate at Noma, but to me great food doesn’t have to be very complex – I also really like French fries when they’re well done. Japanese food is maybe my favorite cuisine. I went out to Japan to take photographs in the early ’80s, which is where I first started seeing how incredible food could be. When I went back to Tokyo to promote Life, I went to an invite-only restaurant that was simply sensational. There’s also the whole theatre of being brought the dish, with a little note accompanying it, telling you what it is. The Japanese way of presenting food is second to none. On that same trip, I also ate blowfish, and the chef had to show me his certificate indicating he was allowed to prepare it. I was still slightly hesitant, since if it’s not prepared as it should be, eating it can be fatal. Now that I’ve eaten it once and lived to tell the tale, I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out again!

Especially with the way the world is at the moment, it’s great to have friends I have things in common with and I can talk openly with. That’s a big thing for me. I have known some of my friends for 40 or 50 years, and others for only about a year. The most important thing is that we feel good in each other’s company. I’m not somebody who goes to watch sports with a friend, but my friends are interested in furniture or photography or films, so those are things we can connect on. My wife is highly educated in (and has opinions about) art, and I love paintings too, so I really enjoy looking at paintings with friends.

I tend to meet friends through the world of my work. Sometimes you work with people for a very long time, and so you need to have some sort of friendship in order for the collaboration to last that long. After a certain period of time, you begin to understand more about where they might want to end up, how they want to be seen. You both want to reach a place you didn’t think you could reach, whether it’s musically or visually.

I’m friends with a few painters. I haven’t had many friends who are in the same profession as myself, but I had two good friends who are photographers. One passed away nearly four years ago, and one is fortunately still around. We only met about six years ago or so, but it was quite an instant friendship. It’s really interesting when that happens.

Featured image, showing Anton Corbijn (right) and Aubrey Powell during the making of Squaring the Circle, copyright Anton Corbijn.

Anton Corbijn is a Dutch photographer, music video director, and film director. His latest film, the documentary Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is out now in select theaters through Utopia. He is the creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2, having handled the principal promotion and sleeve photography for both bands over three decades. Some of his works include music videos for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” (1990), U2’s “One” (version 1) (1991), Bryan Adams’ “Do I Have to Say the Words?”, Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” (1993) and Coldplay’s “Talk” (2005) and “Viva la Vida” (2008), as well as the Ian Curtis biographical film Control (2007), The American (2010), and A Most Wanted Man (2014), based on John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name. (Photo by Stephan Vanfleteren.)