The photographed photographer
By Violeta Kovacsics
Anton Corbijn took photographs. Of musicians. He took portraits of Nick Cave. And of Joy Division. He even took a portrait of Ian Curtis, singer of Joy Division, in film form with Control.
Dennis Stock took photographs as well. Among them, a series of snaps of James Dean when he was already quite popular but was far from the famous star he’d end up becoming. Stock didn’t direct any films, although he worked for the film industry: he took the pictures of Rebel Without a Cause. Thus, he met Dean through Nicholas Ray. And now, Stock has become the subject of another portrait, the one Anton Corbijn has taken of him and Dean, and of their encounter, in his film Life. And so, our story becomes the portrait of two portrait photographers, and it starts (how else?) with a snapshot.
There is a portrait of Anton Corbijn in which you can see his white hair and his wrinkles as inevitable textures showing the passing of time. And also as the grooves that black and white make evident. It’s a photograph showing great contrast and in which hair and coat encircle his face as a dark mantle. Corbijn’s face does not shine. His eyes do, though, looking almost imperceptibly up, sideways, with a strangely quiet curiosity. That is Corbijn’s gaze. In this photograph, but also as an artist: this was probably the first identitary sign (and at the same time one of the weak, or rather strange, points) evident in his two (non-)action films, The American and A Most Wanted Man, two stories of intrigue and spies marked by their subdued hues.
There’s a bit of all this too on the portraits that Corbijn took of artists such as Miles Davis or Nick Cave, in which faces are textures too. Corbijn shot his first film, Control, in black and white, as if he wanted to preserve the same hues used in the snapshots he took of Joy Division back in the day. His photographic portraits are not like those taken by Dennis Stock, whom immortalised the actor of Rebel Without a Cause to later undertake a series of jazz artists’ portraits and became one of the most important names under the Magnum umbrella. Corbijn’s images do not need a defined context and, least of all, an everyday life one, he rather shows just the body and face of the artist and a sometimes quite artificial setting (like in his portrait of Tom Waits, for example). The Dean that Stock portrays, though, is a Dean surrounded by a grey and rainy New York, or by the rural, domestic and muddy landscape of the farm where he was born.
In his old age, Stock left some comments on Lens, the New York Times‘ photography blog. One day, he wrote, for instance: “The goal for the photographer is to be visually articulate. If the subject is in a suffering circumstance, it is all the more preferable to apply craft to the utmost. Call it art or not, we photographers should always try to pass on our observations with the utmost clarity”. His widow, Susan Richards, said in an interview to the New York Times that she didn’t recognise her husband in the interpretation Robert Pattinson does of him in Life. In the same way, Control made some people unhappy. Maybe because the two movies that Corbijn has directed and which are based on a real person, while at the same time move away from the more traditional biopics, they resemble his portraits of musicians. They are a portrait of an artist, more than a portrait of their lives.
Corbijn has always admired Stock. In fact, Life is both a portrait of Dean and of the photographer: the illustration of two professions that constantly bump into fame. The heaviest weight of the film, in fact, is Stock’s struggle to try and portray what he really wants to show of Dean, to try and find something special. In Life, maybe more than in Control, Corbijn is still a photographer. The movie starts with a detail of the red bulb in a dark room. Light seems something abstract. And light, precisely the raw material Stock and Corbijn used to become photographers, is probably the most beautiful thing in Life. It’s the essence of the portrait. The landscape in which Corbijn places Dean is not glamorous Hollywood, but a frozen cold New York and a rough and conservative Louisiana. Its photography does the same thing, since the hues used in Life are none other than the tones of disenchantment.
Obviously, Corbijn never photographed Dean. He has taken his portrait in Life, indeed, in which Dean is an artist but doesn’t feel like one, someone afraid of not fitting in a structure that is totally alien to him. And then there’s another portrait, Stock’s, who does want to be an artist and be recognised as such. He is the portrayed portrait artist. Both represent two different ways of approaching art, creation, stardom, and fame. Deep down, the film, with its subdued hues and its intention to move away from the usual biopic and collection of stories, is similar to Corbijn’s photographs, like the one showing a very serious Morrissey, with a relaxed juvenile attitude. It also reminds us of some of Stock’s images: the one capturing Thelonious Monk’s twisted body sitting at the piano, or the one in which we can see Gerry Mulligan’s tense face in the background while he blows the sax, or the one of a Marilyn Monroe lost in thought. They are all a portrait and observation of an artist, captured “with the utmost clarity”, as Stock would say.