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Q & A: Anton Corbijn

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The Scene talks to photographer Anton Corbijn about how Amsterdam's artistic traditions and liberal culture have influenced his work.

The Scene: Growing up in Holland, what did Amsterdam mean to you?

Anton Corbijn: I am a village boy and Amsterdam for me was always the big town. I remember my parents took me there when I was a young boy and they were very scared of Amsterdam, of driving to the big city. So initially it always filled me with fear, this massive town. Of course having lived in America and London, Amsterdam is just a village. It's really small -- it doesn't even hold a million people. So for me now when I come to Amsterdam I feel very relaxed. It's a great place to relax, if I don't want to do anything for a weekend I come here. It's very stress free compared to living in a metropolis like London.

TS: What is that keeps you coming back to Amsterdam?

AC: It's this whole mishmash of trains, boats, bicycles, cars, trams, noise coming from every direction and at the same time it's a beautiful mix of old and new architecture. It's very well integrated and it's quite daring in its design though it's always practical, the Dutch are very practical. I really like the cultural stuff. You get a sense of the past and a sense of the future. I think Amsterdam is to Holland what New York is to America in a sense. It's a metropolis so it's representative of Holland but only a part of it -- you know it's more extreme, there's more happening, it's more liberal and more daring than the countryside in Holland is. It also has a different mentality to the other big cities, which are the Hague and Rotterdam. In Rotterdam there is much more of a working class mentality. Amsterdam can be seen as a place where people seem to know it all and spend all day in cafés discussing how the world should be run.

TS: What excites you as an artist about Amsterdam?

AC: I think there are a lot of possibilities here. Art is integrated on many levels here, in business life and in private life. A lot of people are interested in it and businesses are not afraid to put money into modern art and modern architecture. It's quite a different than, for instance, England. I also say that I like the mix of people here. It's exciting, like in London, a mix of different races and cultures is always exciting. When that works well it's fantastic. It makes life so much more spicy, so much more varied. It's a city for writers, there's a lot of actors, photographers and painters -- it's brilliant in that sense. It's just quite open-minded here to people's alternative lifestyles and that's nice.

TS: What's the history of Amsterdam's liberal traditions?

AC: It might have something to do with a practical part of the Dutch. They are trades people and in order to survive and be successful in trading they sort of give in to a lot of things. I think the idea of being a small country surrounded by bigger countries was that we should learn all these languages and just trade. And then there was the whole protestant revolution here and the Eighty Years' War against the Spanish. After that we became a haven for people with open minds and that has never really gone away although at the moment of course there's a lot of debate about how liberal Holland really is. As you know there was the murder of [film director] Theo van Gogh. A lot of people my age and upward are very liberal people. It's the younger people who are not so liberal. It's a reaction.

TS: Why did you leave Holland for England in 1979?

AC: In England it felt like art, photography and music was much more life or death, whereas in Holland it felt subsidised so that was why I left. When I photographed musicians in England in the 1970s I got so much more out of the pictures than photographing people in Holland because the whole intensity of being a musician in England -- trying to get out of those grey tower blocks and trying to make a name for yourself -- it really meant so much to those people, they really meant everything they were doing. In Holland it felt like music was a hobby. For me photography was also very important as a way of survival and I felt I was much more linked to the English spirit than the Dutch spirit. I think I was always and still am attracted to people who care very much about what they're doing and who involve themselves totally.

TS: Your work is as famous for appearing on magazine covers as in galleries. How do you balance that commercial side against your artistic instincts?

AC: I happen to take photographs and they happen to be used for a lot of things but they're not really made to order. They're paid for, but they're not made for order. I've never really done real commercial work. A lot of people think I photograph celebrities. But I usually photograph people whose work I like, artists. Some of them are very well known, some of them are not. And of course there's all these bands that want me to photograph them but it's such a cliche for me now I'm very reluctant to do bands now. I tend to work with the bands I know.


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