Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11: A Collaborative Photographic Book, by Tom Waits and Anton Corbijn
Photographer Anton Corbijn has been taking pictures of Tom Waits for more than 35 years. Now the pair have produced a limited-edition book
Waits/Corbin '77-'11: A Collaborative Photographic Book
Tom Waits and Anton Corbijn
Nearly four decades later, the evidence is here for all to see. Starting with the black-and-white images he took backstage in Amsterdam, Corbijn compiled an archive, taking photos each time the pair met in the intervening period. The images are mostly of Waits and Waits alone; few other people appear, as though Corbijn is emphasising that Waits is interesting enough.
Each image, then, reflects Waits’s comedic, sometimes juvenile, sometimes wise personality. It has been noted before of Corbijn that he photographs quickly, in order to create intimate portraits of famous people who don’t necessarily want to let their guard down.
Yet such is the closeness between photographer and subject that it becomes almost impossible to determine what was natural and what was posed.
The early Amsterdam and Tropicana Motel shots seem the most naive and vulnerable, yet the book comes into its own with the tranche of images taken from the late 1980s onwards: Waits perched on a tree branch, standing in an industrial mud pool, walking on a beach, encumbered by musical instruments, wearing a cape. Images taken within the past 10 years, mostly at or near Waits’s home in California, portray a man totally comfortable with his persona in all its strands.
After 145 photographs of Waits come photographs by Waits. He describes them as curiosities, and they are, to all intents, fragments captured by a questioning mind: out-of-focus self-portraits, images of oil stains, rabbits, trees, graffiti on doors, roadside-cafe menus, crows and a bizarre image comprising, writes Waits, “things I found on the ground”.
Anything more different from Corbijn’s resonant, dramatic images would be hard to find, but that is clearly the nature of the relationship. One man is focused in every sense of the word; the other is a creative maverick magician, with a beatnik world view, who picks holes in the fabric of the US. “If two people know the same things,” Waits once said, “one of you is unnecessary.”
As a document of one of the longest collaborations between two artists, this expensive book is a trove. Or, as the film-maker Jim Jarmusch, Waits’s long-time friend, says at the start of this book: “I ain’t no academic, but I can tell you this: a collection of images of Tom Waits seen through the eyes of Anton Corbijn is something special, some kind of vortex, an axis of evil geniuses. What an interesting thing to have landed from a slightly darkened and evocative sky.”
Tony Clayton-Lea writes on pop culture and the arts for The Irish Times.