Exercise 1: Historic portrait

Do some research into historic photographic portraiture. Select one portrait to really study in depth. Write a maximum of 500 words about this portrait, but don’t merely ‘describe’ what you see. The idea behind this exercise is to encourage you to be more reflective in your written work (see Introduction), which means trying to elaborate upon the feelings and emotions evoked whilst viewing an image, perhaps developing a more imaginative investment for the image.

Define historic to begin with, not that easy in the form of expression being photography not that old itself, everything over a decade seems old and historical. Looking at the formal definition of the term, it might be correct. But I understand the work needs to be of a substantial past and over time and perhaps in a different era’s criticised sufficiently to ad a new reflection on the matter.

I’ve chosen an image by the Dutch photographer (and almost neighbour), Anton Corbijn with his Amsterdam image of John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten. After some thought about what image to chose, I stared at this print on the wall from our dining room. Every day, I look at it since we bought a signed and limited print two years ago, how strange something so close does not enter the initial selection procedure while being one of my favourite photographs. In my reflection on this image, I used most elements that are mentioned in the model developed by Jo
Spence and Rosy Martin in relation to helping dissect the image at a more forensic level as suggested in the unit reader, perhaps not as strictly as intended. In dissecting images, I’d rather follow the ideas of Terry Barret (Barrett, 2000), summarized further in Criticising Photographs and distilled in my notes in course-unit Expressing your Vision (van den Berg, 2020).


Anton Corbijn – Johnny Rotten, Amsterdam 1977

The image shows a young John Lydon on one of the canal bridges in Amsterdam’s city centre in 1977. John Lyden, born in 1956 was therefor 21 in this image, Anton Corbijn just 22.  These young men were at the beginning of their careers; the boyhood radiates of this image. The image is in the later so typically and famous Corbijn portraiture style; course, not perfect, off-static posing, see beyond the glitter, fame and attitudes of pop and rock, capture the person, not the artist and by doing so, give the artist identity, he becomes human and reachable, without losing his personality, or image of rebellion and punk. The photograph reflects as much the character of Corbijn, a gentle, calm, loyal but driven artist; there needs to be a connection between sitter and photographer. (Corbijn et al., 2011) The photographer decides the content without directive attitude. In the documentary Inside Out, one of the band members of Metallica comments, looking at the results of the shoot a few days earlier to Corbijn: “You are simply photographing yourself, you only use us as a mirror”.

Corbijn loves music. Being a lousy musician, becoming a music photographer was the closest he could become. His sincere love for music exists only with equally driven and engaged artists, and it shows in every image he makes. Lydon’s image is an open but result-driven exercise between two young, ambitious, creative men but in a non-competing manner.

It is that almost minimalistic, monochrome, contrasting look that forces the viewer towards the artist’s personality and reduces the contextual noise. Corbijn comments on his non-perfection and course, handheld images: “Perfection cuts out the breathing of the image; coarseness is the fabric of life”.(www.oberon.nl, s.d.) In this image, perhaps more then any other, Corbijn adds his gentleness together with a calm atmosphere, but he never tempers the emotion. As Bono of U2 ones described: “..after being photographed by Anton, the rest of your life you try to be the person in the photograph”.(www.oberon.nl, s.d.)  Despite the seamless nonchalance of both the photographer and the sitter, the image makes a massive impression, even without knowing both men. Gesture, clothes, the almost despondent smile but with a somewhat feigned rebellion toughness; spot-on depicting the artist, the music and the person in a single photograph, he almost creates the artist, as U2 and Depeche Mode tried to explain; Anton is our silent member of the band.(Corbijn et al., 2011)

Until today, almost half a century later and despite the massive careers of both men, searching for an image of Johny Rotten, this image is on top in the results, either in a cropped or wider format, it will always be imprinted in the viewer’s mind, whoever was looking.




Barrett, T. (2000) Criticizing photographs : an introduction to understanding images. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Pub. Co.

Corbijn, A. et al. (2011) Anton Corbijn : inwards and onwards. Munich, Germany: Schirmer/Mosel In Collaboration With Foam.

Darcia Narváez and Lapsley, D. K. (2009) Personality, identity, and character : explorations in moral psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ewen, R. B. (2010) An introduction to theories of personality. New York: Psychology Press.

Harvard Mirador Viewer (s.d.) At: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:42954877 (Accessed 06/02/2021).

The Success of a Photographer: Culture, Commerce, and Ideology in the Work of E. O. Hoppé on JSTOR (2021) At: https://www-jstor-org.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/stable/3600389?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents (Accessed 06/02/2021).

van den Berg, B. (2020) Project 2: Reading Pictures – Photography 1: Context and Narrative. At: https://ph4can.bertvandenberg.nl/project-2-reading-pictures/ (Accessed 06/02/2021).

www.oberon.nl, O. A. (s.d.) Anton Corbijn Inside Out | IDFA. At: https://www.idfa.nl/en/film/e5841eca-59e9-4c2b-baff-b7813a13a8ff/anton-corbijn-inside-out (Accessed 06/02/2021).