“Photography is a good way of saying I’ve been here and you’ve been here,” says photographer Dennis Stock to his subject in the new film by Anton Corbijn,Life. It’s not exactly a dramatic moment – just two men walking through the rain when one takes a snapshot of the other. History remembers it differently, however: it’s 1955, the rain is falling on Times Square in New York City, and the subject of the photograph is up-and-coming actor James Dean.

“Just an iconic image that a lot of people know,” says Corbijn of the original photograph, recreated with painstaking attention to detail in the film. “They don’t know the photographer always, but they know the image. The producers thought I should make this a very big emotional moment, and I said, ‘Well, that’s just not how that works,’ you know?”

And he would know – Corbijn has been capturing artists on film for 40 years, lensing everyone from Depeche Mode to Nirvana, Björk to U2, and working with A-list actors to craft his four feature films to date. To him, it is everyday reality.

“If you take that picture and it’s raining, you only take a few snapshots – I’ve seen the contact sheets, I know there’s only a few photos taken,” he says. “It’s just one of these pictures you’re taking, and then later on it somehow gains a weight through a variety of reasons, one of which, of course, is that James Dean passed away so early.

“I guess he looks like a lonely man, a lost rebel, amidst all the busyness of Times Square. I think when you take that photograph, you don’t experience it as, ‘I’ve just made an iconic image,’ you know? It just doesn’t play like that.”

Life is set in the midst of 1955’s dramatic changes in American culture – the great wars were over, exciting new artistic and musical movements were emerging, and the culture was gradually being defined by performers like Dean.

“They broke the mould of how these people operated, and I feel the generation that grew up in the war never found a voice until ten years after the wars finished, and then the role became theirs,” says Corbijn. “And James Dean was part of that.”

But this is not a film about Dean: the attraction for Corbijn was a story about a photographer and his subject, and the fact the subject happens to be Dean is something Corbijn considers a “nice bonus”.

“They share equal screen time, but it’s really about how these people touch each other’s lives,” he says.

Sharing the screen are Robert Pattinson as the uneasy photographer Stock, and Dane DeHaan in what may be a career-defining performance as Dean.

“It was, I have to say, a pleasure working with both. It reminded me a little bit of the energy we had on Control, because they’re young actors and they’re just energetic,” says Corbijn, referencing his Joy Division biopic and screen debut.

“Dane and Robert are quite different actors, and that, in a way, was purposeful for me because the characters they play are also quite different characters … Dane is very analytical and very well prepared – which he had to [be], of course, because he had to change so much, both physically and to get into the voice and all that. Rob is more intuitive, and so they are both different in their approach, but I love both performances a lot.”

As a photographer and filmmaker, Corbijn is well versed in the complexities of artist-subject relations. His stills, including those currently on display in The Hague, are frequently shaped by his relationships with the creatives he captures, and he has shared a long-standing professional connection to industry heavyweights like Depeche Mode and U2.

“First of all, I only picked up a camera because I wanted to be closer to musicians, and therefore a camera was a great excuse,” he says. “The attraction to people for me is always what they make … You start building up a relationship, but that’s something that grows over time.

“I mean, I have to admit, I was not attracted to Depeche Mode or U2 initially, so that was just a process that grew and, you know, suddenly you’re talking 30 years later and you’re still working together. And it’s fun, and you think for each other what could be the next step for them visually.”

As for Corbijn’s own next steps, he’s becoming increasingly engrossed in the world of film – his next, currently shrouded in secrecy, is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on race relations – which is necessitating a movement away from photography as his primary form. He even refers to his recent museum shows in Holland as “a kind of goodbye”.

“It’s so all-encompassing, you know, it takes a lot of your energy making a movie,” he says. “I see photography now as a nice day out: when I do photography, it’s more of a zen moment. The scale of it is so small and it’s so attractive, when you make movies, to go back to this more solitary kind of existence at times.”

Perhaps that’s why Life held such a sway over Corbijn – it too has something solitary and sober about it, an intimacy that reflects the scale of his photography. Its core, he says, is “the normality of everything, you know? It’s not hyped up. It’s just normal life and you just go through life and try to make the best of it.

“I just make photographs and films and hopefully that’s what people remember.”

[Still image:Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson in Life]

Life (dir. Anton Corbijn) is in cinemas now.