The death of very few graphic designers would make headline news on the BBC, but Storm Thorgerson, who passed away yesterday aged 69, wasn’t just any designer. Adrian Shaughnessy explains how Thorgerson raised the bar for the profession … and then set fire to it
Many of the best covers from the 60s and 70s are the work of the design studio Hipgnosis, and their co-founder Storm Thorgerson, writes Shaughnessy in essay from 2007. For many people, when they talk about great cover art, they’re really talking about Hipgnosis covers. Yes, there were great LP sleeves before Hipgnosis, and there have been great covers since they disbanded in 1983, but Hipgnosis’ best sleeves are the embodiment of what record sleeve art should be: iconoclastic, disturbing, and turbo-charged with psychological weirdness. Hipgnosis raised the bar of cover art – and then they set fire to it.
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here, 1975, Photograph: Aubrey Powell and Peter Christopherson
Storm Thorgerson, along with Aubrey (Po) Powell, and a floating army of brilliant collaborators, perfected the enactment of highly-charged, photorealist psychodramas on a 12″ cardboard square. With their lavish artwork for the gods of millionaire rock – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and a dozen others – Hipgnosis did something new in sleeve design: they brought the meticulousness and technical perfection of advertising to the world of album covers for the first time. Prior to Hipgnosis, record covers were often graphically (and typographically) crude; the great psychedelic covers of 60s America, and the garish fantasies of Krautrock, had introduced outré imagery into music packaging, but it was Hipgnosis who combined startling imagery with the presentation standards of the best commercial art and design.
But who is Storm Thorgerson – this Dorian Gray of album cover art – and what does he do? Let’s deal with the ‘who’ question first. For the purposes of writing this essay, I went in search of the real Storm Thorgerson. I talked to him on the phone a few weeks before the publication deadline (he was having acupuncture at the time); I read his extensive writings on his own work (the book Eye of the Storm,1999, is especially revealing in this respect); I pored over his extensive back catalogue of well-known and less well-known album covers. But the only thing I learned about Storm Thorgerson was that the more you look at his work, the further he recedes.
Pink Floyd, Ummagumma,1969
Come to think of it, that’s what happens on one of his most famous sleeves: ‘The cover for Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album (shown above) is about infinite regression,’ he tells me from his acupuncture session. This comment alerts me to the idea that perhaps it is possible to build a psychological portrait of Thorgerson through his work. There are themes that recur with compulsive regularity throughout his forty years of sleeve design: burning people, eyeballs, deserts, underwater scenes. But then he lobs a spanner into my theory by telling me that, ‘All I try to do is represent the music. This is a difficult thing to do. I’ve only got a small surface to work on, and I can’t really represent forty minutes of music. I don’t have duration. I only have a moment to represent the music. I have to use shorthand.’
This sounds like a professional graphic designer responding to a brief; but that’s where the comparison between Thorgerson and the professional graphic designer ends: Thorgerson’s work is brimfull of personal expression and he’s driven to anger when he’s thwarted in the fulfilment of these ideas by record company personnel, managers and visually illiterate rock musicians (ask him what he thinks about Kiss or Mike Oldfield).
Storm Thorgerson on designing the cover to Led Zeppelin, Presence, 1976: “How the hell do you approach design for such a colossus? Well, firstly, with great trepidation, and then secondly with courtesy and diplomacy, deference at all times, and then with a strong desire to please and not upset nor disappoint. We needed something so powerful, so huge that it made you weak just to think of it. And what did we come up with… a little bitty black object sitting on an ordinary table surrounded by a rather ordinary family.” From Stormthorgerson.com
Peter Gabriel 3, 1979, Hipgnosis and Peter Maxon
So, just when we think we are close to defining him, he runs away (recedes) yet again; on the one hand he’s a traditional ‘problem solving graphic designer’ trying to ‘represent’ the music on behalf of the bands who commission him, but on the other hand, he’s an artist-manqué who can’t endure not getting his own way.
This sense of Thorgerson having more than one identity is heightened by talking to him. During a second telephone conversation, following his acupuncture, he is warm, friendly and happy to discuss his work at length; he does so with a mixture of breathtaking arrogance and disarming humility. Unexpectedly he starts talking about ‘fans.’ It’s not clear whether he is talking about his fans, or the fans of the bands he works for: ‘I take the fans very seriously,’ he says. ‘I go to conventions and gigs and I meet them. They seem pleased to meet me, but I think they really want to meet the bands.’ What starts off as self-aggrandisement ends in the admission that he’s not the main attraction. The bands are.
Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy, 1973. Photograph: Aubrey Powell. The shoot, which took place on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, was the subject of a Radio 4 documentary in 2010 by Stefan Gates, who was one of the children in the image
Just as he jumps between arrogance and humility, he also jumps between the personal pronoun and the collective pronoun: you never know whether you are getting the regal ‘I’ or the democratic ‘we’. None of this helps build a clearer picture of Thorgerson. So, let’s try to answer the ‘what’ question. What does he do exactly?
Throughout our telephone conversation, he refers to himself variously as ‘a graphic designer’; ‘an art director’; ‘an artist.’ He is clearly all of these things, but just as the conversation is about to end, he provides a description of himself that, for me at least, defines his role in the sheer theatricality of his sleeve art: ‘People call me a surrealist,’ he says, ‘but I don’t think I am. Well, maybe I am. But what I do is set someone on fire or build a statue and photograph it. Actually, I think what I do is performance art.’
Thorgerson talking about his work ahead of the Right But Wrong show at the Idea Generation gallery, May, 2010
Of course, performance art! That’s what he does. Most of Thorgerson’s work is an elaborate enactment of some sort of quasi-dramaturgical performance. Nobody hangs about doing nothing in his images; no item appears randomly; no landscape is chanced upon; no lighting effect is accidental. In other words, Thorgerson’s work is an immaculately choreographed performance. Nothing is left to chance. And as a performance artist, Thorgerson never fakes it. Everything he does, he does for real. It’s what gives his work its scale and impact. It’s emotional appeal.
In Eye of the Storm he writes: ‘In terms of a technical ethic my basic inclination has been to do it for real. That means constructing or finding, arranging or positioning whatever actual ingredients are demanded by the design. Though the idea for the design is the first and crucial step, it is stillborn without adequate, if not superb, realisation. And that is when we do it for real. Whether it is building a large metal ball, or hanging people upside down from a great height. Or squashing naked youths into small wooden boxes. Or putting people on tall poles, or immersing hapless swimmers in icy rivers, or submerging dancers underwater for unreasonable periods. Or constructing an armchair the size of a generous house, or making a teddy bear robot, or a model hot air balloon. I don’t fake it.’
Pink Floyd, Animals, 1977
But to do work on this scale, to ‘perform’ at this level, you need expert help. And this brings us to another of the key aspects of Thorgerson’s modus operandi: he is a collaborator. Since the earliest days of Hipgnosis, he has surrounded himself with top people; with excellent photographers, designers, retouchers, digital manipulators, set builders and prop makers. This lifts Thorgerson into a different category from most sleeve designers.
Today, much of the evocative sleeve art we see is made on a computer by one person working without external ingredients. The reason for this? Money. To do what Thorgerson does costs money, and as the traditional record business stares into the abyss of oblivion, budgets are melting like an ice sculpture in Death Valley. ‘I have budgetary struggles,’ Thorgerson confirms, ‘but it just means I have to box clever. I’m not in the mood to give up.’
Clearly he’s not. He continues to work for bands – young bands like the Scottish group Biffy Clyro, and older bands in thrall to the great rock mythos of which Thorgerson is part of. How long the record business can accommodate his Cecil B de Mille-like aspirations is an interesting question, especially since he has always been quick to bite the hand that fed him. As he tells me, one of his most famous covers, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, which uses a photograph of a cow in a field, was in fact a ‘serious critique of the record business. Pink Floyd liked the idea, I think they liked the cover more than the record,’ he chuckles.
So, I offer you ‘Storm Thorgerson – Performance Artist’; a man with the drive, ego and vision to render his interior life visible through collaboration and negotiation. As you browse through his work, you will inevitably find yourself drawn into the search for Storm Thorgerson: his work is too full of psychology and strange quirks for us not to want to know more about him. But watch out, just as you think you’ve nailed him, he bursts into flames and recedes into the desert.
This is an edited version of a longer essay that appeared in Storm Thorgerson (Howard Smith Paper, 2007. Concept/Design: Browns). The full-length version is available in Essays: Scratching the Surface by Adrian Shaughnessy (Unit Editions, May 2013)
For a great collection of Hipgnosis sleeve art, see hipgnosiscovers.com
See also Stormthorgerson.com
Guardian obituary here