Technical Ecstasy: Hipgnosis Portraits

Famed for its surrealist sleeve design, Hipgnosis also took rock portraiture into altered states. In our recent May issue, Adrian Shaughnessy reviews a recently published book exploring the enduring influence of Hipgnosis imagery.

Famed for its surrealist sleeve design, Hipgnosis also took rock portraiture into altered states. In our recent May issue, Adrian Shaughnessy reviews a recently published book exploring the enduring influence of Hipgnosis imagery.

Shown above: Sad Café, London, 1978. Concept: P Christopherson. Photography: S Thorgerson

Lumiere & Son, Hunstanton, Norfolk, UK, 1976. Concept: S Thorgerson. Photography: S Thorgerson

The world is a duller place without Storm Thorgerson. When he died in 2013, a gap opened up in my life that is still with me. But I didn’t always feel so well disposed towards him. When I first met him in the mid-90s he struck me as arrogant and insensitive. Yet when I got to know him, which was only at the end of his life, and when he was severely debilitated by the cancer that would eventually kill him, I came to see him as a remarkable human being.

The arrogance and insensitivity were still there. How could they not be? They were necessary components of his genius. To do the sort of monumental work he did, firstly as part of Hipgnosis, and latterly working with a team of collaborators as StormStudios, meant that he had to be willing to run through brick walls; and if a few people got hurt by flying bricks, that was just their tough luck.

Syd Barrett, London, 1970. Photography: A Powell/S Thorgerson

Long before I met him, I was a fan of Hipgnosis. I’m part of that generation that grew up marvelling at the surrealist genius of their great 1970s album covers. Clutching a copy of Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy or Led Zeppelin’s Presence was, back then, a badge of sure-fire hipness.

But I eventually tired of the grandiose visual statements (not to mention the grandiose music) and turned instead to the more austere aesthetic of punk and post-punk: the work of Jamie Reid, Barney Bubbles, early Brody and early Garrett seemed more suited to my own musical and cultural interests. A musical evolutionary lurch was taking place, and the bands Hipgnosis worked for really had become dinosaurs.

Fabulous Poodles, London, 1978. Concept: S Thorgerson/P Christopherson. Photography: A Powell

Hipgnosis witnessed the changeover at close quarters. For Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell – along with Thorgerson, a founding member of the group – it was the arrival next door to the Hipgnosis studios in Denmark Street of Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols that signalled the end of the old order. Writing in the book Classic Album Covers of the 70s, Powell noted: “The music that inched out of their thick studio door clashed horribly with the delicate harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash emanating from ours. Daily, I sensed a malignant attitude in McLaren’s mission – we were out, they were in.”

Powell was not wrong. Amongst McLaren’s sharpest moves was his successful demonisation of the millionaire gods of progressive rock. Johnny Rotten famously wore a T-shirt bearing the legend ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’, and this hatred extended to every other member of the tie-dyed rock aristocracy, many of whom were clients of Hipgnosis. Powell and Thorgerson found themselves metaphorically wiping gobby deposits of punk disapproval from their faces, and in 1981 they closed the studio.

John McLaughlin, Hipgnosis, London, 1982. Concept: S Thorgerson. Photography: A Powell

Yet it’s noticeable that, four decades after their great period of dominance, the aesthetic vibrancy of Hipgnosis’s best work has transcended the time in which it was made. Jamie Reid’s Situationist-inspired graphics were as radical a jolt as any visual innovation in popular culture, yet it is the fate of his work to be forever trapped in a particular moment. Reid’s graphics define their time, whereas Hipgnosis, in contrast, seem to have jumped the firebreak and found a new life untethered by time and place.

Of course, not all their work achieves timelessness. But at their best, Thorgerson, Powell, and their later collaborator Peter Christopherson (1955-2010), perfected the creation of highly-charged, photo-realist psychodramas on 12” cardboard squares that appear today alarmingly fresh and contemporary. There’s a reason for this. Hipgnosis achieved something new in sleeve design: they brought, for the first time, the meticulousness and technical perfection of advertising to the world of album covers.

The great psychedelic covers of the 1960s had introduced weird imagery into music packaging, but it was Hipgnosis who combined startling imagery with the highest presentation standards. And their main method of delivering this was through their assured use of photography.

The Alan Parsons Project, album cover for Pyramid, 1978

And now, to add to the growing Hipgnosis bibliography (Amazon list over 10 books devoted to the group’s work) we have a volume of their photographic portraits. It’s very existence is paradoxical, however, because Hipgnosis more than any of their contemporaries vigorously and successfully challenged the notion of the band photo as the centrepiece of album covers. As Powell notes: “When Storm and I started Hipgnosis we were hell-bent on having our own way with album cover designs, unwilling to kowtow to record companies who wanted a group shot on the front cover and the name in bold, white lettering across the top.”

Yet despite this commitment to avoiding band photos, Hipgnosis took a lot of portraits – nearly always with a view to radically modifying them using the laborious hand-retouching methods of the time, and rarely allowing them to be used in their unaltered states. Powell describes the group’s way of working: “Peter [Christopherson] did most of the lighting, I shot most of the photographs, and Storm did most of the thinking.” This division of labour was highly productive: Hipgnosis photography was always visually arresting, and as the portraits in this book demonstrate, exhibited an astonishing range of stylistic and technical approaches.

Robert Plant, London, 1983. Concept/photography: A Powell

If the importance of Hipgnosis as album cover designers is incontrovertible, can we be equally sure of their importance in photographic portraiture? Their portraits are never less than interesting. They also offer an insight into the degree to which such masters as Edward Steichen, Bill Brandt, Man Ray, George Hurrell, Cartier Bresson and the great film noir cinematographers influenced all three Hipgnosis members. (There’s an interesting study to be made of the influence of cinema in the work of Hipgnosis.) But it is only when they add their trademark surrealist flourishes and graphic interventions that their photography assumes real power.

Many of the portraits here are technically adept – and many are previously unpublished – but their real value lies in the way they provide a portal into the enchanted world of Hipgnosis’s cover art. It’s what came next – the finished sleeves – that really gets the blood racing.

Peter Gabriel, London, 1977. Concept: Peter Gabriel. Photography: A Powell


Adrian Shaughnessy is co-founder of Unit Editions. Hipgnosis Portraits by Aubrey Powell is published by Thames & Hudson; £35. See thamesandhudson.com. All images © Hipgnosis

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