The Odd Couple

Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell revolutionised sleeve design with their surreal imagery. Powell recalls their ground-breaking creative partnership and unpacks the Hipgnosis archive

Among boxes full of prints and negatives, stacked-up poster tubes and coloured foolscap folders, Aubrey Powell is searching through the archive of the record sleeve design he produced with partner Storm Thorgerson from 1968 to 1982, when the two were known as Hipgnosis. It’s a poignant task conducted with a new, sad sense of finality – Thorgerson’s funeral took place the day before. The photo-designer’s health had deteriorated since a stroke in 2003 and, last month, Thorgerson succumbed to cancer at the age of 69.

“I’ve started archiving and collecting everything, sorting it all out,” says Powell. “Storm was never interested in doing that, he wanted to move on to the next project immediately, to never look back. That was his whole thing. But in the process of doing this, I’ve realised just what extraordinary stuff there is around.” Gesturing to the artwork that has now spread into a couple of small rooms in his offices – “This is what’s left of Hipgnosis,” he says.

While the boxes contain the story of the studio, much of the imagery that Powell, Thorgerson and, later, partner Peter Christopherson produced, is now part of the collective visual culture. Hipgnosis’ most familiar images endure beyond the treasured album sleeves which continue to represent the music of a legion of bands and artists – the prism and beam of refracted light on Pink 2 3 Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon cover, or the airborne pig on the sleeve of Animals have become abstract symbols of the music. The album cover freezes time – thanks to Hipgnosis, Peter Gabriel still scratches at the surface of his own portrait on his 1978 solo album and continues to ‘melt’ in the strange Polaroid cover of his third.

But as Powell suggests, Hipgnosis also remains in the physical things that the studio produced to create these images – original photographs, contact sheets, collages and sketches. In the flesh, much of this material is scribbled on, marked-up with instructions and handwritten notes, all evidence of the creative decisions made along the way, the collaborations with photographers, illustrators and printers, the sheer intensity of the work involved.

It’s appropriate that these elements are tangible, as the sanctity of using real objects or photographing actual events to create impossible pictures was always the Hipgnosis way. The pig floating in between the towers of Battersea power station on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album is as real – or surreal – as the solitary cow which adorned their Atom Heart Mother record seven years earlier. The man on fire on the sleeve of the band’s Wish You Were Here (1975) really was set alight; while in one of the record’s other famous images, shot by Powell, the diver makes no ripples in the lake because, while performing a headstand underwater, he held his breath for minutes until the surface of the water became quite still. When Thorgerson returned to designing sleeves in the late 1980s, after a stint in film production and direction with Powell and Christopherson, this methodology was retained in his work at STd-Icon, Talking Fish and StormStudios, the latter a group of creatives he formed with creative director Peter Curzon, which includes the photographer Rupert Truman and designer and illustrator Dan Abbott, who now take the studio onward without him.

Powell, known to everyone as ‘Po’, first met Thorgerson when he was 17 and part of a Cambridge scene that included some of the founder members of what would become the Pink Floyd Sound. An early incarnation of the band had relocated to London and, when Thorgerson told him of his plans to study film at London’s Royal College of Art in 1966, Powell travelled to the city with him. “I didn’t want to be left behind,” he says. “I was a creative type, I could paint, so I applied for a job at the BBC to be a scenic artist. I got the job and we all went down to London together. Storm and myself shared a flat in South Kensington which Syd Barrett later moved into.”

Impressed with the experimental work that Thorgerson was creating in college, at his friend’s suggestion Powell decided to enrol himself in the RCA’s photographic school. Powell, who says he received “the finest education in photography – nobody asked where I’d come from,” spent six months being taught by the head of the new photography department, John Hedgecoe, before the college discovered his ruse and he was asked to leave. Around the same time, he and Thorgerson began working with infra-red film and created a series of book covers for a friend’s publishing house. On the strength of this work they were asked if they would design a sleeve for Pink Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets – the result is a swirling photo-collage of planets and marbling effects. “We did that in the RCA dark room,” Powell says. “I learned to use a camera and Storm taught me a lot, I must say. By the time I was 18 we’d started Hipgnosis.”

Taking their name from some graffiti they encountered on a door frame near their flat (which ‘appeared’ while Barrett was living there), the newly formed studio worked partly out of Powell’s then girlfriend’s bathroom, which was turned into a darkroom complete with an enlarger on the floor. (They shot initially with just a Rolleiflex and a 35mm Pentax camera.) Following A Saucerful of Secrets, Powell recalls that Pink Floyd’s manager, Bryan Morrison, asked them if they’d be interested in working on sleeve designs for some of the other bands he looked after, such as The Pretty Things, T-Rex, Alexis Korner and Free. “So Storm left art school in the summer of 1968,” he says, “we borrowed money from our parents, took a lease out on two floors in Denmark Street and we were in business. Suddenly bands were falling over themselves to get us to do work for them, mostly related to the work we were doing for Pink Floyd.”

Despite being part of burgeoning psychedelic scene in London, formative influences came largely from the worlds of art and film. An interest in Buñuel, Fellini and Godard existed alongside a fascination with Duchamp, Man Ray and Magritte, in particular. The landscapes of Dalí also resonated with the pair. “We were great fans of Dalí,” Powell recalls, “a lot of Hipgnosis stuff has incredible landscapes. I used to go away and do a lot of the photography because Storm has a son, whom he brought up on his own. Storm would be like a think-tank [and] twice a week we would have these late night meetings that went on until four in the morning. We’d bat ideas around and slowly they’d formulate; he’d have something in his head and I’d have the style as to how to do it – then it was, ‘where should we go?'”

Hipgnosis’ travels are the stuff of legend and no doubt caused many a raised eyebrow in record company offices (Powell admits that they were already disliked by executives because they refused to put the bands, or even the band’s name, on their covers). The stories invariably involve an anecdote which manages to both illustrate the extravagance of the music business but also prove to be completely charming at the same time. “When we made the cover for The Nice’s Elegy album, the one with the red balls in the desert,” Powell says, “we turned up with 60 footballs that we’d deflated. Storm said, ‘Don’t worry, I know how to inflate them, I’ll sort that side of it’. So we arrived in the Sahara desert and there were all these boxes of balls. I said ‘OK, well where’s the pump?’ and he produced a single black bicycle pump. I mean, have you ever tried blowing up a football with a bicycle pump? It takes about 20 minutes. Luckily, we found a garage on the edge of the Sahara and there was a bunch of Moroccan boys – we paid them a few baksheesh and it was done. So Storm wasn’t a very practical person in that sense.”

As most of Powell’s stories reveal, however, Thorgerson more than made up for this lack of pragmaticism. And the work they were producing continued to get better. While Pink Floyd’s 1969 album Ummagumma had messed with perception with its clever picture within a picture trickery, and the Elegy sleeve in 1971 had moved them further towards the epic scale at which they would continue to work, Powell cites 1973 as the pivotal year for both Pink Floyd and its designers. Challenged by the band’s Richard Wright to move away from photography and create something simple and graphic for their new album, Thorgerson suggested adapting an image of a prism that he had seen on the cover of a book. The twist, according to the designer, would be in setting the image on black.

“The thing that changed everything around was Dark Side of the Moon,” says Powell. “It wasn’t just that the design was unique – and it’s a very simple design, not very Hipgnosis, it’s not photographic – but it was the combination of Pink Floyd at that time with the sleeve and all the interior bits and pieces; the poster of the pyramids, the stickers. It was the combination of everything. It became such an enormous seller and was so big that following year we were on the map. The other big sleeve was Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy – and these two were within months of each other. Both are 40 years old this year. They’re both very Hipgnosis, but you couldn’t have two more radically different covers.”

In fact, Houses of the Holy reveals much about the practicalities of attempting to create suitably epic imagery and the way Powell’s relationship with his partner worked. Having sketched up some ideas with Thorgerson and the band’s Robert Plant, Powell travelled to the Giant’s Causeway, the location of the shoot, on his own. “It was pouring with rain so I had to think about how to adjust Storm’s idea into something else. The original concept had been to have a family, three adults running up rocks with children, but I had to abandon that and think of another way to do it. When I came back and said, ‘Look, this is what I’ve done, I had no choice’, he said, ‘Great’. It was very much one hand washing the other,” Powell says.

This is not to say that Powell and Thorgerson’s relationship was perfect. “It was very volatile,” says Powell. “We used to argue and fight like mad. Hasselblads would be hurled across the studio. The reason we worked well together is because I had a lot of style and was good at photography but he was a brilliant thinker. He used to think way out of the box for me. He would plunder all kinds of places and things to come up with ideas. I found that very inspirational. In many respects he was an absolute genius at pulling things out of the hat.”

The intense relationship between the two partners is touched on in the 2011 film Taken By Storm, directed by Roddy Bogawa. In addition to new interviews with Thorgerson, Powell and many of the bands they designed for, there are some interesting reels of archive footage. In one sequence, which Powell says is an Arena documentary, the pair is asked what their roles in the company are. Powell seems more comfortable with the question and proffers that he is the sentimental, old-fashioned one, the Romantic. But as the creator of images that captured the spirit of the time so well, how could the photographer see himself as having old-fashioned views?

“Well, it’s interesting,” says Powell. “Something I said at the eulogy was that I had a vision that Hipgnosis would be a company – Storm had the intelligence to create an art-house. And that’s what Hipgnosis became. So I had rather old-fashioned views in terms of us starting a ‘photographic company’ and he said to me, ‘No, it’s a photo design studio; we’re an art studio’. And this is why I say he was my mentor. Because he taught me to think in a different way about things.”

Alongside the skills of the partners, Powell admits that certain images came off simply because there was something in the air, or the presence of the “Hipgnosis vibe” as the studio called it. For example, Powell recalls, the weather conditions on both the shoots in the Sahara and at Mono Lake in California were freakishly perfect for their artistic intentions. But perhaps a more vital element to the construction of their images was the trust placed in them by the bands they worked with. “Without the trust of these big bands – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Yes – Hipgnosis would not have happened,” says Powell. “It was risky, things might not have worked out, and they would have spent all this money doing a cover that was totally off the wall. Two businessmen shaking hands and one’s on fire sounds good on paper, but is it going to work? This relationship was incredibly important – but you have to put it in the context of the 1970s; these bands were so powerful. They were selling millions and millions of albums, not like now. They didn’t give a toss about what the record companies thought.”

Yet if even the bands were routinely on Hipgnosis’ side creatively, what was it about going to those extraordinary lengths to photograph something real, potentially on the other side of the world, when it could have been set up in a studio? Initially, Powell says, it was simple naivety in that they didn’t know any other way to work. But as computer graphics gained momentum – and software didn’t appear until well after Hipgnosis had ceased trading – Powell says that Thorgerson continued to resist their pull, and with StormStudios expanded his vision to create fantastical imagery out of real time and space. “Even when Storm had his stroke ten years ago, and he couldn’t operate as he used to do, he would sit directing Rupert,” Powell says. “Rupert’s taken everything for StormStudios and is a brilliant photographer, a bloody genius as far as I’m concerned.”

For Peter Curzon of StormStudios, many of the shoots were essentially “short-lived installations or, as Storm liked to call the exterior ones, ‘extallations’,” he says. “I’ve noticed recently while looking through Storm’s works that the scale of things actually got bigger, or ‘cosmic’ as he would call it, with the advent of the computer, though not because of it,” Curzon continues. “Hipgnosis had little alternative but to construct things for real, but it was pretty much the same when we started StormStudios in the early nineties. It’s about how the object or subject of the design interacts with its surroundings – how feet sink into sand or grass, the pattern water makes as it travels around a square stone, or how the way light changes throughout the day changes drastically the look and feel, and indeed the shadows, of what we are doing.”

Perhaps it is also just knowing that the elements on the covers are real that makes the difference. They existed temporarily – captured in a second or constructed during a two-day shoot – and they can never be reconstructed in exactly the same way again.

“There’s an atmosphere to it,” says Powell. “Everything had to be in-situ and had to be to a size and scale of the idea. There was no Photoshop or no deal. It was as simple as that. Storm simply believed in seeing what happened when you tried taking the picture at that scale – when you look at the Biffy Clyro cover for Only Revolutions, with the huge flags 100 ft in the air; or at Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell with these massive pieces of sculpture, that’s what gives them an interest. Of course, you can Photoshop everything in these days, but you know what? It doesn’t look as good as the real thing.”

As surreal as much of Hipgnosis’ imagery was, it was always grounded in reality. “We always had a policy of doing things for real,” Powell says. “It was a conscious decision to do that. Yes, it was a battle and I loved every minute of it.”

The Gathering Storm, a collection of album graphics by Storm Thorgerson, covering 45 years from Hipgnosis to StormStudios, will be published by deMilo Art and StormStudios in September this year. See stormthorgerson.com. Any Port in a Storm, an exhibition of Thorgerson’s album graphics, is on at the Portsmouth Guildhall until June 22. Roddy Bogawa’s film, Taken By Storm, will be released later this year following a sold-out screening at MoMA in New York. More information on the film is at takenbystormfilm.info. Aubrey Powell’s website is aubreypowell.com and offers more reflections on Hipgnosis and details of the book For the Love of Vinyl

 

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