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Monday, September 24, 2012

An interview with photographer Storm Thorgerson, part one

Posted by on 09.24.12 at 10:00 AM

The Cranberries Bury the Hatchet
  • The Cranberries' Bury the Hatchet
At the opening of "Storm Thorgerson—Computers Have a Lot to Answer For", now on display through November 2 at Wicker Park gallery Public Works, the titular artist auctioned off a print of one of his famous album covers; the auction was unusual in that it was a trivia auction. The question: What is the lowest three-digit prime number wherein each digit is a prime number, the sum of which equals a prime number? After a few wrong guesses, someone finally answered correctly (223).

A math problem at an art auction may seem out of place, but it makes sense for Thorgerson, whose entire career showcases an obsession with distorting the quotidian into the irregular. The British photographer is highly regarded for his leading role (along with Aubrey Powell) in the British art design firm Hipgnosis, which created many famous album covers—most notably for Pink Floyd, but also for T. Rex, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin. While Hipgnosis frequently employed design in its work, Thorgerson most often works in photography, where he prefers to capture an unusual moment on an elaborate shoot rather than rely on special effects and image manipulation.

Thorgerson's work and approach offer a range of fascinating oppositions: digital versus analog, photography versus painting, the real versus the unreal, music versus art, art versus product, and normal versus strange. That Thorgerson is able to challenge and confound all of these debates in almost all of his art is impressive. And on top of that, his work is usually pretty funny!

I met with Thorgerson the day after his opening to chat with him on his life and work. I found that he was a man who is careful and specific with what he says, irritated when he's misrepresented, and fascinated with illusion and mystery. The following is the first part of our conversation as it took place on that warm Saturday afternoon. The second part will appear here tomorrow morning. (And for a summary of his work and information about the exhibit, check out my Three Beats item from a couple weeks back.)

When was the first time that you thought that you wanted to be an artist?

Well, I wanted to be a film director when I was about 15. I knew that I wanted to go to a particular film school and I couldn't go there without a degree. I went to another university to get a degree.

Was that frustrating?

No, no, it wasn’t. I had a great time. It was in a town called Leicester, which is a sort of . . . it's actually not ordinary, but it's not particularly irregular. But it was a great place for me to be, luckily, because university was full of women, and most of the men were engineers, and disqualified for being engineers—self-disqualified. I had a great time in college, and I had another great time in the next college I went to, which is in London, and is a very prestigious college called the Royal College of Art, which is where I went to do film.

In the interim, I started doing album covers; not even for the Floyd, for somebody else. I had no sense about being a designer. Earlier I was talking, describing how there comes a point—especially in design, probably in lots of other things too—where you need a great sort of boost like a rocket boost of confidence, otherwise you can't really hack it. And I did two sleeves particularly, one was Ummagumma and one was called Elegy—they're nice, which I think worked. And I think we thought after that, "Well maybe we can do this," and because me and my partner had been to film school we had quite a filmic approach. And also because I had been to college, and also because of the peer group I was in in Cambridge, I had a bit more of a conceptual take. So our stuff in the early years and now are all sort of full of ideas and sort of little trains of thought about the music mostly. And I sometimes hope that people get invited to follow this train of thought, and have as much fun as I did. But you never know, do you?

When did you meet Pink Floyd?

I met them in school. We grew up in Cambridge. In fact, my mother and Roger [Waters]'s mother were best friends. Syd [Barrett, original lead singer and guitarist] and I went to the same school. Dave [Gilmour, current guitarist and singer] used to play in a band called Joker's Wild. And he was just terribly good. We used to play at a local ballroom every Saturday—we would go there and dance to him. It was great, because he had such a really good voice and was extremely adept on the guitar. But completely different from Syd, of course.

And were you all exposed to music at around the same time? How did you all get into music?

Well, I got into Elvis first, then Buddy Holly, and then probably a raft of others, and then probably jazz. We had an American friend from the GI base—he used to bring us hot jazz records, things like Jimmy Smith and Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Great stuff. Roger tells this story of how he and Syd went to their first concert in London when they were only 14 I think, and they took a train to London because rock 'n' roll acts didn’t really come to Cambridge. They saw one of those sort of mixed rosters. Would have had the Kinks, I think. I don't know who else. Anyway, Roger's got a great story about this, about he and Syd going back on the train, drawing their own plan for their band. You know, how many albums, what was the wattage of the amps and where they would be positioned. A really nice story; they were young. And it is what happened!

Do you think they also had the idea for how music and art would intersect?

God no, that came much later. In essence the band were driven by Roger, but the imagination was with Syd. When Syd was derailed, of course, the problem was that the others were all full of ambition. And just because you have an ensemble and one person doesn't want to do it anymore doesn't mean you have to stop. It was really difficult because Syd was much loved, as he is—well, he's dead now—but also because he was great. But he was derailed, of this I have no doubt; impossible therefore to work with. And if you’re an aspiring musician and want to get on, it’s too much baggage. And I think the Floyd are always absolutely straight about it. You know Roger says, "No Syd, no Floyd," very easy equation. Because Syd wrote their first hits and elevated it from unknown terrain into chart terrain. And I don't think there's ever been any confusion about the debt owed to Syd, but they're also very clear that what they did subsequently wasn't Syd. I mean it is amazing in a way that this band lose their front man, guitarist, and songwriter and reemerge as something different and more successful. Quite a feat, I think, really. Of course, Syd lovers across the world think it's some kind of travesty.

So around this time you’re designing album covers for the Floyd and Hipgnosis begins to take off . . .

Correct.

How did it take off? When did people begin to contact you about designing their album covers?

Word of mouth. When we did two for the Floyd, the record company said, "OK, can you do another job?" They actually asked me to work for Paul McCartney! Which was kind of absurd.

Why?

Well, Paul McCartney designs his own album covers. And they’re terrible. But I was quite keen on driving around in his Roller, which I did. So we did Band on the Run, which is a very good record actually. As much as I think Paul is in some ways a bit square, he’s a great singer, great songwriter. My wife and I saw him recently, five or six years ago—really good. I think he's beginning, maybe now, to lose the voice. But back on Band on the Run it's a great voice, great songs. So you know, it was all quite happy, but not a relationship that could last.

Band on the Run
  • Band on the Run

When do you think you began to discover your style?

Do I have a style?

Well, I'm not sure it's easily definable. But I think a lot of your work is characterized by a single item in a large, empty space, and also . . .

Yeah, but what I'm trying to get at is that it's not for me to do it. You know, artists are sometimes the worst appraisers of their work. They're either paranoid and think it's the worst in the world or they're egocentric beyond belief and think it's the best in the world. Which of course it's not ever . . . well, unless you're Picasso, of course. But then I think in some ways Picasso was not interested in categorizing or assessing. He was interested in doing. And boy, did he do, in all sense of the word.

So I think that . . . I know what I like. And I certainly have trademarks, is that a word? But not a style, really. I don't think of it like that. I do pictures, I do sculptures, I do scenarios, I do interior, exterior; I do conceptual, I do visceral. I do where the music takes me. You know Atom Heart Mother is a picture of a cow. What could be more different from Dark Side, which is a prism? One is graphic, simple; the other is a stupid cow. Well, not a stupid cow—a fun cow. But both very Floyd-y. Division Bell is very unlike Wish You Were Here; Wish You Were Here is an event. Wish You Were Here, in vague attempts to appraise my own work, is one of the more succinct pieces, and sort of unfussy. Just four pictures, little text, white borders. Very straight. But the pictures aren't straight. I was looking at it the other day, thinking, "Could I do this better?" Well, maybe I couldn't, actually. I mean, art is always self-critical, and I'm no different. Sometimes I look at things, I say, "That could be better." But Wish You Were Here? (shakes head)

As I say, I look at it, and I don’t know and I lose interest 'cause it's fine and I can’t see how to make it better. Dark Side is much less interesting to me, because there's no story to tell, really. I mean, I think it's a very useful cover. But I much prefer more recent versions that I've done of it. But there's no getting away from it, is there?

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon
  • Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

Do you feel like in your work you're trying to search for that combination of straight and not straight?

Yeah.

For example, on Slip Stitch and Pass, you can look at it as just a person running with a ball of yarn on a beach, but clearly it's not just that.

On the other hand, it is. That is exactly what we did. And we made a huge ball of yarn. It was so fucking heavy.

Phish, Slip Stitch and Pass
  • Phish, Slip Stitch and Pass

How did you move the yarn onto the beach—with a truck?

(Nods) It was a nightmare. Luckily, being the art director, I don't have to do it. I just have to bark orders. But it was fucking heavy. Very difficult, but it's funny because it was always something I quite liked. But Phish never spoke to me again.

Why not?

Who knows.

One thing I read about you, I don't know if you still do this, but you used to allow the people who were commissioning your work to determine what your art was worth.

Yeah, we did that. Halfway through Hipgnosis, my colleague and I were arguing about how much to charge. So I suggested a radical experiment to him. And he said, "Are you crazy?" And I said, “"Well, why don't we try? We can do it a couple of times." And the first two people we tried gave us twice as much as we expected. And my partner said, "Oh, clever." Because they didn't want to shortchange themselves by offering so little as to insult us. On the other hand, they didn't want to offer too much. But I do more or less the same now, really, because budgets for people, especially nowadays, are extremely varied. So in order for me to survive I've got to have a very flexible approach.

It's interesting to me that your work is designed for something that's a product . . .

It's not really, is it? The great joy of when you hear music is that it's not what we call enslaved product. So if you were advertising a Volkswagen or Coors Light or something you'd probably have to show a bottle of beer, or a car. But you never show CDs or albums, least of all MP3s. You don't show them. So in essence it's not really a product.

What I'm illustrating or trying to resonate with is a set of artistic statements or a dream or a philosophy or an expression. I don't think it's even tangible. One of the things I do sometimes is ask bands what their songs are about as one-liners. Not any deep implication but: Is this a song about a car? A carrot? A girlfriend? Is it about death? (He asks this question in an ominous voice.) Anyways, I did something with a band recently from LA, and they were so surprised to find that all their songs were about the same thing.

What's that?

It was about opposites. So the word opposites doesn't really necessarily have any physical or automatic physical rendition.

So I personally don't think I'm remotely product-oriented. I'm representing anything from dreams to extreme toils of labor. Some people spend hours, years, months, whatever, in the making of their album, and so the endeavor is huge. The risk could be great, because if you put yourself out there with a record, as Joe Jackson said, "It's like a teenager: it goes and does its thing." And people either like it or they don’t. Once you've done it you can't do much about it afterwards. So I think it's all very brave.

When you create art, there's a sense that many people can own your art by purchasing the album as a physical object. Do you think that notion is going away with the rise of the MP3?

Of course it's going away.

Could you see what you do making any sort of return? Do you think you were a part of a specific time that won't return?

I think vinyl is picking up in sales anyway. I think boxed sets are quite interesting because it allows the punter—the fan—more stuff related to his band. I think two things in particular. The tactile quality of objects may not go away so easily, so although the computer may be ubiquitous, I'm not entirely sure or convinced that it means the death of imagery. And also I think the synthesis of images and music will persist because it's a very fruitful one. Whether it persists in a simple form like a festival, live music is not going to be replaced by MP3s. I don't think live music has the quality of being alive, so I think that in a way, there will always be a place for that. What form that takes I have no idea, but whether it's posters for live concerts or T-shirts or box sets that fans can collect, a bunch of stuff that are related to their favorite . . . help them understand the band better: they're quite fun. I don't really think about it very much, because there ain't nothing I can do. It doesn't really bother me.

But the title of your exhibit is "Computers Have a Lot to Answer For."

Well, it's not my title. I think it's because Chris [Eichenseer, who curated the exhibit] is trying to refer to the fact that I don't use the computer very much. We use it obviously for scanning and for spotting and cleaning up . . . we sometimes use it for compositing. But that's just the same as what we did 40 years ago.

Did your interest in photography precede your going to film school or occur while you were there?

While I think that I partially like photography by default—namely, I can't draw—and I think I also partially like it because it appertains to the real. So in effect, people think when they see a photo that it must be real—the camera never lies, or does it?

So then it means that if I fiddle a bit with reality—not a lot, usually just a little—or do something unexpected, and it's a photograph, then is that real then, or is it not real? Wish You Were Here is a really good example: it's a photograph of a man on fire. Is he?

Well, yes and no.

Let's take a trip, and show you what you're refusing to answer.

Click here to read part two of this interview.

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