Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An interview with photographer Storm Thorgerson, part two

Posted By on 09.25.12 at 10:39 AM

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
  • Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
Click here to read part one of this interview.

At the end of part one, Storm Thorgerson had asked me if, on the cover of Wish You Were Here (pictured in the thumbnail on the left), the "man on fire" in the photograph was in fact on fire. My answer, "yes and no," prompted him to guide me on a tour of his exhibit, wherein he somehow managed to interrogate me.

So is he on fire or not?

Well, I always thought that he was a stuntman, so the jacket and the hair are on fire, but they're not really him . . .

But you didn't answer my question: Is he on fire?

Well, I'll have to say yes.

Well, you should—he is! I wasn't asking you where he was on fire, or how we did it, I asked you: Yes or no, is he on fire?

Here's why I answered "yes and no": Yes, you could say he's on fire, but he's covered in something that I feel like shields his body from actually being on fire. So in a way it's yes and no: the jacket, the pants, and the hair—they protect him. I mean, was his skin burned?

Yes, it burned his mustache.

Really?! OK.

Chris [Eichenseer, head curator of Public Works gallery]! Is this man on fire or not?

Eichenseer: I assume that he was set on fire, and there was . . .

Is he on fire? It's just a question. Either he is or he isn't.

Eichenseer: Absolutely.

Tal—who's a journalist—I asked him the same question and he said "yes and no."

Eichenseer: [laughs]

And I was trying to work out how it could be yes and no at the same time.

Eichenseer: I don't know. I mean, the reality is if he was on fire, for even a second, then he was on fire. But I guess the no part comes in when there's probably, like, three guys with fire extinguishers on each side of the frame . . .

Yeah! And the hair and the suit are all protective . . .

Yeah, but it doesn't stop him from being on fire, does it?

Eichenseer: No, it doesn't. [leaves]

The point is, for me, is exactly that it's a yes-or-no answer. Because it's a photograph it's real, so yes . . . you're being more perceptive than most people who wouldn't know about protections and all of it. But the most relevant thing is that he's not doing anything! So how can you be on fire and not do anything.

Well, in Animals, if the pig is floating above the factory towers, is a pig floating above the factory towers?

Yes.

Even though the pig's not real?

No, the pig is real.

The pig is real? It's a balloon!

Yeah, well, it's a real balloon.

So there's a balloon floating over the towers, correct? Not a pig.

Well, it's a balloon like a pig. [laughs] No, it's not real—of course it's not real!

The first time I saw the Animals cover, I didn't know it was a photograph—I thought it was a painting.

I agree with you. The coloration was very painterly. But I'm saying, "This is a photograph."

And the reason why I like that is because it's a yes-or-no answer. In effect, he is and he isn't, which has a way of saying that it's metaphorical. If it was real, he would have run down the street like a fucking hare! So it's not real; but on the other hand, it looks real. So therefore I always thought, if anybody thought about it long enough, they'd realize that it was metaphorical, and then they would want to know what it's a metaphor for. That's what I mean by "little train of thought."

What about this one? Do you know this one?

Led Zeppelin, Presence
  • Led Zeppelin, Presence

I know the album cover, but I don't know the history behind it. Would you like to ask me if I think it's real or not real?

Yeah.

I think it's real.

It's not. What's it called?

Presence.

Why do you think it's called Presence? I mean, I didn't at first understand the title—it's a great compliment to me—but I didn't really understand what they meant by it . . .

Maybe because, into this wholesome picture, there's the introduction of something strange, unreal.

That's very much about what it is. But you're still not there because there's nothing to tell you it's there. There are no shadows, no molding—the things that normally tell you that an object is there are not there. So my hand has molding, it's darker or lighter on one side, and that's the quality of all objects. But that doesn't have it. It also doesn't have a shadow. So actually it's not there. And it's actually an absence, which is why they called it Presence. I'm just tricking you with the people looking at me as if it was there, but it's not.

But you're right, it's very much about the contamination of what us designers called "found pictures." I was at the time very angry about people designing album covers by borrowing a picture from some fucking library.

According to Robert Plant, this is the best synthesis of music and pictures he's ever seen. I mean I was amazed they ever took it, I really was. It's so kitsch! But apparently, the story according to my partner is that Robert and Jimmy argued for half an hour over what it meant, then realized that if they would argue for half an hour then their fans would argue for days.

Years! What about In Through the Out Door?

Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door
  • Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door

All real.

But if you soaked the cover in water . . .

No, not the cover, the liner bag.

Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door, liner bag (detail)
  • Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door, liner bag (detail)

Right, the liner bag. If you soaked it, it would change color. How did you come up with that?

I didn't, it was Jimmy's idea. We do work with bands.

What about these?

Both real.

Correct.

And actually, because of what you told me about [Presence], I can tell this [a [picture of guitars tied by rope to trees—one of the trees has a woman tied to it—that appears to be unavailable online] is real, because of the way the sun falls along the trees, and where the shadows go, and how the sun hits the guitars.

Yeah. So what do you call it if it's real? I mean, what category of art does it fall into?

I don't think you can categorize it. It has elements of a number of different things. It's not realism . . .

I would call it an installation. But not that.

The Plea, The Dreamers Stadium
  • The Plea, The Dreamers Stadium

What would you call that?

An event.

What do you think is the distinction between an installation and an event?

That involves movement and that's static. This is more like a sculpture. But these are both recent pictures we've done, for which I'm both very fond of but for different reasons. That one there has a great kind of story to tell. This one here feels like a really loving homage, to me, also slightly peculiar.

Also, there's a woman tied to the tree, along with the guitars.

[laughs] Yeah, that's a joke. Here, I'll show you some others . . .

So the first one is an event, the tree is a sculpture, the teddy bears is an installation—or rather an extallation because it's outside—I think I would call that land art, that's a sculpture, that's a sculpture.

This one over here . . . this one is decorative.

Would you say that's a sculpture or an event?

Pendulum, The Island
  • Pendulum, The Island

That's a sculpture, but it's also a little story.

You see the figures there on the bottom? They always felt to me like sort of dignitaries or officers, and they're witnessing something. And this bird is at the moment grounded but about to take off, hence the man on top of the head. It's an imaginary bird, it's not a real bird. I think it's actually a story about aspiring melody, that is the band—quite a big band in Europe called Pendulum, who were known as electronic, drum & bass—were trying to add more melody to their music. Now I don't even know if that's true, but they used it.

Mars Volta, Frances the Mute
  • Mars Volta, Frances the Mute

The picture of the Mars Volta, the hooded driver . . . is about addiction, which a lot of the story is about. The album is based on a sort of imaginary film script that hasn't been written. It takes a person a while to work out what I was getting at, I think. I think it's just slightly humorous, slightly surreal, though not very. But obviously very purposeful. The drivers in this village or town are all like this, and they're not terrorist hoods—they're rather couture, they're actually made of velvet. So again, this is a metaphor to me.

But I think all these things—that's why I'm showing you—this is really an elaborate answer to your question about style: I don't really got one. I try and represent the music, and since the music is varied, I wouldn't like to be caught in one particular realm. So as far as I'm concerned, I can pillage the world! As a designer I can borrow, steal, beg, anything really. So if I fancy being surreal, although I don't think I do surreal things particularly—you know, I don't think any of what I just showed you is remotely surreal—it's real!

"Storm Thorgerson—Computers Have a Lot to Answer For" is on display at Public Works Gallery through November 2

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