When Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgerson designed their first album cover back in 1968, they weren’t planning on redefining the industry—they just wanted to create a cover for their flatmates’ first album that wasn’t utterly boring. (Album covers those days mainly consisted of text and, maybe, a straightforward picture of the band members.) But Powell and Thorgerson’s friends became rock stars by the name of Pink Floyd—and they themselves became Hipgnosis, the visionary design collective behind the most iconic album covers of the late ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Police, Genesis, The Who and Paul McCartney are just a few of the artists they worked with.
Hipgnosis’ photography was unlike anything ever done before—surreal, captivating, psychedelic, sometimes shocking and often humorous.(Head over to our gallery Hipgnosis: 13 Snaps from the Photo/Design Studio’s Vault to see some prime examples.) They staged extravagant, emotionally charged photo shoots both on location and in-studio—and manipulated film in the editing room to create eye-catching imagery before the days of Photoshop. Hipgnosis Portraits is a collection of both these seminal album covers and the lost photo shoots, as well as the stories behind them—working intimately with the bands to conceive and execute their creative visions.
EW talked to Po Powell, the only living member of Hipgnosis, about the inspirations behind the art—and some of his craziest memories of working with today’s rock legends in their heydays.
Why did you want to make this book?
I had a partner, Storm Thorgerson, and a company called Hipgnosis, who are extremely well known for creating a lot of iconic album covers, like Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy for Led Zeppelin. And Storm sadly died last year, and after he passed, I went to look at our old studio and discovered a treasure trove of files dating back 40 to 45 years—and they had not been opened since that time. And so I tore off the old bits of Sellotape and masking tape, and inside were all these pristine photographs and negatives and transparencies, which of course these days, it’s old stuff. With digital it doesn’t exist anymore. I also had something like 150 original Hipgnosis artworks what’ve been in storage. But then it set me thinking, I just felt that there were so many photographs that had never been seen of these iconic stars, that it was time to put them out there in a book.
So I went along to Thames & Hudson, I showed them what I had, and they just went, “We’ll have it!” I think for example, there were 156 photographs never published, never even processed of The Rolling Stones. And the reason for that was because Hipgnosis is well known for doing album covers, as I was saying, and the thing is that we were often asked to take the bands’ photographs for the album cover, but we never used them ever. Because we always created more surreal designs, photo-designs we called them, images that would be appropriate for the band, but did not involve them.
And also, with Storm’s death, it was like a celebration for me—not of Storm’s death, but a celebration of the work that we’d done. And a lot of those images are very potent for today because all those artists are still around. Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin you know, they’re all around still. And to see them in what I would call their heydays, or their halcyon days, when they were making these incredible albums in the ’70s, it’s probably what people want to see… And it’s slightly a vanity project, too. It’s very nice for me to do this, and to revisit it emotionally.
Was it an emotional experience looking at all these photos for the first time in so long? Did it take you back?
It was. Yeah, I mean particularly let’s say, working with someone like Paul McCartney. There’s a whole load of photographs in there of Paul McCartney, which I photographed on a tour with him in 1975. And also when I did Venus and Mars, the album cover for him, we’d gone out to the desert, Mojave desert outside Los Angeles [and] spent several days photographing there. And Paul was still at that time a Beatle, you know? He hadn’t quite made the transition to be Paul McCartney solo.
And to spend time with him and talk with him about his experiences and to have barbecues in the desert with him, and for him to be just relaxed Paul, not having to be Paul McCartney “the Beatle,” was a privilege—not only a privilege for me to do that, but also an enjoyable experience. We and Linda [McCartney’s wife and Wings cofounder] were very relaxed, just drinking beer and hanging out and you know just being ourselves. But at the same time, I was shooting pictures. How good does it get, you know? And that went on for a relationship that I had with Paul for many years. I was their creative director right the way through until the late ’90s.
So yeah, that kind of experience, and the photographs that come through from that, show this kind of very relaxed atmosphere. But at the same time, those images with Paul McCartney and Wings you’ve got that surreal landscape behind for which Hipgnosis was famous. So it was a question of combining the two. Creating the photo design, but at the same time, trying to get some emotional impasse with the characters involved and getting a sensation of something different. I never ever wanted to take photographs of bands and just be ordinary about it. Because to me, that was dull. So I often would get them to do things. Like with that picture of Bad Company, they were reading newspapers, and I set fires to the papers while they were reading them. [Laughs] Or, for example, there’s some pictures of Genesis in there, and they’re looking very relaxed, but actually I had a sparkler, a firework in front of them, writing out their name. And the reason they’re laughing is because I was getting burned! And it’s that kind of thing to create an atmosphere with people that’s not boring.