Q and A with Po Powell, the Hipgnosis photographer behind iconic album covers
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.
It almost sounds theatrical, like you were making a film.
Absolutely. It was a theatrical event. Because otherwise, who’s interested in having a bunch of boring old photographs of pop stars standing around in a studio? It’s uninteresting for them. I think one of the best examples of that is Pink Floyd. There’s a series of photographs with them in a park called Belsize Park in London. And they’re sitting on a bench, they’ve got their hands over their faces, they’re drinking cups of tea, eating sandwiches, they’re camping around, they’re pretending to be models.
Now that is something you would never ever see of Pink Floyd in a million years, because they were such an enigmatic group, and hidden, and didn’t want anyone to know about their persona. They hid behind their spacey music. So for me to be relaxed with them and take these kind of photographs and put them in this book shows a radically different side to them. And in fact the only picture we used from that photo session, in terms of professional use, was a shot of their backs, so you didn’t see their faces. And that was to advertise their first Dark Side of the Moon tour.
But I’ve got the other side of it, which is the humor. And also—and probably more importantly—at that time, that band, the chemistry between them was best friends. They were absolutely having a good time. They were really inventive at that time, really enjoying themselves. And of course after Dark Side of the Moon, when you got into Wish You Were Here and Animals and The Wall, that relationship disintegrated to be very acrimonious later on. And I think these captures find them at their best, their halcyon days. So that’s why these pictures are important I think, to see that.
You captured that joy that they had for really what was such a short time.
Absolutely, and it was joyous. And you know, I was privileged to be there at that time, uninterrupted and trusted, and not in any fake situation. So that, for that’s why those pictures are important to be seen.
How did you gain the trust of Pink Floyd and the other bands you worked with?
Well, Pink Floyd is slightly different because we all grew up together in Cambridge. So when I started doing photography, which was at the Royal College of Art, and Storm Thorgerson, my partner in Hipgnosis, was doing film school. When the Floyd needed an album cover, their first album cover, A Saucerful of Secrets, we were all sharing flats together and stuff like that. They turned around and said, “Well why don’t you guys do it?” Because again in those days, the record companies would’ve just put a photograph of the band on the front with some white lettering. Pink Floyd did not want that. Right from the start, they wanted to be different. They wanted to have more interesting concepts on a front cover. They weren’t interested in having any lettering at all.
In fact, Atom Heart Mother, which I also photographed, there’s a picture of a cow on the front cover, with no words at all. And that went to number one in America. And when you look back on that, you think, would anybody do that now? Put a picture of a cow on a front cover? Take that risk? But the reverse psychology of doing that meant that everybody said, “Who’s that?” Who would do that, what’s that picture about? And so it worked in their favor tremendously, and it worked in my favor, because everybody said, “Who the hell did that weird cover?”
How did you come to meet and work with with other big bands at the time, like Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin?
So the relationships developed and a trust developed because of these [photo shoots]. And that got passed along, like a baton around the English music industry… Pink Floyd would be working at Abbey Road Studios next to Paul McCartney, so I would be introduced to Paul McCartney… And then he’d say “I’ve got a new album out, can you come and work for me?” Inevitably with Paul McCartney, I would produce probably 12 different ideas for him and show him everything, and he’d say, “Yeah, I love all those, I love that one particularly—but I’ve got an idea.” And I’d say, “Okay, well what do you want to do?” And he’d say “I want to do both ideas, your idea and my idea,” and I’d say okay. And then when I finished them both, he’d say, “See, I told you my idea’s better!” [Laughs] So you know there was a huge trust. And that’s just how we worked.
And then with people like Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy album cover, which is all the kids running up the rocks, I couldn’t believe how that had worked out so well. Because I went along to see Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and I literally had some sketches, actually of a family running up some rocks, going into a sunset, and I said this is what I want to do for Houses of the Holy—it was honestly on the back of a napkin. And Robert Plant said, “That’s fantastic, you should go and do that if you have the chance at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.” I said, that’s exactly the sort of place. And Jimmy said go and do it, and I said, “Okay, do you want to discuss money, timing?” They said, “We’re going on a tour of Japan, we’ll be back in six weeks. You think you’ll have it done by then?” They said whatever it costs, just go and do it.
And in those days, bands like Led Zeppelin were so powerful, and so wealthy, that the record companies had no say at all creatively. So if Robert Plant and Jimmy Page said, “We’re having naked children on the front cover, running up some rocks at sunset,” that’s what the record company got. And so I had fully their support and their trust to do that. I was in such a privileged position. You couldn’t do that now. The album covers we were doing in those days—if I look back at something Like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, we probably spent something like $50,000 doing that album cover. And that’s in the 1970s, can you imagine what that is today? But it’d be inconceivable today… So it was a great time to be doing this kind of work.
It was a completely different era for the industry—you guys were totally unbounded by the constraints of budgets and logistics.
That’s absolutely right, it wasn’t. You know, I spent more time in Learjets and staying in the Plaza Hotel than you could shake a stick at, just because everybody surrounding those big bands at the time were treated so well. And when you think about how something like Dark Side of the Moon sold 65 million copies, that’s where real money was. Today, a number one selling album, you’d be lucky if you sell a million copies. So it was a different time.
But it didn’t always work out like that. I knew Mick Jagger because he used to come around to our apartment in London sometimes with Marianne Faithfull. When they came to do Goats Head Soup, he asked us, will you come up with some ideas? So we came up with this idea of them dressed up as satyrs, which is goats’ bodies and legs, and a human torso and heads. And so we went into the studio to shoot that, and I had to have them dressed up in white tights, which wasn’t very flattering. But out of that photo session, they were very trusting again, and out of that photo session we got all these extraordinary pictures.
But they didn’t end up using them for the album.
Yeah… So I got left with all these negatives and transparencies of this wonderful photo session, uncompleted. And you see in the book, there’s the rough original artwork sketched in there of what is was going to look like, and how we were going to do it. But in the meantime, I was left with these beautiful pictures. And the picture of Mick and Keith—I mean, Mick looks like Nureyev [a Russian ballet dancer] and Keith looks like this unbelievably beautiful gypsy. I mean they were absolutely at their prime in terms of how they looked, how beautiful and confident they were. And so again, to have been there, to be able to photograph them like that, and to put them into this book as never having been seen before, it’s a joy.
So was it typically a co-creative effort between you and the band? Did you ever have major creative disagreements, or tension within a band?
I can’t name one band that we ever fell out with. We’d have a lot of intense discussions, and I remember one very funny incident—it wasn’t always smooth. I remember once we went to see Led Zeppelin with an idea. They were recording in Munich, and I arrived there with some ideas. I put them around in my hotel room, and they all came in and started looking at stuff. Robert Plant picked up this piece of stray cardboard with an illustration on it, turned it over, and on the back, was crossed out: “Black Sabbath, Paul McCartney, Wishbone Ash, Bad Company.” And he said “Have you shown this idea here to other bands?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s a good idea.” He said, “That’s ridiculous, man. You can’t do an idea for Led Zeppelin you’ve already shown to other bands.” I said, “Why not? It’s a good idea, it doesn’t necessarily apply just to you.” He was furious about that. But all was forgiven and we came up with something else. So there were moments of tension.
Another time, I did an album cover for Black Sabbath, which was called Technical Ecstasy I went to see the band, and when I got there, Ozzy Osbourne wasn’t there. And I thought, why isn’t he in the room? What’s happened? And everybody said, “We like this particular idea, that’s great. We want to use that idea.” I was thinking, but where’s Ozzy? He’s the leader of the band. Suddenly the door bursts open, and there’s Ozzy, all in black, black glasses, black hair everywhere—a little bit the worse for wear. And there’s immediate tension in the room.
And suddenly, he walks across, he sees all the ideas lined up against the wall, and he says, “That’s the one.” And I said, “That’s lucky Ozzy, because that’s the tone everybody else liked too.” And he said, “I don’t care what they like,” turned around and punched Tony Iommi straight in the face, and immediately a huge fight broke out. I was ushered out of the room by the manager, and as we were walking to the studio door—I was a little bit shaken—he said to me, “I think that went rather well, don’t you?” And I said, “What are you talking about? They’re all having a fight, and this all turned horribly.” And he said, “Yeah, but they chose the album cover, and they all agreed. It’s marvelous!” [Laughs] So there are some amazing moments like that that happened.
What was one of your more memorable or unusual shoots?
[T]here’s a photograph in here of Led Zeppelin standing in a field. And in the early part of the book, there’s a picture of them where they’re all clapping and joyful. But [at the time they hadn’t seen each other for months and months and months, and there was a very bad atmosphere between them all. They weren’t getting along too well. So I thought, how am I going to get them to relax, standing in afield together and not look grumpy, and the body language was awful. So I decided that I would get a—that a car would drive up, out would get a girl, put a radio on the bottom of the car, and take all her clothes off with some music. Well let me tell you, immediately, that got the kind of attention and look that I wanted. Suddenly they’re all falling about, they’re vibing between each other, they were laughing, they were clapping, they were saying, “Come over here!”
So sometimes you had to resort to, you know, slightly subversive acts in order to lighten the day, because you knew that there were issues within a band. And that’s partly again why I was employed, because I was trusted to break the spell. And that’s why Robert Plant kindly wrote the introduction to the book. Because again, we go way back, and we’re still best friends, and he knows that the kind of things we went through together, all of us, both with Led Zeppelin and his solo career, to try and create the right images for them.
How about another of your frequent collaborators, Peter Gabriel?
I loved working with Peter Gabriel because he is a man who likes to experiment. And he likes to experiment with you. So we had come up with an idea where you take a Polaroid photograph, and then you’ve got the Polaroid, and you push the chemicals around in the Polaroid with a pencil, and it all distorted and melded them together in a kind of weird shapes, trippy picture.
Now, to have a disfigured image of yourself on a front cover is pretty outrageous, and this album became known as Melt…So what’s great about that is you’ve got somebody who’s not only a great musician, but he’s also wanting to participate in what you’re doing to create a great album cover. And that again, that sort of enthusiasm, and that sort of hands-on, tactile involvement, leads to this trust between you, and a good atmosphere. And I take my hat off to him…
Can you imagine some of the stars of today distorting their faces to look uncomfortable and bad and sort of not attractive? You know, they wouldn’t dream of doing that. Everything’s so preened and sanitized, it’s not for me. And again, the way things have changed so much is because of course in those days, everything was shot on film. And nowadays, with digital application, you can change how somebody looks, you can make them look a lot better than they really do, you can retouch the image beyond—all those kind of things.
In those days everything had to be done by hand, in dark rooms, with film. It was a very vintage way of doing things, but actually a very well thought out way of doing things. And one of my complaints about modern technology, is nobody has time to think about it. You take a photograph, and somebody says, “I want it now,” and you send it down the wire, and they’ve got it. With us, we used to take a photograph, process it, print it—and you couldn’t afford to print on the roll of film. Hundreds of photographs, so you had to choose, carefully, and then when you’d done that, you had to choose, you took several days to choose which picture was the best. It wasn’t this instant, now-I-gotta-have it.
You had time to play with it.
Yeah, time to play, and time to deliberate. And that gave us the opportunity in a much nicer way, and a much better way, I think. Sometimes it’s not the best thing just to send things out. So again, it was a privileged time like that, to have that space.
It’s kind of sad to think that age is now long gone, probably forever.
Without any question, this era of photography and this style of doing things is definitely gone. And I’m not saying that’s for the worst. There are certainly some very, very talented photographers and designers out there who are working today… But these days, pictures tend to come out as thumbnail sketches. There’s not often the canvas to work with that we had. With album covers, you had a 12″ by 12″ canvas, or a 12″ by 24″ if it was a gatefold sleeve. Now that’s a big picture.
It allows it to become a real piece of art.
Exactly… And nowadays of course, nothing is tactile. It’s all in the air, it’s digital, it doesn’t exist in real life and such. So it’s not to say that it’s worse now; it’s just different…You don’t have an original piece of artwork as such… It’s more disposable.
What are some of the artists and album covers you’ve seen lately that you do like—are there any?
Very difficult to answer that question… because I can’t really think of anything. I’ll tell you what I find—okay, I’m not being rude in any way, so don’t take this the wrong way. But I find all the, what I call the big artists, the Katy Perrys and the—let’s not name names, let’s just call them the mainstream artists. I find most of their things very unimaginative, I really do. Because by and large, because the images now are small, they simply have a photograph of themselves on the cover.
What was one of your favorite covers, in terms of either the experience of shooting it or the final result?
I would say probably my most favorite shoot and cover is probably Houses of the Holy for Led Zeppelin, because it was the most difficult. This idea, which came from the end of a book by Arthur C. Clarke called Childhood’s End, in which a bunch of children rise up in a fiery column, up into outer space from earth—science fiction… So on one side on the front of the cover, it was going to be a guy all in silver with a silver bald head, and a mother and father, and they’re all naked. And then on the back cover, two naked children. And this was going to be shot at sunset or sunrise… So when I got there, it rained solidly for seven days. Everyday, we’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, everybody would be made up, naked, driven to the spot, get out of the cars. It would pour, and it was freezing cold. And after about the fifth day, I said, “We can’t do this anymore.” I mean, people were getting ill. And we had these little children that were there.
Oh my god, no! So what did you guys end up doing?
So I suddenly had an absolute inspiration—I had one of those flash moments, that bolt of lightning that popped in my head. I thought, don’t do this, shoot it all in black and white, just use the children, and because the rocks were octagonal in shape, use them so that you can collage together the rocks with the children in different positions, shoot it in black and white, make the collage, re-photograph the collage, and hand-tint the whole thing in glorious colors. Which is what I did. And that’s the cover that you see on the album that’s in stores.
What’s interesting in the book is the takes before that… how the cover was originally going to look, and it’s remarkably drab compared to the cover that we finished up with, doing it my way. However, when I came back to look at these transparencies—which again, I hadn’t looked at since 1973, never even thought about them—I suddenly realized that I’d shot in that gray and miserable rainy day actually were quite interesting, and I quite kind of liked them. And I quite liked the atmosphere of them.
So I thought, well, I’m going to put them in the book because they’re pictures that have never ever, ever been seen, and nobody knows how it was originally going to look. So it’s kind of a sort of little bit of a historical and cultural significance related to that cover, which again—well it’s not for me to say—but some people would consider to be an iconic cover. So that was an enjoyable experience at the end, but was a miserable experience at the beginning. But it worked out for the best, by chance.
For a look at some prime examples of Powell’s visual work, click over to Hipgnosis: 13 Snaps from the Photo/Design Studio’s Vault