When Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and Storm Thorgerson moved their emerging design studio into a space at 6 Denmark Street in London’s Soho, they were intrigued to find the previous owner had left them a piano. With little money of their own, they sold it to the nearby furniture store Heal’s and subsequently filled their new space with equipment. “It was something like £3000, which in 1970 was a fortune,” recalls Po. “That bought Hasselblads, Nikons, all the things we needed. It was total serendipity.”
The story is one of many revisited by the photographer and graphic designer in Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), a new film from Anton Corbijn about the iconic partnership and their well-known collaborators like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, 10cc, Peter Gabriel and Black Sabbath, several of whom appear on screen, joined by Noel Gallagher and Peter Saville. “There was only one person for me,” remarks Po of the decision to approach the filmmaker and photographer, who’d never made a documentary before. “I loved Control and I just thought, this is a man who could direct a film about Hipgnosis, warts and all, who I can be totally frank with.”
First meeting in Cambridge in the 1960s, Po and Storm – who passed away in 2013 but whose disruptive personality and impenetrable work ethic is all over the new film – initially came together when their friends, Pink Floyd, asked them to design the cover for 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets (they would go on to design the sleeves for Dark Side of the Moon, Animals and Wish You Were Here). Lifting their moniker from graffiti Syd Barrett is said to have scribbled on their door – a merging of the words ‘hip’ and ‘gnostic’ – the pair were later joined by a pre-Throbbing Gristle Peter Christopherson, as Hipgnosis became the go to studio for album covers throughout the 70s.
Creating such work at a time when covers were a vital connection between a band and their fanbase, and record labels had a vast budget to finance their ideas (Po and Storm were known for their extremes, like flying to Hawaii to shoot a sheep on a therapist’s couch, for what would be an insert on an otherwise all text cover for 10cc’s Look Hear?), their visual handwriting came to define an era. Disbanding in 1983, as the success of MTV encroached, Po and Storm stopped talking for 12 years, but four decades on their influence remains solid.
Below, Po reflects on the legacy of Hipgnosis, London’s lawlessness, and seeing their work be reappropriated as a political statement.
Hi Po. There’s obviously a lot of reflection in Squaring the Circle, can you speak on that sense of nostalgia?
I've written several books on Hipgnosis, so consequently the stories were always very fresh in my mind. I'm a hoarder – I collected bus tickets, all my passports – so I knew exactly where I was when I photographed anything to do with Hipgnosis. I just had to look at my passport, ‘Oh, that stamp says 15th July 1977, I was in California…’. It was easy to concoct a timeline and Trish Chetty, who wrote the script, was very diligent because people like Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page are sticklers for the truth.
Can you share a story that didn’t make the film?
The film would have run for three hours if we'd done everything! But there was a lovely story Jimmy Page told about how I went up to see him with some ideas, and Storm tucked another idea under my arm. I laid the ideas out on the floor, having not seen this one before, and it was a picture of a tennis racket on a piece of green grass. Jimmy said, ‘What's that?’ Storm said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Well, it looks like a racket, are you inferring that Led Zeppelin make a racket?’ Storm said yes, at which point we were shown the door.
There’s a strong focus on the creativity and hard work that went into Hipgnosis in the film. What were some of your happiest moments?
Oh there were wonderful moments, but it does come across like Storm and I were at each other's throats. We were, but not all the time. There was a tremendous amount of humour in the studio. We had a kind of synergy where things were very funny to us, and moments where our connection really made sense. There was an image for The Nice’s Elegy, with 60 red footballs in the desert. Having sold the idea to the record company, the challenge was going to the Sahara, pumping up the balls, taking the picture, and then returning intact to England. Storm and I were joined at the hip in doing that, but we finished up absolutely broke. We still had the balls so we sold them on the market and with the money stayed in the nicest hotel in Marrakech, surviving by the skin of our teeth. Those adventures cement your relationship.
You speak quite openly about the impoverishment in London at the time Hipgnosis was starting. How did this shape the company?
London was lawless and you needed to really live on your wits to survive. When Hipgnosis started we had no money at all, it was a question of doing the best we could with what we had. Jill Furmanovsky [photographer and Hipgnosis collaborator] says she didn’t know how the quality of the work came out of that studio, but it did. That was because of the attention to detail of Storm and I, but London in the Thatcher years was living by candlelight for three days a week. It was a bizarre time, it's hard to imagine now that that happened.
I’m interested in your relationship with the music after wrapping a cover. Did you and Storm ever revisit a record, only to listen again and come up with a completely different creative?
I don't think I ever listened to any of the records, honestly. I'm a country and western fan, so I don't think I've ever played it apart from when we were working on it. What you're doing in your capacity at work is quite different from how you see yourself at home, and the two things never really meet. Having said that, because I'm a creative director of Pink Floyd, I have to revisit the music in order to make films for them and do re-releases – I’m working on five album covers for them right now. So I do revisit the music, just to remind myself of the heydays of that particular period of time. It sparks ideas that are more up to date.
In addition to Pink Floyd you worked with Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, 10cc, Peter Gabriel and many others, stories about whom you revisit in the film as well in previous books. Is there an anecdote you ever tire of repeating?
No, because I think people are interested in how things were done before the digital age. Everything was very tactile – you had to wind a film in the camera, print pictures, stick them together if you wanted to make a collage – and you had to disguise it. It was a manual skill. A lot of young people are curious about how we did those pictures before there was any digital facility. Now, if I want to shoot something bizarre or enigmatic or interesting, I just get on the computer. You don't have to set a man on fire or fly a pig over Battersea power station. At Hipgnosis we believed in doing things for real and I think it gave it an emotional tension, which you wouldn't get now.
You were famously closest with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Which band do you get asked about most?
Inevitability Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. It's not one of my favourite images because it's not a photo design, which is what we were generally known for, however it is the symbol which has hung around our necks as Hipngosis. It’s something I reflect on with pride, and also a great deal of thankfulness to Pink Floyd that they sold 60 million albums. I mean, I walk down any street in any city, and within two minutes I'll see somebody wearing a Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt, or with stickers or a tattoo. It has absolutely been an endemic design, globally, and that is incredibly flattering.
Presumably there were other covers that received similar affection?
Wish You Were Here, the man on fire, I often see tattooed on people's arms. There was little access to bands in the 70s. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin would not allow anybody near them – no photographers, few writers, so access via the album cover was an important stage in understanding, for a fan, of what your band was about. Nowadays access is everything; album covers aren’t important and music is available on many different platforms. In the 1970s there was Top of the Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test and probably three newspapers about music. The business was awash with money because albums sold in tens of millions, and album covers became an important signpost to what was going on with the band. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, as 1969 to 1982 was critical for album covers.
You mentioned tattoos. What’s the most random setting or medium you’ve seen your work reproduced in?
I think Syria, during the war with Assad. There was a village who used flags as protest, and they used [a flag of] Dark Side of the Moon. There's this wonderful picture of them all standing around, these rebels with their guns, holding this symbol up. That's amazing, that they've actually used it as a political statement. It really warmed my heart because it's not just an album cover then, it becomes meaningful for people who are in protest.
Finally, is there a contemporary record cover you wish had been a product of Hipgnosis?
I loved Nirvana’s Nevermind, the picture of the baby underwater. I always thought that was great, and I love the controversy about it, when the baby, then a grown up man, decided to sue the band – what was he thinking?
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is out now via Dogwoof
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