Taken by Storm

Posted on 03/02/2011 by Les Jacobs

Editor’s note: This article was recently published in SXSWorld Magazine, but we thought it would be very appropriate to share Les’ piece here as well. Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis premiered last week at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.

For many, it’s virtually impossible to hear Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and not see that album’s iconic light blue prism refracting a sharp rainbow across a deep black background, or to listen to Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and not see the apocalyptic glow engulfing pale, naked, alien-like children climbing across the treacherous rocks of the album’s cover.

Music has always been visual, as well as aural. In the years before cassettes and CDs tipped the world in favor of ever more compact media, vinyl records and their gloriously full-sized 12″ by 12″ covers gave artists a powerful outlet on which to catch listeners’ eyes as well as their ears.

Few have done more with that square canvas than artist and designer Storm Thorgerson and his colleagues at Hipgnosis, the graphic arts studio behind the famous Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy album covers, along with almost 200 others from the late ’60s through the early ’80s.

Peter Gabriel’s melted face, an endless trail of beds stretching along the shoreline of an empty beach, and a lone floating pig above the Battersea Power Station in London were all images that were either conceived or executed by the Hipgnosis team. Each has left an indelible mark on record buyers and music lovers across the globe.

Filmmaker Roddy Bogawa is one of those impressionable souls. His latest documentary, Taken By Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, gives an in-depth look at the man and the studio behind some of the most captivating and imaginative album covers in rock history.

The film, which made its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, combines interviews and reflections from Thorgerson and fellow Hipgnosis designer and photographer Aubrey Powell with rare, never-before seen photographs and footage from their collections and from those of the musicians with whom they worked. The film also includes interviews with rock legends David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Steve Miller, and Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant. Bogawa also reached out to current artists who have worked with Thorgerson recently, such as Dominic Howard of Muse and Cedric Bixler Zavala of The Mars Volta.

Bogawa began working on the project three years ago after a conversation with a friend led him to The Work of Hipgnosis: Walk Away Renee, a book that helped connect the dots between Thorgerson and the many LP covers Bogawa had grown up with.

“I’ve talked with some people jokingly that this is a film made over 33 years, because really I’ve known about Storm’s work since about the age of 15 or so,” said Bogawa, who grew up in the Los Angeles punk scene, but now lives and works in New York. “Like millions, I had a lot of his designs in my record collection without even knowing necessarily that they were all done by the same people…”

“When I looked at the body of work that he had created—we’re talking major design work that’s pivotal in the music world in how bands were marketed visually—I realized that this was something that was really far-reaching.”

Thorgerson, who continues to design covers as well as produce videos and films, is known for his surreal juxtaposition of objects and people in landscapes and situations where they wouldn’t normally appear. His penchant for distorting reality contrasts with his desire to convert his wild concepts into real, live events without the help of digital manipulation. That image of 700-plus beds on a beach from Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason? Thorgerson actually had his crew drag 700 beds onto a real beach to make that happen.

Rapidly developing technology has made it significantly easier for artists to do digitally what Thorgerson prefers to do physically. At the same time, digital music distribution has not only altered the paradigm through which listeners acquire music, but it has also largely severed them from the tangible experience of looking at and physically handling the art that comes with it. The canvas shrank with tapes and CDs, and now downloading music has practically made that album cover medium obsolete.

Yet Thorgerson’s determined effort to circumvent technology and do things the hard way makes his elaborate, real-world sculptures and tableaus that much more magical. For Bogawa, who shoots exclusively on 16mm film, a dying breed in a world favoring digital video, this defiance of technology resonates deeply.

“The film is a story about [Thorgerson’s] life and inherently about his work and the cultural and social importance of his art, but it’s also a film about the growing emptiness that technology leaves in its void,” Bogawa said. “I think the film is really timely in that way and shows that, in the end, we all want to be together, enjoying each others’ company rather than sitting alone in front of a computer screen.”

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