Imagine record sleeves without the advent of Hipgnosis, the photo-design company responsible for Pink Floyd‘s mysterious black prism, Led Zeppelin‘s flaxen-haired nudist children, AC/DC‘s censored everyday villains, Black Sabbath‘s copulating escalator robots and Peter Gabriel‘s melted grilled-cheese face. Although the psychedelic era produced beautifully filigreed LP sleeves like Love’s Forever Changes and, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s, album covers largely were portraits of the bands and artists. Hipgnosis – cofounded by artists Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgerson in 1967 – flipped the script on rock art.
A new book, Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue – due out May 16th – will celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. It collects the 373 sleeves Powell, Thorgerson and their compatriots made together between ’67 and 1982 with commentary by Powell and Thorgerson, among others, and a foreword by Peter Gabriel. “You can see the development of Hipgnosis, and how we got more sophisticated, more sleek and clever at photography, graphics, lettering and text,” Powell tells Rolling Stone. “We didn’t have Photoshop. Everything had to be shot on film and done by hand. And average artwork could take three to six weeks, whereas you could do some of these album covers in an afternoon now.”
As Powell looks back on the history that he made with Thorgerson, who died of cancer in 2013, he’s most proud of the creativity they shared. “We always tried to think laterally and not go for the obvious,” he says. “When we saw Sgt. Pepper’s, we went, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s another way of doing this.’ We were both fresh out of art school, and we said, ‘We can do this, but let’s think differently.’ By 1973, when we did Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy and Band on the Run, we had discovered our métier, and we had the great privilege of being trusted by the bands we worked for. It was amazing.”
He recently took some time out from working on an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum celebrating Pink Floyd, for whom he is the creative director, and picked 15 covers he felt were turning points for the company. Here, he tells the story of Hipgnosis – which, he points out, is still a functioning company, making designs and films – through some of its most brilliant album sleeves.