Filmmaker Anton Corbijn talks his new documentary Squaring the Circle: (The Story of Hipgnosis), about the trailblazing graphic-design crew, at Sundance
In the old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and music was primarily heard through vinyl discs on a rotating machine with a needle, you’d go down to your local record shop and purchase an album. Then you’d go back home, slap the platter on your player and listen intently. More often than not, these albums would have a picture of the artist or group on the front, staring joyously or moodily back at you. These were the people making the sounds you heard. All very simple. Ask your grandparents about it.
But as popular music became a little more complex, and the various ingested accoutrements became a little headier, folks started getting clever with their album covers. You didn’t have to just put snapshots of artists on the front. You could grace the sleeve with cardboard cut-outs of famous artists and actors. How about an Andy Warhol painting? Maybe a cartoon? Or you could just put a picture of a cow on someone’s record. That’s it. Just a cow, staring blankly back at the camera.
The British duo of Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgerson were pioneers of conceptual album covers like the bovine portrait of Pink Floyd’s 1970 Atom Heart Mother. Co-founders of the graphic design firm Hipgnosis, these two men — along with artist and future Throbbing Gristle member Peter Christopherson — were responsible for some of the most mind-boggling, boundary-pushing, instantly recognizable sleeves of the late 1960s and 1970s. The prism that is forever linked to Dark Side of the Moon? That’s them. Paul McCartney and a gang of celebrities caught in the middle of a prison break on the cover of Wings’ Band on the Run? They did that one as well. The towheaded kids who appear to be heading toward some primitive, Pagan sacrifice, in the name of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy? Hipgnosis designed that classic after botching their original idea of paying homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End.
The duo’s accomplishments — along with the sanity-testing backstories that accompany the making of these covers and the love-hate relationship that sustained their partnership — get explored in depth in Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), Anton Corbijn’s look back at the rise, fall and heyday of the legendary graphic designers. No stranger to shooting musicians (see: his work with Joy Division, David Bowie, Metallica, U2), the Dutch photographer-turned-filmmaker combines interviews, anecdotes and archival footage to give viewers a sense of how two misfits ended up, say, flying an inflatable pig between the smokestacks of Battersea Power Station in London. Or flying to the top of Mount Everest to photograph an Assyrian goddess for Paul McCartney. Or setting a man repeatedly on fire in the name of metaphorically sticking it to slick music-industry suits.
Shortly before Squaring the Circle played at Sundance (it’s set to hit theaters this spring), Cobijn sat down with Rolling Stone and talked about why he decided to make the doc, what we’ve lost by album covers no longer being a “thing,” and how the work these two ex-hippies did still inspires him today.
When did you first connect the name Hipgnosis with those album covers? A lot of folks know the cover of Dark Side of the Moon — not everyone knows who was responsible for it.
I first picked up a camera to get close to the music. That was really my inspiration: get photos in music magazines, and then came record sleeves. Fine art photography wasn’t really happening at that time. I think Robert Frank had a big exhibition in Berlin in the 1960s, but it wasn’t the norm. Even if you went to art school, you couldn’t just get in there with photography; you had to do other things as well.
But record sleeves were already on my radar in 1970, so I knew about Hipgnosis early on. I can’t remember which cover of theirs I’d seen first, though I know it wasn’t Dark Side of the Moon — probably Atom Heart Mother, which I still think is amazing. Just the audacity of putting a cow on the cover. I love it.
The band’s name isn’t even on the cover. It’s just a cow.
Yeah, Pink Floyd’s name initially wasn’t on the cover! And that billboard you see in the film, the one on Sunset Boulevard advertising the album? They wanted to get their name taken off that, too. It was just supposed to be a billboard of a cow.
Using a picture of a cow to promote an album that just has a picture of a cow on it. Makes perfect sense.
Americans like clarity. It’s a shame, I think. In Europe, people are more open to interpretations of things.
At what point did you decide you wanted to make a documentary on Po, Storm and Hipgnosis?
Po came knocking at my door, actually. He came to Amsterdam to meet me a few years back and asked me if I’d make a documentary on the company’s history. At first I thought, Well, I don’t know. But the more he told me stories and showed me the books of their work, all of those album covers they did, I just relented. He’s a great salesman of his own myth. [Laughs] He’s very enthusiastic.
As soon as we started working on it, of course, Covid hit. Getting the interviews became impossible. Most of the musicians we have in the documentary are close to 80 years old or so. So they were understandably very careful. “No, you can’t come to my house to interview me. And I’m not coming to your house either. Forget that.” [Laughs] In the end, we got everybody we wanted more or less. I would have liked to have had Kevin Godley from 10cc in there. I know him a little better than I know Graham [Gouldman]. But we made it happen.
The interviews look like your photographs: these stark, black-and-white portraits lit from the side…
They all have such strong, old faces. The only person who wouldn’t let me light him that way was Paul McCartney. You’ll notice his interview looks a little different from the others. That’s why.
You never had a chance to meet Storm before his passing in 2013, right?
No, and I was worried that the documentary would be a little too subjective — not by design, just simply because we’re relying a lot on Po’s perspective. Even with the archival footage and the old interviews with Storm, it’s still Po who’s sort of leading us through this now. So I tried very hard to make sure that we had a lot of people’s opinions and impressions on him in the movie. They all sort of come together to give you a sense of what he was like.
A complete pain in the ass. [Laughs] But a genius. A genius pain in the ass. All of the great ideas came from him. I think he comes off well, actually. Even Roger Waters, who fell out with him — but you know, made up with him before his death — said, “I always loved Storm.” He drove people crazy and they also had a big love for him. People like Peter Gabriel, for instance — they recognized that the quality that inspired the arguments also inspired the genius.
As you started to talk to Po about the legacy of Hipgnosis and the creation of those covers, how did it change your own relationship with the artwork on those covers? And the music on those albums?
Yeah… when you have a lot of information, some of the magic goes. You do have your own interpretation of things, and it’s kind of romanticized. You gain knowledge, but you lose the dream. But I accept that. Maybe you do look at things differently when you know how something was made or what it’s supposed to “mean,” but I still love those albums. I still love the artwork. And I still love the attitude of those Hipgnosis guys, even knowing their story. I mean, they just went for it. It was a crazy time. In the 1970s, there was no limit as to what you could do with album covers, you know — creatively or financially.
In those days, you could design album covers for rock stars and live just like those rock stars.
I know. I started too late to get in on that, unfortunately. [Laughs] I did do some album sleeves in the late 1970s, but still. Mostly Dutch albums.
You get a sense of the friendship between Storm and Po in the movie, but also how incredibly different they were. What was it about these two specific personalities that produced the right amount of creative friction to make the Hipgnosis stuff happen — and to keep them doing it together for so long?
They were different, but they were also both incredibly ambitious, which I think helped keep them together professionally. They both had a real drive. I do think Po was always up for getting incredibly rich, whereas Storm could care less about the money. There was a slightly… criminal element to Po’s life back then. And I think he played up that element at times. “It was lawless in London in the 1960s,” he told me, and he may have been a part of that, you know?
There’s a great quote from Noel Gallagher in the doc about “vinyl being the poor man’s art collection…”
That is a great quote!
So great, in fact, that Noel naturally assumes he was the one who must have come up with it.
Because it’s so brilliant, yes. Naturally. [Laughs]
Do you feel like something has been lost by album covers no longer being part of the way people consider and consume music?
Well, I do think it’s coming back a little. But I understand what you’re saying, and yes, I do think the importance of an album cover being looked at like a piece of artwork is gone. It’s funny, no one cares for CDs anymore. Music is all streaming now or it’s vinyl. But the notion of album covers being a thing….
I mean, it’s one of the reasons I wanted [Factory Records co-founder and art director] Peter Saville to be in the documentary. I wanted to compare, say, what he did with those Joy Division albums, especially something like Unknown Pleasures, with what Hipgnosis did with Dark Side of the Moon. I think they’re very similar, in a way — although Peter despised Hipgnosis. Not the artwork, mind you. Just the bands they worked with.
You literally had punks wearing homemade T-shirts saying…
“I Hate Pink Floyd.” Exactly. They completely rejected those old bands and everything they did. And yet, look at the album sleeve that Jamie Reid designed for the Sex Pistols album [Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols]. You can even see the influence of Hipgnosis there. The simplicity of it is great. But I’m just an old fart with a young attitude, so… I don’t know. [Laughs]
The relationship between a band like Pink Floyd and Hipgnosis is something you’re familiar with. How long have you been working with Depeche Mode?
Depeche Mode since 1986, so 37 years. I’ve been working with U2 for 40.
Did working on this doc make you reconsider your own decades-long collaboration with certain artists? And how a visual artist can play a huge part in constructing the mythology of a band like U2 and Depeche Mode?
[Long pause] It did remind me that something like a band photo or an album cover is your initial translation of the music to the buyer. It’s an important point of first contact. I’m always listening to the music and seeing if I can find a connection to something graphic. Sometimes in the the end, it might not seem like there’s a connection — that’s a very Hipgnosis thing. It’s not just with old or new bands.
Although I did shoot the sleeve for the new Depeche album that comes out in March. I did U2’s new album as well, which is also out in March. So yes, I’m still in those orbits. But it’s not something that I take for granted: “Oh, they’ve got something coming out, of course I’m working with them.” You work hard because you want your position as a collaborator to be earned.
But in terms of working on this film…
It did make me appreciate the work that I’ve done more, yeah. And maybe it will change how I do my work in the future. You know, when I started to do music videos in 1983, it had a huge effect on my photography. Huge. But it took me 10 years to see just what the effect of that was.
What was it?
I started to introduce a sense of movement instead of focusing on something still and posed. I started to use props and arrange to have more happening in front of the camera. It’s funny, because all of my early music videos look like photographs — I was still stuck in that mindset! And then, after I started to make more videos, it translated into something new when I took pictures. So I’m not sure what the effect of making Squaring the Circle will be on what I do from now on, but I hope there is a change. I need my work to keep changing.