Hipgnotic: The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis
Before the advent of music as a digitised intangible, music was a very real, physical artefact, and one of its most dynamic elements, besides the music, naturally, were the visuals of the album artwork. While it still plays an important role in the marketing of music today, during the classic era of the gatefold vinyl album cover, the 1960s through to the 1980s, album art was considered a significant movement in modern pop art development, and no graphic design group defined this more than the Hipgnosis group, led by photographer Storm Thorgerson.
Combining the talents of some of the most vital artists and photographers of post-war Britain, including George Hardie and Aubrey Powell, Hipgnosis created distinctive and memorable icons for some of rock’s timeless names, including Led Zeppelin, The Who and Peter Gabriel. Their most important, and most recognised work, was through their long relationship with Pink Floyd, defining the group’s visual style that captured and enhanced the ideas within the band’s music and lyrics. Their Dark Side of the Moon cover is considered the most iconic album cover of all time, epitomising the album’s themes of fragmentation and otherworldly auditory strangeness. Designing and defining the Pink Floyd image, including music videos and live show stage design, made Hipgnosis as distinctive and important to rock music history as the band itself.
Although the Hipgnosis group dissolved during the late 1980s, Thorgerson’s photography and album art is still being commissioned by some of today’s important bands, including Biffy Clyro, Audioslave and Muse. He also continues to exhibit the group’s original pieces in shows across the world, including a recent showing in Cape Town that coincided with the release of local rock band Machineri’s debut album, for which Thorgerson exclusively designed a jarring, but beautiful cover image.
The Hipgnosis aesthetic is rooted in photography, although more conventional graphic design ideas also feature in the pieces. The group innovated a truly advanced visual style and technique , using elements of surreal photograph manipulation, dark room decolourisation, layered exposures, early use of airbrushing and a primitive form of avant garde cut and paste methods. Thorgerson’s own style is idiosyncratic for photographing everything, even the most bizarre object or scene, in-frame, with little or no post-production manipulation, quoted in an article for Music Box website in 2004, saying, “I like to mess with reality (with photography)…to bend reality. Some of my works beg the question of is it real or not?”
Essentially, the Hipgnosis group created a graphic design template that is still used by artists and designers today, and techniques seen in the world’s top digital photography software, like Photoshop and the Instamatic app. Apart from their design innovation, the Hipgnosis ethos also contains an element of fun, using visual puns and juxtaposed imagery to amuse and confound, as seen in their designs for the later Led Zeppelin albums. Above all, the album art told a story of the musical works held within, making it a primitive, but effective multimedia experience for the listener.
For more information, and stories behind the hundreds of iconic designs throughout Hipgnosis history, check out these sites: