Storm Thorgerson: Pink Floyd, Biffy Clyro & Machineri

Photographer and conceptual artist Storm Thorgerson has been creating iconic album covers for over four decades. Now, he’s exhibiting classics and new pieces in a rare Cape Town show.

This interview first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 01/29.

Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

“Storm Thorgerson”. Two words, and a name, that might mean little to most people, even though they’ve had deeply emotional experiences to the images he has created for some of modern music’s most famous acts. His creations have graced releases by Pink Floyd, Muse, Led Zeppelin, Biffy Clyro, Genesis, Ween, AC/DC, Offspring, and 10cc amongst others – and Cape Town band Machineri. To fans, mention of his name, or that of his first company, Hipgnosis, is likely to trigger raptures about a specific album cover, and the imagery created by Thorgerson. This interview, for example, is being written on a computer just below a treasured possession – a near mint copy of Pink Floyd’s “Animals” signed by Thorgerson during a brief South African visit in 2006.
Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

In February, Thorgerson will hold an exhibition in Cape Town to coincide with the local launch of his new book, “The Raging Storm”, which is a catalogue of some of his more recent work. “It’s new stuff we’ve done in the last three years,” says Thorgerson by telephone from his London studio. “This time, we changed the format to landscape. I don’t like landscape books, normally, but a few of the recent pictures are gatefolds, or for the front and back of a digipack CD. I’m  quite pleased with how it all turned out.”
Thorgerson is renowned for an almost laconic approach to talking about his work, and for often self-effacing answers. For one album cover, for example, he moved nearly 800 steel-frame beds onto a beach. For another, he conceived a multi-storey scaffolding contraption to release hundreds of red balls to bounce towards the key subject matter. He has created massive sculptures just to get one photograph taken, suspended people from ropes, dug trenches in fields and, of course, contracted stuntmen to be set alight – all to capture a real image that could have been created through digital or other manipulation. Of all this, he merely says that this is the way he works.
Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

In director Roddy Bogawa’s documentary  “Taken By Storm”, there’s a telling moment where Pink Floyd co-founder David Gilmour furrows his brow over “the beds” and says, “Storm is one of those people who feels you have to do things digitally, and not fake it up.” In the same film, music legend Alan Parsons describes Thorgerson as “believing very strongly that a photograph needs to be a real image to be believable.”
For a recent Steve Miller cover, Thorgerson caused a huge guitar-shaped hole to be dug into verdant grass, with characters interacting with the water-filled shape. “It was very, very real to dig a hole like that with a digger,” says Thorgerson, and then continues in characteristically wry manner. “It was fun, although I’m not sure how much I like now. I tend to have a different response to the work, depending on how long it has been since I have done it. I tend to have a rethink, or imagine other ways that I could do it. I wonder, ‘Was it worth it? Will that image stay the course?’ Steve Miller loved it, though, he was extremely complimentary about the image. Said something like, “I’ll have to write a song about that. Maybe I’ll start a new album for it’.”
Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

Courtesy Storm Thorgerson (c) Storm Thorgerson

Despite his years in the business, though, Thorgerson still approaches each new project with a fresh eye and an eager mind. He is also still learning some hard felt lessons: like not relinquishing creative control. His website, StormThorgerson.com, currently opens with the new work for the commemorative re-issues of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” with the iconic prism artwork. Immediately following that, though, is something he describes as, “Not so enjoyable by a long stretch… For some inexplicable reason, inexplicable even to me, I agreed to provide an image and let them alter / retouch / composite as they wished.” The result sees his image of two lovers suspended under water as “ghosts” of their pasts swim behind them being “done up” with crudely added images of a coral reef and a whale.
“It’s my own mistake,” he says, and one can hear the teeth clenching across the Atlantic. “I don’t know why I agreed to that change – I just didn’t believe they could do something like that. ‘It won’t happen again,’ as they say. I absolutely hated it when I saw what they had done; I literally died on the spot, as it were. I was very unhappy, but I had agreed and couldn’t retract that, so what could I do. It’s too depressing to talk about anymore.”
Happily, there is a myriad of other topics to address. Not least being the images for the Pink Floyd re-issue, about which Thorgerson is much more pleased. “That one was interesting,” he says. “I thought it turned out pretty well. I was not unhappy, as they say, with the result. We used an immersion and ink technique and, of course, there are lots of bits and pieces and stories to go on when we were coming up with the concept, so I enjoyed that. I don’t quite understand why the re-issue was done, of course, but I think we created something that the Floyd fans will like.”
Thorgerson’s South African show follows his cover for Cape Town three-piece Machineri. “That cover worked out really well – you can’t always know how it will go. You have an idea, and you set out to do it – and then you keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best. Afterwards, it was suggested by their manager that maybe I should have a show there, and I liked the idea of getting away from the rotten weather here. The exhibition will be a mixture of old favourites which I can still bear to look at; some things from the ’70s and ’80s and some very recent stuff, like Machineri. I’m very happy to show that.”
*) The Storm Thorgerson exhibition “The Raging Storm” runs from Monday 20 February to Saturday 10 March at 6 Spin Street, featuring album art for  Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Muse, Nigel Kennedy, Peter Gabriel, The Cranberries, Black Sabbath, Audioslave, The Mars Volta, Anthrax, Biffy Clyro, Steve Miller and more.  See www.StormThorgerson.com
*) “Taken By Storm”, the 2011 feature length documentary featuring Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, members of Muse, The Cranberries, 10cc, Biffy Clyro and more, runs from Wednesday 22 to Friday 24 February at the venue at 8pm, followed by a Q&A with the artist (booking is essential on 082 455 3447; tickets R80 or R60 for students).
*) Machineri perform live on Saturday 25 February at 10pm (R40).
*) 6 Spin Street Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday from 8.30am; kitchen closes at 10.15pm; reservations on 021 4610666. See http://www.6SpinStreet.co.zaPhoto courtesy of Storm Thorgerson. It is the cover of Biffy Clyro’s album ‘Only Revolutions’.This interview first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 01/29.
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