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  Storm Thorgerson: Eye of the Storm
Chris Page


When I was a youth in the 70s my mates and I used to gather in far-flung corners of the school grounds away from the eyes of teachers or prefects, light illicit cigarettes and breathlessly compare glossy pictures. These pictures were not the nude pictures beloved of youth, they were record covers.

We loved the wild the weird and the provocative sleeve art: we were quite fussy, quite discerning with our record covers. The most prized works came out of the design house Hipgnosis. Any new album from a Hipgnosis client was a double event: a new release was not merely a new Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel album, it was a new Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel album with a Hipgnosis sleeve.

Our bedrooms became galleries of the output of this company, and we debated endlessly what the oblique, witty , and surreal images might really mean, as if each one was a codified nugget of insight or subversion. One of our clique was bitten so badly he went on to do a work experience in the Hipgnosis studio before becoming a professional graphic designer.

It is unique that one design company collected its own fan base, but whether you have even heard of Hipgnosis you know the work of Storm Thorgerson the co-founder of the company. He provided much of the backdrop to the 70s, and created record sleeves that remain iconic today: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here; Led Zeppelin’s Presence and Houses of the Holy, Styx’s Pieces of Eight. He also worked with Genesis, Alan Parsons, Peter Gabriel, Ian Dury, and more recently he has worked with The Cranberries, Anthrax, and Phish.

In mid career Storm diversified and moved into making rock videos and documentaries, and anthologies of his work in book form. Recently he has turned his eyes to digital media and set off in the world of web site design, again adopting a new medium as if it were made for him.

Most recently he has added exhibiting to his list of activities. The only surprise here was that it took so long for his work to get off the shelves of record shops and on to the walls of a gallery. The back catalogue of his work in its depth and diversity collected in large format in one location provides the visitor with a chance to browse not only rock history and a personal history, but the collected product of a powerful imagination.

The exhibition Eye of the Storm started out last year in Tokyo, spent time in Nagoya and has recently opened at Kirin Plaza in Namba.It was the opening of the Osaka leg of the travelling show that brought the man here and gave Kansai Scene a chance to meet him

.Storm has a somewhat stormy reputation. By his own admission he can be difficult to work with, and he claims to be the possessor of an overbearing ego. While I was waiting to meet him, his translator sidled over to me and warned gravely that he doesn’t like "stupid questions". Fill in for yourself all the journalistic cliches about about being scared of the interviewee. Yet when I met him he was more than affable, took me aside for an overview of the exhibition, and began interviewing me. At the end of our time limit, he ushered me back into the exhibition on a pretext so that we could squeeze a little more interview time. Whatever the ogre-ish reputation, Storm is a terribly nice guy.

As we chatted, it became abundantly clear to me where the intimidating reputation comes from: Storm takes his work very, very seriously, and is quite possibly a driven man. My facetious suggestion that the famous cover of Atom Heart Mother was of a cow’s bottom earned me an alarming and withering stare, and an oblique but unambiguous reprimand. "That’s my work you are talking about and I take it very seriously," he told me. The cover photo was of a cow, indeed, but it was a very well-thought-out cow and a whole cow, not just its bottom. I apologised.

It is this intimidating drive that pushes Storm to go to the most extraordinary lengths to get exactly the shots he needs, eschewing photo-trickery or digital manipulation so that what you see in the image is something Storm created in the real world.

On the cover of Momentary Lapse of Reason, we see approximately seven hundred apparently identical wrought iron beds on a beach. The image was achieved by collecting approximately seven hundred actual wrought iron beds and transporting them in a convoy of lorries across England and dragging them physically on to a beach.

As soon as the beds were properly arranged it clouded over and started to rain, and Storm and his crew had to drag the beds back to the trucks and into the Storm legend.

Most famously, when creating the cover for Animals, which shows a pig floating above the towers of Battersea power station, the Hipgnosis team could have simply imposed an image of a pig onto the photo. In actuality, he constructed a huge pig-shaped balloon and sent it into the London skies. The gas-filled pig slipped its leash and escaped, to be blown by the wind into the flight paths around Heathrow airport. where its presence was reported by at least one incredulous aircrew.

The preparation for the image making is meticulous. The exhibition includes the preliminary sketches for many of the works. They provide a fascinating insight to the process of working out a concept: you can see from sketch to sketch the image growing into its final shape.

As the process of creating the image is complex, the process of looking at the finished works is never simple. His aim is to "engage [the audience] in the same way as music engages us. It’s an attempt to maybe get into a dialogue with them." There is always an intellectual or visual conundrum at the heart of the composition. The viewer gets involved: when you look at Atom Heart Mother, you can see the mother, but where’s the atom, and where’s the heart? Is the Division Bell two faces avoiding each other, or one face returning your stare? On the cover of Presence why are all those people staring at that odd black sculpture? Go to the exhibition and find out.

As it ever is with unusual or challenging work, getting the projects accepted has been an uphill task at times. Storm’s fracas with record companies are famous but he generally wins and even turns the experience into something positive. When the record company objected that Led Zeppelin were so famous they didn’t need a cover, that they could be marketed in a brown paper bag, Hipgnosis designed a series of elaborately constructed covers for In Through the Out Door and then hid them in brown paper bags.When envisaging the design Storm will talk to the artist, not with the manager or the A&R people. He wants the image to come from the heart of the music, not from the heart of a marketing plan. And he is very frank about his opinion of the corporate side of the industry. "I hate record companies and I hate managers" he tells me before stopping his own mouth with mock shock at his words. "All of the designs come directly from the music. If they don’t come directly from the experience of listening to the music, they come from the musician. I try to let the music inhabit me. I listen to the music until it drives me up the wall."

Storm seeks in his images a distillation of the music. Distillation is a word we keep coming back to, and was a word that first came up in conversation with Pink Floyd in the making of the cover for Wish You Were Here. And this cover is in itself a distillation of the way in which Storm works, of his commitment and no-compromise approach: they did literally set fire to the burning man in the photo. I never did get round to asking whether they put him out.

So, Storm is driven. What drives him?

"When a piece of art works it’s great because it’s terribly satisfying. It’s nothing to do with money. It’s better than, or as good as, sex.

"Storm Thorgerson’s Eye of the Storm exhibition was at Kirin Plaza in Namba in April 2002

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