Vinyl: The Rolling Stones, Exile On Main Street, Rolling Stones Records – COC 6910, England, 1972. Photograph: Robert Frank; Design: John Van Hamersveld/Norman Sieff
“At the very beginning, I hung books on the walls like works of art,” explains Antoine de Beaupré by email. “I realized that sometimes people looked at me in a weird way. I then started swapping books with records and suddenly a lot of ideas came up. De Beaupré is a bookseller, publisher and curator. Librairie 213, his Paris bookstore, specializes in rare and out-of-print photography books. But his first passion has always been music. “I started buying my first records as a teenager in the mid-80s. LPs were cheap because CDs were taking over. I became a collector without realizing it!
This month, For the record: the photography and the art of the album cover opens at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. The exhibition uses de Beaupré’s extensive record collection as an opportunity to explore the interrelationship of photography and music as manifested in the medium of the album cover. The show is made up of many iconic LPs and a few lesser known LPs displayed in plexiglass frames. The covers are grouped by themes, which closely follow the structure of the Total number of recordsa catalog of the original exhibition (co-organized by de Beaupré, Serge Vincendet and Sam Stourdzé) held at the Rencontres d’Arles, France, in 2015.
There’s an obvious attempt to straighten out the narrative, where the musicians take center stage, giving equal credit to the photographers and graphic designers tasked with visualizing the music. Besides Andy Warhol’s famous banana, which made the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the concept photoshoots of Hipgnosis that communicated the epic nature of bands like Pink Floyd, there are more obscure covers on display. A collection of “race records”, which were created for African-American consumption, are notable not only for the music they documented, but also for their depiction of a segregated state in the United States. Records released by the Yazoo and Riverside labels depicted the daily lives of communities stigmatized by institutional racism, photographed by Dorothea Lange and Jack Delano, while Bluesville featured blues legends from the Mississippi Delta prominently on its covers.
A small section of the exhibition is devoted to visual artists who have used the record as an extension of their practice. These limited edition prints include documentation of a performance by Joseph Beuys, a lecture on happenings by Allan Kaprow as well as Misch-U. Trennkunst, an experimental version of spoken word by Dieter Roth and Arnulf Rainer. ‘Transartistic’, the chapter devoted to the same theme in Total number of recordsincludes many other works, such as that of Harry Bertoia Soundambient series. It’s understandable that the curators have chosen not to dedicate more gallery space to these works – mainstream concerns are much more likely to draw crowds – but it’s a shame nonetheless.
Vinyl: Diana Ross, Silk Electric, RCA – AFL1-4384, New York, USA, 1982. Photography and design: Andy Warhol
Jazz turns out to be responsible for influencing both the way photographers approach their subjects and the aesthetics of album cover design. Lee Friedlander, who is best known for his urban social landscapes, launched his career working for Atlantic Records. Enigmatic portrait of Friedlander by Miles Davis for In a silent way, published by Columbia in 1969, is shown here alongside photos by Ray Charles and Ornette Coleman. It is said in the curators’ notes that jazz taught young Friedlander a sense of improvisation. Although not evident on these particular LPs, the feeling of freedom jazz evokes can be seen on the ESP-Disk releases. You can practically hear the skronk of the saxophone looking at the double exposure portrait of Sandra H. Stollman by Albert Ayler (The spirits rejoice1965), while the same photographer poses Sonny Simmons, on a rock in Central Park in New York, like a monument to self-expression (Stay tuned1966).
Blue Note’s visual identity is well documented and it’s always a pleasure to see these covers up close. The original exhibition catalog shows the photographs as they appear on the albums alongside the uncropped originals. Given Blue Note’s attention to detail, it’s a shame that the original prints aren’t displayed here, only the discs. In order to delve deeper into the story behind the images, you must purchase the book.
Fortunately, a series of Linda McCartney impressions allow audiences to compare the moment as it was captured to the final product. The Beatles portrait by Iain Macmillan for Abbey Road is woven into our cultural fabric to such a degree that imitation blankets have become a cliché. This is best exemplified by the almost naked Red Hot Chili Peppers crossing the same street with socks on their dicks (The Abbey Road EP, 1988; not displayed). However, behind-the-scenes shots of McCartney show the Beatles as human beings tired of their iconic status, but ready to perform one last time. A shot of a passerby talking to Ringo Starr, while the rest of the group waits to cross, is touching.
Vinyl: Grace Jones, Island Life, Island Records – 207 472, France, 1985. Photography: Jean-Paul Goude; Design: Greg Porto
Another highlight is a wall dedicated to political archives. Some versions use sound as propaganda, like May-68a 7″ that features field recordings made on the barricades during the May 1968 uprisings in Paris. Others, like Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous debut album, co-opt the image of revolt (in this case, Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize-winning self-immolation photograph of Thích Quảng Đức) to align with an anti-establishment ideology.
The adjoining wall features censored albums. This is a potentially excellent case study that could have been done better. Out of a handful of examples, only two censored albums sit alongside their uncensored siblings: Banquet of beggars the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix electric ladyland. A graffitied toilet, photographed by Barry Feinstein, was initially rejected by the Stones’ label in favor of poor typographic coverage, while Jimi Hendrix himself disapproved of David Montgomery’s photograph of nineteen naked women lounging on a black background. The image was still used for the UK release of electric ladylandbut the album was sold in brown paper bags by retailers.
Despite some flaws, For registration challenges the idiom that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. This notion is problematic, because it assumes that the design is subordinate to the content inside. Even if a well-designed book cover doesn’t reflect prose, at least you still have a great cover to look at – Germano Facetti’s design direction for Penguin is one example. The same goes for recordings. Before streaming, the cover would be your first connection to music, and for many photographers, shooting covers was an additional platform for their craft, filled with its own set of nuances.
The way many of us consume music may have changed, but the album cover remains a vital link between artist and listener. Antoine de Beaupré agrees: “From my point of view, the big blankets shine [with] their visual language or the aesthetics introduced by record companies. We all have a relationship with vinyl. What I did was contextualize a popular object, see it in a different way. When you come out of the show, you can stop by a record store and buy a record, just for the cover, and put it on your wall.
For The Record: Photography & The Art Of The Album Cover will be on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, London from April 8 to June 12, 2022.