For those who’ve ever lit a doobie and stared at Pink Floyd’s cover art with glazed eyes, wondering what it all means, man, rejoice: Anton Corbijn’s documentary Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis will engulf classic rock fans and design junkies alike in a haze of cheerful nostalgia. Well, unless the album in question is 1970’s Atom Heart Mother, which bears the inscrutable photograph of a cow. If you’re wondering, “What has a cow got to do with Pink Floyd?” you’re not alone. But at this point, the only creature who can answer that question is the long-dead heifer herself.
Hipgnosis, the pioneering design firm led by photographers Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, came up in London’s Swinging ‘60s and soon became the go-to cover artists for the likes of Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Peter Gabriel, and many more. Their name was adopted from a piece of graffiti in their studio, a play on the word “hypnosis” that fused the modernity of “hip” with the ancient wisdom of the “gnostic.” This origin story neatly sums up their decades-long sensibility: punny and playful, stubbornly irreverent, and committed to the bit. Thorgerson, who died in 2013, was widely recognized as someone who “couldn’t take yes for an answer”; Corbijn includes an entire montage of interview subjects reminiscing about what an asshole he was. But in Powell, he found a best friend and creative partner, someone who could execute his crazy ideas and manage the fragile rockstar relationships that kept their studio afloat. Their eventual estrangement in the early ‘80s, when the bright, artificial bleep-bloops of the MTV generation came to dominate airwaves, was as much a death knell for Hipgnosis as it was for the heavy, guitar-driven sound they celebrated and the surreal aesthetic they helped create.
“Vinyl is the poor man’s art collection,” quips Noel Gallagher, who is definitely maybe unsure if he’s quoting himself and, in Thorgerson’s absence, serves as the documentary’s resident grouch. Yet the rockstar excesses of the era — and a certain internationally recognized prism graphic — quickly elevated Hipgnosis from ratty art school kids to high-flying members of the entourage. Corbijn, himself a photographer and music video director for megabands like Depeche Mode and U2, clearly recognizes how much he and every other black coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking, 35mm-shooting art director is indebted to the Hipgnosis legacy. The result is an affectionate doc that’s roughly formatted as a Greatest Hits of their most iconic album covers. Human stuntman on fire? Easy. Escaped inflatable pig that closed air traffic? Obviously. Reclining sheep on a therapist’s couch in the Hawaiian surf? Child’s play. But the biggest I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Photoshop moment came when Paul McCartney wanted an antique statue perched on a mountain, so Hipgnosis chartered a helicopter to the Swiss peaks to get the money shot. Of course, a pile of salt in the studio would have sufficed — but where’s the fun in that?
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.