October 29, 2021
Steve Fairclough learns the story of the legendary cover image of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album for Wish You Were Here
Information pack: Pink Floyd’s wish that you were there
The musicians: Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Dick Parry (saxophones, Shine On You Crazy Diamond), Roy Harper (vocals, Have a Cigar), Venetta Fields and Carlena Williams (backing vocals).
Posted: September 12, 1975, United Kingdom (Harvest Records), September 13, 1975, United States (Columbia Records)
Graphics: # 1 in US, UK, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain
Sales: Over 20,000,000
Fascinating fact: At 4 a.m. on the night of the cover shoot, Powell left a party with his assistant Peter Christopherson and noticed mist in the front of the Cadillac. Powell reveals, “Peter said, ‘your car is on fire.’ I stopped the car and we jumped. The car exploded and burned to the ground. We had just had this dangerous fire and we were coming back from a party and the car caught on fire.
Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell began his career in the mid-1960s as a set designer. He shared an apartment with Storm Thorgerson and the two Hipgnosis co-founders in 1967. Hipgnosis thrived and produced numerous LP covers. He progressed in making music videos, TV commercials, documentaries and corporate films, but in 2014 he returned to designing albums for Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell 20th anniversary box set.
Wish You Were Here, the ninth studio album by legendary rock band Pink Floyd, saw chief songwriter Roger Waters explore themes of the band’s absence, alienation and melancholy following the departure of former guitarist Syd Barrett, due to his mental health issues, in 1968. It was also, in places, a scathing criticism of a cynical music company.
As with the iconic light prism design from Pink Floyd’s 1973 Dark Side of the Moon album, the design was handled by the Hipgnosis agency, which was co-founded by the late Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’. Powell. Powell explains, âI photographed all of the photos in the album.
They were shot in 1975 during a Pink Floyd tour of America. We flew to California and Storm had already presented the ideas, which were sketches I had made, to the group at Abbey Road Studios. He was very nervous showing them, but when he finished he received a round of applause from the group. ‘
Powell reveals: âWe had heard songs at Abbey Road Studios and we knew what the concept of Roger Waters was. We knew his idea was really absence and Shine On You Crazy Diamond really came from losing Syd Barrett. Barrett’s specter still haunted Pink Floyd – the fact that he went mad overnight and the band was left to fend for itself had only happened five or six years ago.
On the Dark Side of the Moon Roger had written about madness, loneliness, life on the road and all those pretty in-depth topics that transcended Wish You Were Here – it’s a very deep album. ‘
In a 2012 TV documentary The Making of Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd lead guitarist David Gilmour recalls: âWe mostly left it to Storm at that time to find things. [design ideas]â¦ We gave him two disjointed minutes of our mixing time to say âthat one maybe, that one, not that, not thatâ. He came up with these [ideas]â¦ Words, this theme of absence. ‘
The central idea of ââthe album cover art was to illustrate the cynical nature of the music business at the time. Powell explains, âThe album about the absence and insincerity has given way to Storm’s idea of ââtwo businessmen shaking hands – one of them is insincere and l another is burning in the affair.
I had said to Storm, âHow are we going to do this? because it was not the era of digital retouching. He said, “I guess you’re going to have to burn a man for real.” ‘
Working with fire
When he arrived in Los Angeles, Powell interviewed stuntmen and recruited expert fire stuntmen Ronnie Rondell and Danny Rogers Jr. Powell recalls, âRondell was the main ‘firefighter’ and he had so much charisma and strength to character. He told me when he saw the [cover concept] drawing: âI never stay still to make a shot. You have to move to keep the fire behind youâ¦ run, jump or whatever.
I said, “Well, it must be two men shaking hands, one on fire.” He said, âI cannot guarantee that. I will try it while running and so on. I didn’t want to lose it, so I accepted and thought I would just have to do it in the daytime.
Rondell brought in his team of fire stunt experts and filming was scheduled for the following Saturday at the Warner Bros. studio. in Burbank, California. Powell admits, âIt was a dangerous shoot to do. We started taking pictures of him running towards the burning camera and it just wasn’t what we wanted.
It was an incredibly quiet afternoon so after lunch I said, âI really need you to shake my hand. There is no wind, it is calm. Ronnie said, âOkay. We will try it. They covered him with the flammable material and set him on fire. I ran three cameras, one after the other. Jeff [Smith] pulled one, Powell’s assistant Peter [Christopherson] pulled one and I was spinning on a Hasselblad – we just pulled and pulled and pulled. ‘
Powell was using Kodak color transparency film and explains, âIt was probably at a fairly high shutter speed because some of the shots were in the sun and others were slightly in shade. It was very bright with a clear blue sky so I would have shot at least 1/250 second to get the flames sharp. I also wanted the depth of field so that the buildings were in focus behind.
A half stop could make a big difference, so we used to put in brackets. I shoot this in 20 seconds, so I do a half stop below, half stop below, stop below, stop below and come back to the center. âEach time, the fire lasted for about 20 seconds because it exploded so quickly. Before the second time around, Rondell said, âI wasn’t that happy with that. I think we can do better.
So we started over and it was really good. The third time, a small gust of wind blew and blew around his face. He threw himself to the ground and his team was on top of him with blankets, fire extinguishers and got him [put] outside.
He had burned his eyebrows and burned his mustache – he had been lucky he hadn’t burned his face. He stood up and said, âThat’s it. No more. âBut I knew I had it – it was fantastic. I was very happy and he left happy.
Wrap in shrink film
The latest absence-themed design twist came with the decision to wrap the album in black shrink wrap, obscuring the cover. The decision was extremely unpopular with American record label Columbia Records, but it was overturned. EMI (of which Harvest Records was a subsidiary) in the UK was less concerned.
Powell explains: ‘Storm has always been very smart at coming up with interesting ideas and he persuaded the group that why should they give away the content of the album?’
He adds: âIn the big record stores where you had 10,000 albums you had to stand out and of course a black shrink sleeve with a colorful central logo stood out.
There was no name of the band on it other than on the label. George Hardie, who did all the graphics, designed this kind of robotic, cold, AI handshake image (for the circular label). All of these factors were reasons to shrink packaging. Lots of people tore the packaging and subsequently regretted not keeping the packaging. I have one at home, which is intact.
The classic album photography also picked up the theme of the four elements – fire, earth, air and water – for four images. The blanket was fire, a splashless diver was water, an invisible nude model with a red scarf was air, and a vendor standing in the desert was dirt.
âI’m very proud of the cover image but my favorite photo is the diver. I still get goosebumps thinking about this shot because it was just a magical moment. I knew I had an amazing shot. .
The panel on Wish You Were Here
An unforgettable moment in my career was photographing David Gilmour in rehearsal doing a lean version of Wish You Were Here. The disturbing surreal image perfectly illustrates the eponymous song about founding member Syd Barrett (who suffered a drug-
This cover remains as famous as the music. The serenity of the pose belies the burning tension between the artist and the direction. It reflects outward appearances and private pain and, possibly, the combustible relationship of Gilmour and Waters. It’s amazing he didn’t explode in your hand!
Dr Andy Earl
Wish You Were Here is a perfect example of how music evokes personal ideas, questions, feelings, and interpretations. Hipgnosis’s vision captured that moment in this photograph where surrealism and madness blend together and produce a shocking yet humorous image.
Our panel of judges
Some of the biggest names in music and photography have chosen the covers of the series
Dr Andy Earl
Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell
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