The photographers who revolutionised album art

Man Ray nearly did a Rolling Stones cover, Big Star went for William Eggleston’s most famous ceiling shot, and George Michael lifted a Weegee photograph. A curious new exhibition for nerds and fans alike shows the hits and misses of album artwork – and the covers too rude to use

Sean O'Hagan

The greatest record cover that never was? ... Man Ray’s original Rolling Stones cover for Exile on Main Street. All photographs courtesy Les Rencontres d’Arles
In 1972 Charlie Watts, drummer of the Rolling Stones, met with Man Ray and asked if he would design the cover for the group’s new album, Exile on Main Street. The 82-year-old artist agreed and produced a design in which the faces of the five Rolling Stones appeared inside black circles on a white background. The inspiration, he said, was the song Tumbling Dice, the first single from the album.
Man Ray’s design is one of the great record covers that never happened. The album appeared instead with a sleeve by the great American photographer Robert Frank, whose black-and-white collage of Super 8 images (shot in a tattoo parlour somewhere on Route 66 while he made his groundbreaking book The Americans) is now considered one of the classic rock album sleeves.
 Radio City by Big Star, which uses William Eggleston’s classic red ceiling shot
Man Ray’s proposed cover for the Stones is one of the highlights of a sprawling, but always intriguing, exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles called Total Records: The Great Adventure of Album Cover Photography.
It traces pop’s relationship with photography using album sleeves that span the history of vinyl recordings, and includes work by pioneering photographers who were either commissioned by labels to shape the identity of an artist or else allowed existing images to be used, often at the musician’s request. That was how Anders Petersen’s picture of an embracing couple from his gritty series Cafe Lehmitz ended up on the cover of Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, an almost perfect reflection of the melancholic music therein. (Intriguingly, the man in the photograph bears a resemblance to the young Tom Waits, both physically and in terms of the beatnik-barfly image Waits once projected.)
Another photograph that effortlessly evokes the music is Cat Power’s use of an Emmet Gowin portrait for Headlights – the boy’s rapt expression at one with Power’s dreamy, dislocated songs. Likewise, the Memphis cult band Big Star’s use of their fellow southerner William Eggleston’s famous red ceiling (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973) for their 1974 album Radio City. Oddly, Eggleston does not receive a section to himself here, with only Big Star and two Primal Scream covers on show – the Dixie Narco EP and the Give Out But Don’t Give Up cover. There’s no sign of Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert, or Here Come the Snakes by Green on Red, or two other Primal Scream sleeves – Country Girl and Dolls – all of which used the great man’s images.
 Among the biggest surprises here is the discovery that Richard Avedon shot the dramatic cover for Fresh by Sly and the Family Stone and the stark portrait of Simon and Garfunkel for Bookends. In each instance, Avedon’s black-and-white images utterly compliment the music, the one energetic and exuberant, the other intimate and sad.
The great Lee Friedlander receives his dues for his pioneering work for Atlantic Records in the 1960s, including unforgettable portraits of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. At the risk of sounding like a vinyl nerd – which I am – it would have been good to see his cover portrait of Loudon Wainwright III for the singer’s debut album, not least because it is one of the photographer’s few non-jazz album covers and because, again, it so perfectly captures the rawness of Wainwright’s world-weary songs.
Alongside Freidlander, Francis Wolff gets worthy attention for his timeless portrait photography for Blue Note Records, which all but established its identity as a label made by, and for, the knowledgeable.
More problematic is the use of great photographs in contexts that seem barely appropriate to either the music or the artist’s image – why a Weegee image adorns a George Michael album is anyone’s guess. Likewise the characteristically enigmatic Josef Sudek diptych that somehow ended up on a Beautiful South album. Here, musicians may be parading their good taste in visuals, but the images suffer by being reduced to something akin to tasteful adornments.
That Beautiful South album also features in a short series on censored covers – the woman with a gun in her mouth was replaced in some countries by teddy bears. Stranger still is the cover for a Mamas and Papas album in which they lounge, fully clothed, in a bath tub. In the censored version, an offending toilet bowl has been removed. One wonders how the Butthole Surfers ever got a record released.
One of the more intriguing mini-narratives is a wall devoted to photographs by Linda McCartney of the shoot for the Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road. Iain Macmillan’s cover shot – which was achieved in a 10-minute shoot from atop a ladder while policemen stopped traffic – has since become one of the most debated record sleeves of all time. A conspiracy theory had it that Paul McCartney was dead because he appeared barefoot. Here, he is pictured in one shot wearing sandals and, in another, chatting to an old lady on the pavement by the famous zebra crossing.
photograph used by George Michael for his album Listen Without Prejudice
Next to the series is a raft of other covers that pastiche or pay homage to the iconic Abbey Road shot, including Armitage Road by the Heshoo Beshoo Group and Soulful Road by New York City. No Booker T and the MGs though!
As with any show as ambitious as this, there are inevitable omissions – incredibly, no Dylan, whose shape-shifting musical journey through the 60s can be traced in his album covers, from trad folkie to hipster poet and beyond.
And where are the Smiths’ covers selected by none other than Morrissey himself for their mix of quintessential northern Englishness and iconic pop cultural resonance. What an omission – even for an exhibition that is, at times, unapologetically and understandably Francophile (lots of Johnny Hallyday but, oddly, no Fran├žoise Hardy.)
But there is more than enough here to keep the curious and the nerdish enthralled – and show that sometimes images really do speak as loudly as songs. 

Exhibit of iconic vinyl album covers on display at Manship Theatre


There was a time when the cover of an album was almost as important as the music inside.
An African-American woman’s profile, perspiration dripping from her perfect skin, covered Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” Wild psychedelic caricatures fronted The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” and the Rolling Stones, the quintessential bad boys of rock ’n’ roll, focused on, well, certain anatomy in a pair of blue jeans on their “Sticky Fingers” album.
The art was meant to catch the eye of the buyer and tease to the artist’s music.
The best of the best made an indelible first impression.
Even today, that bold gold real working zipper on the Stones’ 1971 album immediately conjures up the iconic cover, which is now part of a new exhibit, “The Art of Vinyl,” at the Gallery at the Manship Theatre.
The show, which runs through Aug. 2, celebrates album art as an expression and connection to the music and cultural trends of its era.
Some of the covers in the display have become classics, while others hold a special meaning to the exhibitors who chose them: Kerry Beary’s Atomic Pop Shop, Lagniappe Records, Capital City Records and collectors Alex Cook, Eric Babin, Lee Barbier and Paul Dean.
No doubt, there are some who don’t remember when albums were recorded on vinyl discs as big as Frisbees, their 12-inch-square cardboard covers inked by artists and illustrators, such as Andy Warhol and Heinz Edelman.
So the show is as much history as it is a celebration.
“And we always try to incorporate some element of performance in our exhibits,” says Liz Goad, the Manship’s director of development and gallery director. “We’ve been talking about the idea of a vinyl album show for awhile. We loved the idea of an exhibition celebrating this art in pop culture.”
To bring in the current, the now, the gallery looked to local artists Paul Dean, Scott Finch and TJ Black, who either designed or chose pieces to complement the album art.
And though some of these pieces are large, none overwhelm the album covers, which are clustered into seven groups.
“We left it up to each individual as to what to include in their collections,” Goad says. “We wanted to see which albums were important to these people now.”
The Manship Theatre began advertising the show in vintage records stores in April, hoping to attract the attention of collectors.
The result is an eclectic mix of easily recognized covers and some that aren’t quite so familiar.
There’s a group of Wonder Woman-like characters on the cover of The Kings’ 1981 “Amazon Beach” not far from Benny Goodman’s 1955 “This is Benny Goodman and His Orchestra.”
Jim Flora created the art for the Goodman album. His figures, angular and childlike yet somehow ghoulish and daring, were distinctive among jazz albums.
Exhibitor Beary writes in her show explainer that she and her husband have been collecting Flora’s LP covers for years.
“So we were psyched to be able to share them with a broader audience,” she writes.
But, she says, she at first struggled to find a direction for her display.
“Because the possibilities are endless,” she writes in her collection’s description. “I thought about focusing on a single theme or genre, but that was still too broad. So I decided to go with what I know best — art history and contemporary artists. It helped me narrow it down to selections that were actually painted or designed by visual artists, like Dali, Warhol, Ryden, Flora, etc.”
Barbier says he chose pieces that “stood alone as illustrations or photographs and as art works or graphic art.”
“I guess nostalgia played a part in it, too,” he writes, “as they’re mostly things I first saw when I was a kid in record stores, where I would spend hours just looking through covers on family shopping trips to the mall.”
Barbier drew from the artwork that made the strongest visual impressions paired with his fondness for the music on the albums. Then he searched his collection to see what he had.
“People used to see most records before they heard them,” he writes in his show statement. “That’s changed, the experience is different … Are people still tempted to listen to records they’ve never heard because of the CD artwork or the tiny graphic next to a download button? Most of my favorite older acts and records were things that visually intrigued me, and I listened to them as a result.”
Goad says it was fascinating to see what the collectors decided to show.

“Some focus on color and form, some focus on subject matter and others on the artists,” she says. “And it’s exciting to see Baton Rouge taking part in this vinyl renaissance. It’s about more than just an album. It’s an experience. It’s an iconic token of a multimedia experience.”