SQUARING THE CIRCLE: THE STORY OF HIPGNOSIS. Prism, cow, and burning man
…Elegy by The Nice, Electric Warrior by T. Rex, Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin, Go 2 by XTC, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, and the first three albums by Peter Gabriel? They all originated in the British graphic design studio Hipgnosis.
Hipgnosis (Squaring the Circle: The story of Hipgnosis) was founded in 1968 by Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson, two talented graduates of art schools. Their first commission came from their friends in the band Pink Floyd – they designed the cover for the album A Saucerful of Secrets, which led to further orders from EMI record label. As the number of projects grew, Powell and Thorgerson opened a professional studio in London’s West End and hired new staff, including Peter Christopherson, who conducted the first photo session with the Sex Pistols and later became a member of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Coil. The studio’s name was a play on words, combining “hip” (new, cool, trendy) and “gnosis” (knowledge), which sounded the same as “hypnosis.” Hipgnosis ceased operations in 1983, and over fifteen years, they designed nearly 250 album covers for bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Black Sabbath, UFO, 10cc, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, and The Police, among others.
Squaring the Circle: The story of Hipgnosis is narrated by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch photographer and director known for his work on music videos (for Depeche Mode, Nirvana, U2) and acclaimed music biographical film (Control, about Ian Curtis from Joy Division). He tells the story primarily through the words of Aubrey Powell, the only surviving founder of the group (Storm Thorgerson passed away in 2013, and Peter Christopherson three years earlier), and the studio’s regular collaborators, including Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), David Gilmour, Roger Waters, and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), and Paul McCartney. The documentary explores the beginnings of the studio and the methodology of its creators, shares interesting tidbits about the creation of the most famous album covers (e.g., the man on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here was a professional stuntman who genuinely set himself on fire), and features interviews with artists whose work was greatly influenced by Hipgnosis (such as Peter Saville, the designer behind the album covers for Joy Division and New Order).
The narrative of Squaring the Circle: The story of Hipgnosis paints a picture of innovators who turned album covers into a fully-fledged art form. The designs created by Thorgerson, Powell, and Christopherson are often intricate works of composition and style, which typically tell a story related to the lyrical content of the illustrated album. Moreover, all of these designs were created “analog,” meaning without the use of computers or digital editing software. The artists took photographs, developed them by hand, and subjected them to various creative manipulations. Their creative methods were based on pioneering ideas and techniques that continue to influence the field of graphic design. Surrealistic photographs, often relying on multiple exposures and studio tricks, were later refined through artistic retouching and manual cut-and-paste methods. These approaches were ahead of their time, laying the groundwork for works created today using software like Photoshop.
A light beam split by a prism, a cow looking straight into the camera, a burning man shaking hands with another man, an inflatable pig over Battersea Power Station, the illuminated silhouette of a guitarist against an amplifier, a family admiring a black obelisk on a table, children climbing stone steps, a knight in a helmet and cape observing the landscape, a face behind a rain-sprinkled car window – these images have earned a permanent place in the iconography of popular culture. Today, in the age of tiny album covers tailored for streaming services, the significance of graphic design has diminished significantly (Noel Gallagher from Oasis humorously touches upon this topic in the film). However, the impact of Hipgnosis still resonates, from movie posters to advertisements and even editorial photomontages. Squaring The Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis offers a portrait of the golden age of the entertainment industry when, in contrast to today, music and its visual representation were considered art rather than mere commodities.