Books

A Spin Through the History of Photographic Album Covers

Though revisiting the vinyl record is in danger of becoming little more than an act of nostalgia, ‘Total Records’ explores the art of the album cover within the context of our thoroughly modern practice of image sharing.

Joan Baez, “In Concert 2” (photo by Danny Lyon)

Before the square frame on Instagram, there was another square into which photographers worked to fit their images: the record cover. Total Records: Photography and the Album Cover, edited by Antoine de Beaupré and out now from Aperture, argues that record albums, as one of the earliest forms of mass image distribution of performers and celebrities, should be considered collectible interdisciplinary art objects, uniting music, photography, and culture as they circulated throughout stores and homes. Total Records comes at a time when the spread of image-objects, far removed from how we now experience images on computer and phone screens, is being explored by artists and exhibitions. Glenn Ligon’s recent book A People on the Cover looks at the photographs (and texts) on trade book covers as signifiers in identity formation. The Guggenheim’s latest group photography show, Photo-Poetics, featured a number of works that displayed images as objects, including Leslie Hewitt’s stacks of paperback books and Anne Collier’s photographs of hands holding record covers. Following in these footsteps, Total Records presents more than 400 color reproductions of album covers, looking at them as art objects rather than just packaging for the music within.

“Total Records” spread
“Total Records” spread

For many people, especially those living in less urban areas, art museums and galleries have long been inaccessible. But album covers allowed for work by fine-art photographers, fashion photographers, painters, and artists to enter the average person’s home. Fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino explains in his interview in the book that “working-class people didn’t go to museums.” But they did buy records. A black-and-white close-up of Miles Davis’s face, dramatically lit, eyes wide and staring out into the distance, adorns the cover of his 1986 album Tutu. The photograph, by Irving Penn, is not overlaid with any text and could easily be placed on the wall of a gallery. Albums exposed the average music consumer to the artwork of museum-gracing artists such as Roy DeCarava, Danny Lyon, Bernd and Hilda Becher, William Klein, Robert Mapplethorpe, and, most famously, Andy Warhol, whose Velvet Underground, Diana Ross, and Rolling Stones covers remain iconic.

“Total Records”

One thing Total Records does extremely well, besides anthologizing these images within a historic context, is emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the album cover. Listed below each cover is the musician, the album title, the record label, the year it came out, the photographer, the designer, and the country where it was released. These covers are collaborations of image and text, graphic design and sound, high and low culture. The Beatles’ famous cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was photographed by Michael Cooper, but more well-known are its designers, British pop artist Peter Blake and his partner Jann Haworth. In the early ’60s, a series of records titled New Orleans: The Living Legends featured the black-and-white photographs of American artist Ralston Crawford, enhanced by the graphic design of Riverside Records’ Ken Deardoff. The monochrome capital text and rectangular color block compliment rather than distracting from the scenes of daily urban life depicted in the photographs.

“Total Records” spread
Father Father, “We Are All So Very Happy” (photo by Bruce Davidson)

The pictures in the book are some of the most iconic photographs in history, such as Bruce Davidson’s of a young black man with his face painted white save for the word “VOTE” across his forehead on the cover of Father Father’s 1991 album We Are All So Very Happy, and Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photograph of a family wandering along the side of a road carrying their belongings on I Pilot Daemon’s 2010 Come What May. Discovering in this anthology that these images were disseminated in homes via record covers is surprising. But seeing the images on album covers, with textual overlay and creasing, seems fitting. Digital images are stripped of context. When placed on covers, photographs, which had to fight for their place in the canon of art history alongside established art forms like painting and drawing, regain their context as image-objects that have a physical history.

Miles Davis (photo by Irving Penn)
Taj Mahal, “Taj” (photo by Robert Mapplethorpe)

The familiarity of these images reinforces the fact that photography is the medium of the 21st century, now that everyone carries cameras in their pockets and shares several images per day, consuming even more. Yet in the pages of this book, the images are silent. Their context as objects is returned, but the sound meant to accompany them is missing. Though still being produced, the record is an obsolete medium, and in many cases the music referred to by these covers is inaudible without it. Though today revisiting the art of the vinyl record is in danger of becoming little more than an act of nostalgia, Total Records explores the art of the album cover within the context of our thoroughly modern practice of image sharing.

Total Records is now available from Aperture.

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