Featuring work by Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, William Klein, Richard Avedon, W Eugene Smith, Ryan McGinley, Lee Friedlander and many more, this popular exhibition of album cover photography is now on show in Barcelona
Frenchman Antoine de Beaupré has been collecting vinyl for almost 30 years and has amassed an archive of 15,000 LPs; his friend Serge Vincendet is also a vinyl junkie, and runs the Monster Melodies record shop in Paris. But they also appreciate the finer points of photography so together, with help from Rencontres d’Arles festival director Sam Stourdzé, they’ve put together a highly successful exhibition celebrating album cover images.
Called Total Records the exhibition features more than 600 LPs, mostly from de Beaupré’s personal collection but also including covers supplied by Vincendet. It was a popular exhibition at Rencontres d’Arles in 2015, and it has since gone on an equally successful world tour; its latest stop is at the Fundación Foto Colectania in Barcelona, where it’s now on show until 11 March 2018.
The earliest cover in this exhibition is Richard Rodgers’ Rodgers – Hart Musical Comedy Hits by Columbia Records, which dates back to 1940 and features a photograph by an unknown photographer, but visitors can also enjoy covers right up to the present day, across all genres of music, and including some extremely well-known photographic names. In fact a whole section is dedicated to “famous photographers who made album covers”, says de Beaupré, including William Klein, Richard Avedon, W Eugene Smith and Ryan McGinley.
“I’ve wanted to combine my passions [for music and collecting records] with an exhibition for a long time,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve curated a show. My friend Serge and I put together a selection of record covers by famous photographers and, managing to bring together quite a few, decided to make a project of it. I’ve known Sam Stourdzé for many years, and he gave us the opportunity to put on a show.”
They started planning the Arles exhibition back in 2014, says de Beaupré, and they hope the end result presents an alternative history of photography. “Many photographers started their careers by creating record covers, so we focused on this first – on covers featuring images taken especially [for that disc],” he says.
From there, they tried to showcase the range of photography in the most logical and engaging way, deciding against a strict chronological or thematic approach and instead grouping the covers instinctively, loosely guided by aesthetics. A cluster featuring images by 1970s colour photographers such as Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston is placed next to a cover by American contemporary image-maker Todd Hido, for example, who is “more in the same way of taking pictures… to create a nice flow”.
The curators knew from the start that they wanted to show the physical covers rather than prints of the images, says de Beaupré, to remind visitors of the context in which the images were first used, or subsequently reimagined. It’s an important distinction and is reflected in the way the work is displayed. “We have one section dedicated to photographers who made images for album covers, and another where images were put onto the covers,” he says.
For example, you may know the McGinley image of naked youths hedonistically leaping over a motorway partition; what you may not remember is that the image was used on the cover of Sigur Rós’s 2008 album með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.
Another section features original LP covers created by artists who aren’t photographers, but who used photography in their practice – such as Robert Rauschenberg, who created a limited- edition album cover for Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. “There are a lot of incredible covers, and we found nice surprises,” says de Beaupré.
“Some of the photographers were close to the musicians, so the whole LP is an art piece, from the music through to the cover. But in some cases there is no relationship; it’s a case of the musician loving a particular photographer’s work. There are no rules about it – it’s really case by case.”
The show includes a wide range of photographers, but there are many famous names, some of whom got their first breaks in music. “The biggest example is perhaps Richard Avedon, and there is also Lee Friedlander, who started working in the music industry before he became the photographer he is today,” says de Beaupré.
He believes both Avedon and Friedlander got into this kind of work because they loved music, pointing out that Avedon shot more than 120 covers over several decades. “You can’t do that if you don’t love music,” he observes.
Friedlander began shooting cover images for Atlantic Records in the mid-1950s, and among the Friedlander covers on show is Hank Crawford’s 1961 album More Soul. “For him, we could say it was a way of making money but also of [feeding] his passion for music,” says de Beaupré.
Other famous names include Guy Bourdin, who shot the album cover image for Boz Scaggs’ 1977 Hard Times, and a portrait of Serge Gainsbourg by William Klein that was used on the cover of Gainsbourg’s 1984 album Love on the Beat. More recently, Juergen Teller shot the cover for Everything But The Girl’s 1997 album Before Today, while Martin Parr photographed Brendon Moeller’s One Man’s Junk (2007).
As this list of names suggests, many genres of photography have been used on LP covers, from photojournalism to documentary photography, photomontage, fashion and even surrealist photography. One example is the classic black-and-white portrait – a jazz record cover favourite – and the show includes Thelonious Monk’s eponymous 1965 album cover, shot by W Eugene Smith.
Then there are the group band shots, such as the iconic cover for The Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road, and the distinctive album covers that Jean-Paul Goude created for Grace Jones. The exhibition includes the covers of Jones’ classic Island Life and Nightclubbing LPs. “The full range of photography is represented,” says de Beaupré.
“You can really get a sense of the history of photography in the second half of the 20th century. It’s really interesting because we catch photographers such as Robert Frank, who did several record covers, including Exile on Main Street (1972) by The Rolling Stones, where you really recognise that it’s by Robert Frank.”
By including the album covers, rather than just the images, Total Records also showcases the graphic design they employed. Photographs could be heavily cropped to fit the 30×30cm format – as happened with the cover of John Coltrane’s Blue Train (1957), for example, which was taken from an image by Francis Wolff, who photographed for Blue Note Records during recording sessions in the 1950s and ’60s. The final image is a blue-tinged, head-and-shoulders portrait, while the original was shot in black-and-white and shows more of Coltrane’s body.
Wolff ’s work is shown in a section devoted to the Blue Note photographers, curated by Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records, who owns the archive, and Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi from Kyotographie festival in Japan, which showed the work before Arles in 2015. This section includes the original images and the final LP covers, allowing visitors to see “how the designers transformed the photographs for use on the record covers”.
Another section features copied record covers, adds de Beaupré, such as The Clash’s London Calling, which pays homage to Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut studio album cover via the typography. The whole show is a tribute to the lively art of the album cover – and, by association, the still-loved vinyl format.
“Even in this age of digital downloads and the dematerialisation of photography and music, people still buy LPs for the object,” says de Beaupré. ‘The LP is a visual art, a collaboration between artists in their respective fields. I hope people will enjoy discovering LPs and photography they may not have known about, although I think many will know a few of the albums.”
Total Records. Vinilos y fotografia is on show at Foto Colectania, Barcelona until 11 March 2018. http://fotocolectania.org/es/exhibition/110/total-records-vinilos-y-fotografia An slightly different edit of this article first appeared in BJP in August 2015, which was a special issue looking at photography and music, and is available via https://www.thebjpshop.com/product/august-2015/