As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, grappling with his identity as an Asian American of Japanese heritage, Roddy Bogawa found community in the hardcore rock and punk scenes, where being different was cool. He and his friends spent hours perusing music stores and studying album covers. A deep fascination with the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer evolved into a devotion to the music of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, T-Rex, and Paul McCartney and Wings.
Bogawa’s love of music led to film, and in the 1980s he studied at the University of California, San Diego, and the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, where he began developing avant-garde strategies, often shooting 16mm features and shorts on themes related to identity and underground music. He discovered that the music and album covers that intrigued him the most all led to the mysterious Hipgnosis label and its cofounding designers, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell.
In late 2007, Bogawa sought out Thorgerson to ask if he would agree to be the subject of a film. He sensed they were facing similar crossroads—16mm film and vinyl records were threatened mediums—and he wanted to capture the moment. Over the next five years a close, if tempestuous, friendship evolved between the laid-back filmmaker and the prickly artist, resulting in Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis (2012) an intimate, comprehensive look at Thorgerson’s life and art. One of three Bogawa films recently added to MoMA’s collection (along with I Was Born, But . . ., 2004, and Some Divine Wind, 1991), it’s the subject of MoMA Presents: Roddy Bogawa’s Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis (October 2–8). (Bogawa will be present for discussions after the opening- and closing night screenings, on October 2 and 8.)
Bogawa’s most biographical film to date, Taken by Storm reflects the strong affinity between filmmaker and subject. By the end of the documentary, Thorgerson’s vision, determination, artistry, and adoration of music is clear; the film is a testament to the depth and epic experience of music itself. In Thorgerson’s own words, “Covers are in a different galaxy for the brain.”
Recognized today as one of the most prolific and well known album cover designers of all time, Thorgerson (1944–2013) spent nearly 50 years in the field, beginning in the 1960s in swinging London with the British company Hipgnosis, later as a solo designer, and eventually as StormStudios. Hipgnosis worked with Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and Wings, Black Sabbath, Genesis and Peter Gabriel, Alan Parsons, Peter Frampton, Pretty Things, Scorpions, T-Rex, Yes, and countless other groups and musicians. Hipgnosis’s most notable covers feature a range of styles: Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon (1973) cover was a simple prism graphic, while their Wish You Were Here (1975) is a surrealistic scene of two businessmen shaking hands while one is on fire; Peter Gabriel’s 1980 self-titled solo album (sometimes called Melt) was created by distorting a Polaroid of Gabriel’s face by smearing the emulsion.
The film intersperses testimonies from musicians, designers, artists, and even a psychoanalyst to explore how the Hipgnosis and StormStudios approaches to cover design were so successful in providing the creative link between the musicians and the fans. “They were as cavalier as we were,” says Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and David Gilmour note, “Any meeting with Storm [begins with talking about plans] and then he goes and does what he wants” (Mason) and, “We’ve always gone along with [his ideas because he doesn’t] do an advertising job but something which is a work of art on its own” (Gilmour). Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta, who confesses to sleeping with album covers as a teenager, says that Thorgerson would quiz him about his subconscious to try and get at the ideas behind their music. As British artist Damien Hirst, who admired the ambiguity of the covers, put it, “In art I never want answers; I want to raise questions, really. Storm is that brilliant.”
Thorgerson’s distinctive style features dramatic visual motifs captured in a photograph, often set amid natural landscapes and presented in a surrealist style. The scenes are large in scale and intricate in detail; their construction is so elaborate that it is difficult to imagine how they are executed at all, especially without Photoshop or other digital manipulation. Thorgerson travels worldwide, uses multiple actors and numerous props, and builds enormous sculptures to fabricate scenes in a manner as complex as a film shoot or specific as an art installation, but that result in a single photographic scene. As the film takes us into the various corners of Thorgerson’s working life, the soundtrack swells with a beautiful mix of music—an original score by Chris Brokaw, original music by Antony Genn and Martin Slattery, six songs by Pink Floyd, and “Black Metallic” by Catherine Wheel.
Information for this post was garnered from an interview with Roddy Bogawa in June 2013 and from Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis.