Squaring the Circle premieres tonight at New York’s Film Forum
There’s surely no one better qualified to make a documentary about the British art design concern Hipgnosis than Dutch photographer, videographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn.
Just as Hipgnosis helped to shape the look of prog rock in the 1970s, Corbijn helped to shape the look of alt-rock in the 1980s. They’re so compatible, in fact, that a Hipgnosis-made documentary about Corbijn would prove nearly as compelling.
That isn’t to suggest that one began where the other left off. Their styles are recognizably different, but it’s hard to imagine Pink Floyd without those famously disconcerting Hipgnosis album covers, just as it’s hard to imagine Depeche Mode (101) or U2 (The Joshua Tree) without Corbijn’s spare, contemplative portraiture.
Corbijn begins by looking back, with Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey “Po” Powell, to Cambridge, England in 1964. That’s when 16-year-old Powell met 20-year-old Storm Thorgerson, who would become his design partner (and inspire Roddy Bogawa’s fine 2011 docu-portrait Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis).
David Gilmour and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd remember Storm as loud, boisterous and game for anything–others remember him as rude and cantankerous. The more reserved and diplomatic Powell, by contrast, describes himself as a loner, but he and Storm clicked from the start and “became like brothers.” They were part of Pink Floyd’s inner circle, though Powell didn’t necessarily predict superstardom for their musical associates.
From Cambridge, the two friends relocated to London to study art. The minute Powell watched Storm develop a photograph, he felt electrified–“This is alchemy!”–and knew he had found his metier. By the time Pink Floyd needed a designer for A Saucerful of Secrets, their second album, they didn’t have to look far. Their former Cambridge companions came through with a cover that reflected the kaleidoscopic light shows of the time through a combination of black and white photography, montage, and hand tinting. Powell was also dropping his fair share of acid, but after observing its deleterious effects on singer Syd Barrett, he curtailed his usage.
In addition to the fact that Pink Floyd kick-started their career, Powell credits Barrett for providing their name, though a few speakers dispute that recollection. To Powell, “hip” indicated cool and “gnosis” indicated wisdom. The duo would continue to design Pink Floyd album covers long after Barrett departed the group in 1968.
In the film, Powell details the making of several notable album covers, including Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run (featuring Christopher Lee and Lee Marvin as band members), Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, and 10cc’s Deceptive Bends.
The success of the covers led to posters and other designs, like the Icarus logo for Zeppelin’s Swan Song record label. Among their innovations: covers—like Peter Gabriel’s 1977-1982 self-titled series–devoid of name and/or title. Their instantly iconic rainbow-prism design for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, however, changed everything. Afterward, Powell recalls, “Our career went stratospheric.”
Success enabled Hipgnosis to secure a second floor of office space and to hire other designers and photographers, like Peter Christopherson, a former mortuary worker who would become a full partner, because “he was just so good.” Among his work: the cover of Peter Gabriel’s 1978 self-titled album, known as “Scratch.” In his musical guise as “Sleazy,” he would co-found the experimental outfits Throbbing Gristle and Coil.
As punk and new wave exploded across the UK, Hipgnosis imploded. Corbijn ends the tale at this point, leaving things on a melancholy note. Though it isn’t clear from the film if Roger Waters ever forgave Storm–who took credit for his Animals cover concept–Po and Storm would eventually make their peace after 12 years apart.
In addition to Powell, speakers include Peter Gabriel, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols, art director Peter Saville, designer of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover, and Roger Dean, designer of ornate covers for Yes, like Tales of Topographic Oceans. Noel Gallagher of Oasis also shows up, and I’m not convinced he needs to be there.
This is the kind of documentary that calls for an equally captivating soundtrack, and Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) delivers the goods with tracks from Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Wings, Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Peter Gabriel, the Sex Pistols, and Depeche Mode. Not all filmmakers are able to secure the rights to so much big-league material, but Corbijn’s career in celebrity portraiture has surely resulted in some invaluable music business connections, like Ged Doherty, former head of the British Phonographic Institute (BPI), who headed up the licensing team.
For newcomers to the history of late-20th century album cover art, the entire film will come as a revelation. For old-timers, a few tales will feel familiar as they’ve been told before in 2011’s Taken by Storm, 2006’s Classic Albums: Dark Side of the Moon, 2012’s The Story of Wish You Were Here, and 2021’s terrific six-part PBS series Icon: Music Through the Lens, which covers music photography from every angle, including album cover art.
In 2007, after decades of design work for a number of major musicians, Corbijn emerged as a feature filmmaker with the masterful Control, a deeply felt, monochromatic portrait of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, a native Mancunian that the Manchester-based Corbijn got to know in the late-1970s through extensive image work on the band’s behalf. He would direct three more narrative features before returning to commercial photography, including recent fashion pictorials for Vogue. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) marks his full-length documentary debut.
From a narrative perspective, Corbijn prioritizes the stories behind Hipgnosis’s imagery over telling the audience what to think about their work, but there’s a subtext underlying the profile that lends it weight, especially for those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s: the era he depicts is gone for good, and not just because Thorgerson died in 2013, but because record labels no longer spend liberally on cover art as a matter of course and because so much of Hipgnosis’s painstakingly hand-crafted tableaux would be created digitally today. No more trips to the Sahara (the Nice’s Elegy), Northern Ireland (Houses of the Holy), or the Swiss Alps (Wings’ Greatest Hits).
Everything Hipgnosis made was customized in some way, so nothing looked exactly like anything that already existed, but it was all grounded in a tactile reality. Their work was a form of commerce, to be sure, but more than anything else, it was art. And not the inaccessible, unaffordable gallery kind–but the kind anybody could own.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) opens at New York’s Film Forum on June 7, and at Los Angeles’s Laemmle Royal on June 16. Anton Corbijn and Aubrey Powell will be at Film Forum for Q&As from June 7-9. Nationwide one-night-only screenings are also scheduled for June 20. Find all locations here.
VIDEO: Squaring The Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) film trailer
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