When the double album format was announced for Opposites, I thought of my favorites- like Blonde on Blonde or Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma- and how the artwork for these records is integral to the listening experience. Coincidentally, the artist for Ummagumma, Storm Thorgerson, created the concept for Opposites and his studio has come up with the artwork for all of Biffy’s releases going back to Puzzle. In my ongoing mission to champion the “behind the scenes” artists for the work they do, so all of us can enjoy a fuller listening experience, I present you…
Rupert Truman, photographer and jack-of-all trades, of StormStudios unveiling the meaning of life, death, and the album cover art.
Your work once again graces the cover of Scotland’s finest power trio, Biffy Clyro. How did the creative process begin for the concept of their first double album, Opposites? Does the band come to you with an idea? Are audio recordings sent to you ahead of time for feel?
We have been working with Biffy for a few years now, since ‘Puzzle’ in 2007, so it’s a natural continuation – we love what they do, and they seem to like what we do…
Usually bands send us the music which we listen to ALOT and generate a bunch of ideas which we then present to the band. We listened to this one as well… Initially Storm and Pete travelled up to Scotland to meet Simon, James and Ben to talk about the album and bat around some ideas for the design work. Pete took some pics of the band while he was up there. Later, Simon wrote to Storm – apparently he’d had a dream about a ‘tree of life’. Storm started to think about different kinds of trees, trees of life trees of death, trees of interconnectedness and trees of disconnection. Storm and Dan’s tree designs came from that line of inquiry.
Originally we shot mirrors, telephones and scissors. The telephones suggested life and interconnectedness, while the scissors implied cutting off things, so maybe disconnectedness and thus death. When we use mirrors they often suggested consciousness, self-reflection. The fact that mirrors reflect light, gives them something more in common with life rather than death. I’m not entirely sure about the glass bones though, although surely they don’t symbolize the world of the living. They did make a lovely lively tinkling noise as they swung in the Icelandic breeze.
The background locations also suggest a connection with the loose themes of life and death, one being arid and sterile looking, and the other being verdant with a gushing waterfall in the background. Life needs water.
Tell us about the creation of the cover art – from photo shoot, to layout and collaboration with your fellow designers, Peter Curzon and Dan Abbot – to the final printing process.
“After coming up with the designs, with Dan making drawings or roughs as we call them, of what the image and its layout could be like, we wanted a couple of opposite locations. We needed a barren landscape for the tree of death and a lush landscape for the tree of life – the home counties really wouldn’t do it. We thought – ‘Iceland’. So, after extensive research on the web, I was despatched with Jerry to go and have a look around. We hired a 4×4 which allowed us to get off road and into the highlands. We drove all the way around the island, and saw some beautiful things – from the biggest waterfall in Europe – the one in the beginning of Prometheus (awesome), to glaciers and icebergs, to volcanoes, hot springs and huge barren wastes. A beautiful country. This generated a shortlist of locations from which we chose a few areas.
In the background, Storm and the band had been talking, and in the end the tree design was confirmed.
The next phase was to make the tree – Iceland is rather short of trees, so I employed my local chippy – Nick Baker – to make us the tree – we supplied him some rough sketches and told him how big it should be and he did the rest… I dropped by his workshop every day or two to check progress, but apart from a few minor alterations, it was spot on – a magical tree. It came in bits in a huge unwieldy box which we took unannounced to Heathrow – that was fun, but after paying the excess, it was allowed on board the plane.
In Iceland, we strapped it to the roof of the car and headed off into the wilds. We quickly bought some wheels for our box so we could get it in and out of hotels easily – a hugely important design upgrade… We had a very clear idea where one of the locations would be, we wanted the waterfall in the background, so went and chatted up a local farmer who let us put our tree up in the garden of their house… This was the tree of life in the vinyl version. We managed to find two more locations for the tree of life just driving around, one of which is with a lake in the background in the CD package.
In search of a location for the tree of death, we had a pretty good idea of where to go, and headed into the highlands. We shot it in three different locations I think, that were all pretty close together. There are large areas of barren desert there that were perfect for us.
After we finished shooting, and had got our tree home in it’s box, it was the turn of Lee Baker to get to work retouching. This was a lengthy process, especially the bent tree on the cover… Storm and Pete oversaw the retouching.
We designed the CD package and the booklet inserted in it, the vinyls, the box set and all its inserts, posters etc etc. this was largely done by Silvia Ruga, with Peter Curzon overseeing the covers and all the typefaces (one of his specialities). He did endless layouts with things in different positions, trying out all sorts of typefaces (he makes them himself).”
Were there any significant changes made to the design along the way?
“Well, yes! initially, the design was just for the two trees – the tree of life and the tree of death that are the vinyl covers and appear inside the CD package. The label wanted something more, and after racking our brains for a bit we came up with the idea of a bent tree… Frankly i thought it was a daft idea – just goes to show how wrong you can be – I now think it’s stunning – the piece de la resistance….”
Are there any hidden gems /references in the cover art that fans may not be aware of?
“There are certainly several things in the packaging that might not be picked up easily… our images are rarely straightforward – they represent ideas, and that requires some thought and lateral thinking… but I’ve explained alot of it already…”
You’ve worked alongside Storm Thorgerson, creator of numerous iconic album covers including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for the past 20 years. How do you keep his vision and legacy moving forward?
“As a team, we’ve been working together for several years now – we know how each other think – our respective strengths and weaknesses. The way we work is well practiced. The design team is strong – many of the ideas originate with Dan and Pete, and we develop them as a team. Each job is necessarily treated differently and imagery arises spontaneously (with alot of hard work) that fits the particular band we are working for. There’s not much thought of the legacy moving forward as such, we treat each job as unique when it comes along, with our shared vision.”
Storm’s philosophy of having the studio’s work presented in an informal fashion allowed for 2 pop up StormShops recently. How did they go? Any plans on invading America? San Francisco would be a much appreciated venue for one! Afterall, we are the mecca of rock poster art…
“The popup shops were an exciting experiment. We don’t currently have any plans to do more – but you never know… We already have strong links with the San Francisco Art Exchange on Geary Street – we’ve had 2 exhibitions there over recent years and Theron at SFAE continues to sell our work for us. We’ve also recently exhibited in Chicago and LA…”
What can people expect on the merch table featuring your art for the upcoming Biffy tour?
“That’s down to 14th Floor I imagine… I’d expect to see our imagery all over it!”
Your principal medium of photography has changed immensely over the last 20 years. In my (pre-photoshop) dark room Art School days, I recall the surreal photomontages of Jerry Uelsmann, as a focal point of study. Coincidentally, my own artwork has been an ongoing variation on photomontage for the past 10 years. Who are some artists that have influenced you early on?
“Well… as a teenager, I was, in fact largely buying albums that had Hipgnosis images on the cover… UFO, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Brand X, Led Zeppelin etc… they were the sleeves that interested me, and coincidentally had great music! I love Cartier Bresson and had an interest in Ansel Adams. Cartier Bresson has a wonderfully vibrant expression of life in his images… I went on to develop an interest in architecture (my wife was an architectural journalist), and started my photographic career shooting architecture. I think this comes across in my imagery with the studio – they are very matter of fact images of wierdness. Up-front images of the impossible.”
It seems everyone is a “photographer” these days without knowing the history and nuances of the artform. With the ease of technology also brings some to discover or revisit what came before. We’ve seen it with the resurgence of film and vinyl. Did you foresee this happening in your field? I’m sure there were some dark days in the industry?
“I count myself as one of those who don’t know much of the history or nuances… For years I purposely avoided looking at other people’s work – it clouds your own vision – and you can easily end up copying everyone else… Photography has a language of it’s own, and either you speak it or you don’t… I was very lucky to learn alot from a talented friend – Tony May, who introduced me to Storm. The pair of them showed me that anything is possible. What you can do is only limited by your vision. So, for example, Storm gave me a 35mm film camera and we shot a promo. I also shot the Wish You Were Here film footage for the web film in the early days of streaming video. For the past year we’ve been making a documentary.
Having a science background helps me see the mechanics of photography as a means of achieving the image that we are aiming for. A bunch of tools – camera, lights, props, location, models all come together – orchestrated to achieve our aim. We as photographers and designers are part of that. None of us on our own could make these images. The magic is in the collaboration. Our shared vision.
Going back to your question… Yes, I agree – the ease of technology does allow people a whole new easy route to making great images. My favorite camera right now is my iPhone, especially coupled with a few apps that make wonderful images in a few button clicks. It encourages play. It’s about having fun – enjoying the image, exploring it, playing with it. I’m really enjoying an app called camera + at the moment…”
What was your first camera and what do you use currently?
“My first professional camera was a lovely wooden Wista 5″x4” field camera. A beautiful thing that required you to look at the image upside down and back to front on a ground glass screen. It had to be on a tripod, and you needed a black cloth over your head to be able to see anything. It was a very slow way of working, and as a result I quickly started to be able to visualise exactly where the camera needed to be without looking through it, developing a kind of three-dimensional view of things in my mind, being able to imagine shots from different places and on different lenses.
As a teenager, my first camera was a Zenith E – a basic Russian camera. Being fully manual, I quickly learned what apertures and shutter speeds do… Professionally I’ve been using a Hasselblad to shoot for the studio for many years – it’s the natural format for the square of the vinyl cover. When digital came along, I invested in a Phase One digital back for for the Hassel which is still serviceable. I’ve now bought a Nikon D800E which is only just short of the Phase One in pixel count, but has many advantages over it – and it shoots good quality video”
A couple of years ago, the school I was teaching at still had a dark room, so I dug up my grandfather’s Nikon FM 2, a beauty with a 35-105 mm Nikkor Zoom plus an L37c 52 mm lens and hit the streets of NY for a crash course refresher with a great photographer, Mike Vorrasi. One of my favorite no nonsense blogs, KenRockwell.com gave me tips on film type, etc. It was like learning all over again-I had a blast. Any advice I can pass along to my students who may be interested in picking up a camera and pursuing a career?
“My advice is to just do what you enjoy – the passion will shine through if it’s there – and you allow it to shine! Really dive into it. Get Passionate! Have a Blast! Love what you are shooting! For me, it’s about the image – it doesn’t matter really what you shoot it on – it’s a means to an end – a tool. You need the right tool for the job, which is why I use good optics and high pixel count for the studios work. Equally, I like lower res, gritty grainy stuff. Look at the work of Cartier Bresson – gritty 35mm – often not quite sharp or with motion blur etc – yet fantastic images. As I say, I love my iPhone. I gather that there’s an award winning war photographer that covered the Libyan uprising on his iPhone…
Don’t get me wrong, I love the beautiful craftsmanship of a beautiful camera like a Leica, and I’d love a set of Zeiss primes for my Nikon – that’d give me great pleasure… The romantic in me sees myself standing on rocky promontories with my old wooden Wista… I’d probably take the Nikon now…”
I received a beautiful book, Vivienne Maier: Street Photographer, this past Christmas from a good friend. There is nothing quite like the continuing and endless discovery of good art. Are there any artists( musical or visual or other) that we should check out?
“Ooh – that’s put me on the spot… As I mentioned, I rarely look at the work of others…
A couple of musicians – Marques Toliver – young black violinist – some real raw bluesy stuff from the heart – on youtube. And a band called Unknown Mortal Orchestra that Dan went to see in Berlin last week – very good. And we’ve just done the artwork for AP and the Heat’s debut EP – really rather good bleak punk psychadelia…”