The Guardian Features William Eggleston in Article on Album Art

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by Sean O'Hagan

Man Ray nearly did a Rolling Stones cover, Big Star went for William Eggleston’s most famous ceiling shot, and George Michael lifted a Weegee photograph. A curious new exhibition for nerds and fans alike shows the hits and misses of album artwork – and the covers too rude to use

The greatest record cover that never was? ... Man Ray’s original Rolling Stones cover for Exile on Main Street. All photographs courtesy Les Rencontres d’Arles

The greatest record cover that never was? ... Man Ray’s original Rolling Stones cover for Exile on Main Street. All photographs courtesy Les Rencontres d’Arles

In 1972 Charlie Watts, drummer of the Rolling Stones, met with Man Ray and asked if he would design the cover for the group’s new album, Exile on Main Street. The 82-year-old artist agreed and produced a design in which the faces of the five Rolling Stones appeared inside black circles on a white background. The inspiration, he said, was the song Tumbling Dice, the first single from the album.

Man Ray’s design is one of the great record covers that never happened. The album appeared instead with a sleeve by the great American photographer Robert Frank, whose black-and-white collage of Super 8 images (shot in a tattoo parlour somewhere on Route 66 while he made his groundbreaking book The Americans) is now considered one of the classic rock album sleeves.

Radio City by Big Star, which uses William Eggleston’s classic red ceiling shot

Radio City by Big Star, which uses William Eggleston’s classic red ceiling shot

Man Ray’s proposed cover for the Stones is one of the highlights of a sprawling, but always intriguing, exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles called Total Records: The Great Adventure of Album Cover Photography.

It traces pop’s relationship with photography using album sleeves that span the history of vinyl recordings, and includes work by pioneering photographers who were either commissioned by labels to shape the identity of an artist or else allowed existing images to be used, often at the musician’s request. That was how Anders Petersen’s picture of an embracing couple from his gritty series Cafe Lehmitz ended up on the cover of Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, an almost perfect reflection of the melancholic music therein. (Intriguingly, the man in the photograph bears a resemblance to the young Tom Waits, both physically and in terms of the beatnik-barfly image Waits once projected.)

That Beautiful South album also features in a short series on censored covers – the woman with a gun in her mouth was replaced in some countries by teddy bears. Stranger still is the cover for a Mamas and Papas album in which they lounge, fully clothed, in a bath tub. In the censored version, an offending toilet bowl has been removed. One wonders how the Butthole Surfers ever got a record released.

One of the more intriguing mini-narratives is a wall devoted to photographs by Linda McCartney of the shoot for the Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road. Iain Macmillan’s cover shot – which was achieved in a 10-minute shoot from atop a ladder while policemen stopped traffic – has since become one of the most debated record sleeves of all time. A conspiracy theory had it that Paul McCartney was dead because he appeared barefoot. Here, he is pictured in one shot wearing sandals and, in another, chatting to an old lady on the pavement by the famous zebra crossing.

Source: The Guardian