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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

You can judge an album by its cover

Some very famous photographers have had their work on some very famous album covers, as an exhibition in London amply demonstrates

Rolling Stones, "Exile On Main Street," inner sleeves, Rolling Stones Records, 1972. Photography: Robert Frank © The Andrea Frank Foundation ; design: John Van Hamersveld/Norman Sieff.Robert Frank © The Andrea Frank Foundation

The ongoing vogue for LPs is usually thought of in terms of what’s inside the jacket. Audiophiles will tell you that analog offers a better, warmer sound than digital does. And those slim, grooved vinyl platters with a small hole in the middle (what would Martians make of LPs?) look way cooler than compact discs.

Streaming, of course, doesn’t look cooler than anything. It can’t, being invisible.

The appeal of LPs has another inspiration, one that also involves appearance rather than sound. This other attraction isn’t about what’s inside the album cover. It’s the album cover itself. And the coolness of those covers matters. As the LP collector Antoine de Beaupré says, “The first contact you have with the music is the record cover.”

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Led Zeppelin, "Physical Graffitti," Swan Song, 1975. Photography: Elliott Erwitt; design, AGI/Mike Doud/Peter Corriston.Photography: Elliott Erwitt; design, AGI/Mike Doud/Peter Corriston.

A show at The Photographer’s Gallery, London’s storied exhibition space for photography, gets at a specific aspect of that visual inspiration. The title is self-explanatory: “For the Record: Photography & The Art of The Album Cover.” It runs through June 12. On display are more than 200 LP covers and, in some instances, working prints of the photographs that appear on those covers.

Among artists with work in the show are (pause here for a deep intake of breath) David Bailey, Joseph Beuys, Guy Bourdin, William Eggleston, Elliott Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, Nan Goldin, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, W. Eugene Smith, Andy Warhol, and . . . well, you get the idea. A comparable list of musicians would take up a lot of space at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The exhibition draws on Beaupré's holdings. Beaupré helped organize and curate the show. He began collecting LPs in the ‘90s, while studying jazz composition at Berklee College of Music. The dominance of CDs made them inexpensive. So some of the albums in “For the Record” may once have been in a bin at Stereo Jack’s or Looney Tunes. Beaupré eventually became a book dealer, a different form of collecting. There are more than 15,000 LPs in his collection. Let’s hope he collects turntables, too.

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Thelonious Monk, "Monk," Columbia. Photography: W. Eugene Smith.W. Eugene Smith

Some very famous photographers have had their work on some very famous album covers. The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” (released 50 years ago this month)? That would be Robert Frank. Patti Smith’s “Horses”? Robert Mapplethorpe. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends”? Richard Avedon. All three photographers are in the show.

That trio of albums exemplifies how varied cover backstories can be. “Exile” has a previously unpublished image Frank took for his landmark book, “The Americans,” on the front cover, and on the back a collage of photos Frank took of band members. (Whether intentional or not, it’s a visual equivalent of the album’s notoriously murky mix.) Avedon was commissioned by Simon & Garfunkel’s label, Columbia, to shoot their portrait. Mapplethorpe and Smith had been lovers. You can all but feel the intensity of the connection between them in the portrait.

Sometimes the cover photograph is more famous than the album. One of Eggleston’s signature images, “The Red Ceiling,” is on the cover of Big Star’s 1974 album, “Radio City.” That’s another interesting backstory. Eggleston let the band use the photo because he was a family friend of Alex Chilton, the band’s lead singer.

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For an art director, the appeal of a distinctive photograph is obvious. Or the appeal for a marketing director. As Beaupré points out, something eye-catching helps prepare the way for something ear-catching.

The appeal for a photographer is obvious, too. An LP cover’s roughly 1-foot-square size is close to an ideal presentation format: large enough to do a photograph justice, not so large as to overwhelm it. There’s the further, insider virtue that the square shape recalls that of prints from a much-loved classic camera, the Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex.

The LP age, which lasted from roughly the late ‘50s into the ’80s, provided an aural education. That’s true of any era of musical technology. The LP age was unique in also providing a visual education. That visual impact can be found in an unexpected place: the revolution in book-jacket design during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Miles Davis, "Tutu," Warner Bros. Records, 1986. Photography: Irving Penn, design: Eiko Ishioka.Photography: Irving Penn, design: Eiko Ishioka.

That’s the view of Chip Kidd. Kidd is probably the most celebrated book designer of the past four decades. He’s speculated that the reason why what you see in bookstores has been so much more lively and visually interesting than it once was — it’s been an ongoing golden age — is because of what you stopped seeing in record stores.

“My theory is it’s the death of the album cover,” Kidd said in a 2001 Globe interview. “Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that was the cool, neat thing [for designers] to do. CDs, and I’ve designed some, are like working under a microscope, and they get stickers on them, and bar codes. . . . [Designers] went to the book cover instead.”

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To be sure, distinctive covers from the LP age didn’t rely just on photographs. Think of the Beatles’ “Revolver” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Or Neon Park’s winkingly outsider-art Little Feat covers. Warhol created two of the most famous covers in rock history: the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album (yes, the one with the banana) and the Stones’s album before “Exile,” “Sticky Fingers” (yes, the one with the zipper).

Diana Ross, "Silk Electric," 1982. Photography & Design: Andy Warhol.Andy Warhol

But Warhol also shows how it’s hard to improve on a good photograph if you want a cover with strength, clarity, and distinctiveness. He has two in “For the Record,” a 1976 Paul Anka album and Diana Ross’s “Silk Electric,” from 1982.

It’s not just photos — or bananas or zippers — that make for a classic cover. It’s also fonts, type placement, colors. Pennie Smith’s Richter-scale cover image for the Clash’s “London Calling” of Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage is a punk apotheosis. He’s not working for the clampdown. Yet what grabs the eye even more — yes, even more — are the pink and green used for the lettering of the album title, the sans-serif font, and the letters being slightly off-kilter.

The Clash "London Calling" album cover

Aha, you say, that’s not all that’s in that particular cover’s visual toolkit. Those colors, the font, and the title placement are an homage to Elvis Presley’s RCA debut album. So allusion can be another visual contributor. Joe Jackson’s 1984 “Body and Soul” is so closely modeled on “Vol. 2″ of Sonny Rollins’s self-titled 1957 album, it goes beyond homage to genuflection. All four covers are in “For the Record.”

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Francis Wolff took that Rollins photo. Wolff was one of the more notable music-industry two-fers. The cofounder of Blue Note, the greatest of all jazz labels (speaking of genuflection being in order), Wolff was also a fine photographer. Classic Blue Note albums had a distinctive look. That was owing to the label’s gifted art director, Reid Miles. It was also owing to how often Miles put to use his boss’s camera handwork. A section of “For the Record” is devoted to Wolff and the label.

Wolff portraits adorned — no, that’s not right; they enhanced — many Blue Note albums. John Coltrane lost in thought on the cover of “Blue Train.” Art Blakey exultant behind his drum kit on the cover of “The Big Beat.” Hank Mobley holding up his tenor saxophone as if it were a trophy (which, in a way, it is) on the cover of “Soul Station.” They’re all by Wolff. The Coltrane and Mobley covers are in the show.


Roy DeCarava, “Coltrane and Elvin,” 1960.Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Jazz has had a particular allure for photographers. Friedlander, for example, was an Atlantic Records employee, doing covers of albums by Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Ray Charles, among others.

Roy DeCarava didn’t take his most memorable jazz image, “Coltrane and Elvin,” for an album cover. The two runners-up he did. DeCarava had a rare mastery of black-and-white tonalities, capturing moods and emotions with the subtlest of lighting gradations. What’s so distinctive about “Ellington Indigos” is how he was able to do it in color. Seen in hovering profile, Duke Ellington seems as much emanation as man, an emissary from a musical realm DeCarava grants us entry to.

Miles Davis, "Porgy and Bess," Columbia Records. Photograph by Roy DeCarava.

DeCarava’s cover photo for Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” is also in color. It’s about a very different sort of emanation. We see Davis’s white-shirt-clad torso, his trumpet, and an arm and bare knee of his wife, Frances. Each has a hand on the horn. It’s elegant, simple, understated — and staggeringly sexy. Bananas and zippers are all well and good, but it’s hard to outdo a photograph for a really classic album cover.

FOR THE RECORD: Photography & the Art of the Album Cover

At The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St., London, through June 12. 011-44-20-7087-9300, tpg.org.uk



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.