[20 min read + 5 min media]
How does the song go? “Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had a status and before I had a pager”, you could find me enjoying both Oasis and Blur. I was obviously aware of their rivalry and some of my friends even cultivated it, but I couldn’t bring myself to prefer one band to the other: at their peak, their music brought different things to me and both were absolutely exciting. There was one thing, though, in which Oasis always seemed to have an edge over Blur: their cover art. I remember spending hours looking at the fascinating artwork of their albums and singles while listening to their music. They were unusual and intriguing, filled with strange colors, surrealistic scenarios, peculiar symbols and mysterious characters. They also seemed to be a crucial part of the whole musical experience, as if one had to look searchingly at them whilst listening to the music and lyrics in order to grasp their elusive narratives. When it comes to images, there’s little doubt in my mind that these covers were paramount in defining the Britpop era. All these fascinating photographs were the work of Michael Spencer Jones, one of the UK’s most influential rock photographers and the man responsible for creating some of the most iconic sleeve art in British rock history. If you think of Oasis, The Verve, Suede or Ash, chances are that it’s photographs taken by him that will pop-up in your mind. We had the privilege to talk with Michael about his fabulous work, what fascinates him in photography, the importance of the medium in musical fruition and the current state of the music industry. The man has strong opinions about the craft of his art and although he is far from being enthusiastic about today’s digital streaming era, that did not seem to affect his affability and joyful mood.
When did music intersect with your interest in photography? I am aware that you moved to Manchester after your graduation in the late 80s, and that must have certainly played a major role considering that the Madchester scene was happening at the time, but I was wondering if you started to correlate music and photography before that.
My interest in photography is across the whole spectrum of the medium. I’ve always been interested in historical photography, portrait, still life. And I think all those facets are brought into the stuff that I’ve done in music photography.
What brought me into photography in the first place was this old special edition celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Life magazine that was lying around the house. I was around twelve when I first saw it. There were Andrew Western’s photographs in black and white and that famous shot by Harold E. Edgerton of a bullet going through an apple. I can remember being fascinated by that and by older repertoire stuff like some photographs taken in the deep South of the U.S. with black guys being lynched – that had a tremendous impact on me. So it was seeing a combination of all these possibilities that really got me into photography.
At the same time, around fourteen, I started to be really interested in popular music. I remember staring for hours at the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while listening to the record. Then, of course, there were the Pink Floyd covers by Hipgnosis: Animals with the Battersea Power Station and Wish You Were Here with the two guys shaking hands and one of them on fire. Those are such great shots.
I’ve read an interview where you said that what fascinated you in photography was the fact that it could freeze a moment of a narrative, whilst moving images tended to tell the whole story.
One of the photography strengths resides in one of its apparent weaknesses. A photograph is like ripping a page from a novel and reading just that page instead of the whole book. And then you have to decide what has happened up until that page and what is going to happen next.
Why not take risks in photography? It’s not open-heart surgery. No one is going to die.
If you apply this comparison to the album cover format, we might even say that the cover is a piece of a puzzle that you have to rearrange with other pieces available such as the music, the lyrics or what you might know about the career or the biography of the band or artist. In order to get to the full story, one has to combine all these pieces of the puzzle and eventually fill the gaps.
That’s very interesting, I’ve never thought of that…
Funny you should say that, because it’s precisely your work that made me think of this analogy. All your cover shots seem to be so packed with symbols and narrative clues that invite us to tie up its loose ends. Your photographs are so meticulously set-up that I wonder what’s the role of spontaneity in your working method.
Let’s take the “Some Might Say” single cover shot as an example. Just like any other sleeves I’ve produced, this one started with a single idea, which was related to the fact that Noel wanted the cover to be taken at a railway station. And then, in order to add a little bit of a twist, I thought of taking the shot in a disused railway station and put a set of characters on a platform where you know no train is ever going to come, which kind of represents the lyric of the song.
My point is: you can start with an idea, develop it and create a lot of stuff to support it, but, at the end, you still have to capture the moment that makes the shot. And I always thought that I am good in getting spontaneously that moment within a set-up or given context. I mean, any other photographer could have been walking around with a camera in the set-up for the shot of Definitely Maybe and still not come with a photograph that had the same resonance or power of the actual cover. I think that people don’t quite realize how crucial is that precise moment when you press the shutter button.
You can have the greatest idea in the world for a photograph and then look at your camera and all you have is a bag of shit.
So setting up a photo is just the first phase of the whole process…
Exactly, it’s just phase one. After that, it’s still tremendously difficult to hit the target. The “Do You Know What I Mean” cover is a great example of that. The idea was to get a lot of people in an alley way and to place Oasis within the crowd. Though I specifically asked for only the band members to make eye contact with the camera, it was so hard to get the right moment, the right energy, the right shot. It had been a cloudy day up until the sun suddenly came out: it was only then that things started to melt together and fortunately I was able to capture that precise moment. You can have the greatest idea in the world for a photograph and then look at your camera and all you have is a bag of shit.
So taking a photograph is a little bit like fishing.
[Laughs] Oh yes, absolutely! A lot of preparation, patience and attention are required. Just like your observation about an album cover being a piece of a puzzle, I’ve never heard that one before, but you’re absolutely right. And it reminds me that I did some artwork in the past with a jigsaw puzzle: in one of these photographs, I removed a piece of the puzzle, which was precisely the Queen’s face. That would have made a great album cover, because it underlines this idea of suspension, of an incomplete narrative that you have to fill by yourself. That’s one of the reasons why I love photography, because of its ambiguity.
What are the main tasks or what are the requirements that a good album cover should fulfill?
That’s a good question. [Pause] First of all, I think it should be interesting, that it should give you something to look at. The experience of looking at it should be different than flipping through the pages of a magazine. A cover should be intriguing. Then, I think it should as well represent the band accurately. I believe in band-led covers. There’s no point in making a cover of The Verve look like the one of One Direction, if you know what I mean. I also think there should be an element of honesty coming through, a cover shouldn’t be just propaganda. Finally, it also should look good aesthetically, whether it’s the composition or the colors. So yes, I do think there is a checklist for a good album cover.
What are your weapons of choice when it comes to shoot a photograph?
When I was in college I had this sort of mantra of always experimenting. So, I always tried to go into every shot with an element of experimentation. I think that it might not be that noticeable for most people, but I have always tried to bring that element of change and experimentation in all my work up. In the Definitely Maybe cover, for instance, I am taking risks all over the place. First of all, the film is purposely being processed in the wrong chemicals in order to achieve a certain effect with the colors. The exposure for that photograph is two seconds long, which could have easily ruined the whole thing (I remember screaming at them to keep still). Then I decided to spin the globe hanging from the ceiling while the camera shutter was still open in order to capture the movement. Having Liam lying on the floor was also a risk, I think it was the first cover where the lead singer of a band is in that position. I presume that many other photographers would have played it safer. But why not take risks in photography? It’s not open-heart surgery. No one is going to die.
For me, photography is an intellectual pursuit that is not compatible with the idea that everyone can instantly become a photographer.
I was wondering if you come-up with concepts for photographs in your everyday life and then apply them in specific projects or if you tend to approach them with a blank page or white canvas.
I think it’s a combination of both. You do see images and you do have ideas and you do write them down. Sometimes you never get around to doing those ideas and other times they crop up. I’ve recently realized how things that I was doing in my youth later surfaced in my work. A picture I took in college was of a steel foundry and there is a figure walking through a door in the background: when I saw it, I thought “Shit, that’s The Verve’s Northern Soul cover!” Another example is a fashion shoot I did with this girl stretching her arm and holding a light bulb with the palm of her hand, something very Art Deco, and then I realized that’s probably why I asked Noel to hold the globe for the back cover photograph of Definitely Maybe. These things tend to happen subconsciously.
I am also the kind of photographer that is always open to other’s ideas, even if in the end the result bears no resemblance with their inputs. I believe in an organic approach and sometimes a suggestion or a small detail can be the catalyst of the whole shot.
Any musicians you wish you’d be able to work with in the future?
Well, I just did an interview with Pete Doherty on Channel 4 News and it was great, he really seemed a very interesting guy. There’s also a French singer called Lou Doillon, who I think is the greatest living songwriter at the moment, she’s that talented. These two spring to mind immediately.
How did the Internet and the emerging digital media landscape change your relationship with images?
I think that this democratization of photography has not been beneficial to the medium. It has diluted it. When I was studying photography back in college, there was this argument about whether it was an art or a craft and I always thought it is both, just like stone masonry or songwriting. You got to learn your craft first to fully express your art through it. The problem with digital photography is that it’s so instant that there’s a level of impatience and laziness about it. Don’t get me wrong: I think digital photography is great, but it has its own place. For me, photography is an intellectual pursuit that is not compatible with the idea that everyone can instantly become a photographer. It’s not because you have a camera that you’re a photographer. There’s much more to it. We are living in an age where there’s this thing called Snapchat where the whole idea is to share explicitly short-lived and self-deleting photographs and images. I think that says it all.
I think that the whole deconstruction of albums into separate songs is like dismantling the Last Supper and selling postcards of each disciple on their own.
What do you think will be the future of album covers in an era where even the notion of album seems to be at risk?
Music is an ethereal expression that you can’t see or touch, so you need an image to connect with it in the material world, even when you’re not listening to it. So I think there will always be some kind of visual connection with music. When I say to you “Abbey Road”, I know that you’re immediately thinking of a zebra crossing.
Absolutely. But my point is, does that still happen to newer generations? Digital natives are now used to listen to music via streaming when they’re multitasking…
Well, that’s another debate altogether. The fact that music has become so accessible that’s it’s being devaluated. People used to save up to go to a record shop and buy an album and now they can get it for nothing. I think that the whole deconstruction of albums into separate songs is like dismantling the Last Supper and selling postcards of each disciple on their own. I think it starts to loose its overall meaning.
Has this new era affected your work?
Oh yes, absolutely. Sometimes I think that photography is slowly moving out of the music culture (which doesn’t mean that it can’t move back in). Now, music magazines want to pay you fifty quid a shot: “if we can get them at Getty for that price, why should we pay you more?” And they don’t realize the tremendous difference between them. And I also think that even popular music, as we knew it, is disappearing out of the culture. There was a point in Renaissance Italy when that whole cultural production stopped. No one knows exactly when that happened, but looking back now it definitely did. We are maybe reaching that point again regarding pop music.
Is there any album artwork that recently caught your attention?
[Long pause] Nothing comes to mind. [Pause] Having said that, and on a more optimistic note, this discussion also happened back in the nineties when people said that CDs were going to kill album artwork – and it didn’t. Most of the stuff I have done for Oasis was from the age of the CD anyway and that didn’t stop those covers to become iconic. The counterargument might also be the fact that it took a whole decade for the album format to start to explore covers as a mean of expression. Before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in 1966, covers tended to be awful. Think of the covers of Elvis Presley or Cliff Richards: none of them are really saying anything. It took Sgt. Pepper’s or maybe Rubber Soul for the medium to become an art.
Well, before those, there was also the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963…
Oh yes, you’re right, that’s an amazing cover. I even have an original print of that cover on my wall. You know what? Now that I think of it, there’s a bit of that cover in my shot for Oasis’ Morning Glory.
Well, to be honest, me neither. [Laughs]