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The story behind Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here cover photo
Themes of absence and void of meaning play out as an executive-looking gentleman greets his doppelgänger with a firm handshake. And did we forget to mention one of the guys is on fire?
The concept started for design team Hipgnosis, as it often did, with close examination of the music. “We just sit in a very ordinary room, listen to Floyd music, and talk,” Hipgnosis co-founder Storm Thorgerson explained in his 1997 book, “Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd.”
“We discuss what the music feels like to us. Or the intention of the lyrics. Or what the album may really be about, even if the Floyd haven’t said it, or don’t yet know it.”
“‘Wish You Were Here’ was a different story altogether,” he added. “Lengthy discussions, particularly with the band, much internal focusing, and repeated exposure to the haunting brilliance of ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ led inexorably to one point, led to one theme, in fact to the one word, ‘absence.’”
The team devised a concept for the cover involving two men — record execs fashioned in a style suggested by the album’s “Have a Cigar” — shaking hands to seal some unknown deal. Hipgnosis explained a handshake is often seen as an empty gesture, void of meaning or purpose. And the flames? A visualization of people’s tendency to remain emotionally withdrawn (or absent) for fear of “being burned.”
They continued the theme of absence throughout the album’s back cover, inside gate-fold and liner bag with photos of a faceless pitchman hawking a transparent LP record, a diver making no splash, and a floating veil masking nothing. (Or is it?) A shot not used for the original album showed a swimmer — the same model who posed as the faceless pitchman — doing the crawl stroke in an ocean of sand devoid of water.
Hipgnosis, responsible for the majority of Floyd’s album covers during the band’s long history, chose to shoot the photo on the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank for a reason. After all, Thorgerson and designing partner Aubrey “Po” Powell explained, it’s “the land of make-believe; where nothing is real and all is absent.”
The precise location of the photo would seem to be the intersection of Ave. D and 5th St. on Warner’s back lot. The massive hanger-like buildings in the background are soundstages used for film and TV work. (The Warner Bros. front lot, to the northeast and closer to California St., is where the studios’ faux exteriors reside.)
The numeral 20, visible on a building in some versions of the photo, would seem to verify the theory: Stage 20 would indeed appear two buildings back and on the right, if the photo had been shot at Ave. D and 5th.
“Floydian Slip” took the official Warner Bros. tour in October 2011. Upon request, the tour guide took us to what he said was the photo location. (At the time, we hadn’t yet consulted a map.) The drainage grate was there, but, otherwise, it was impossible to be certain we stood at the real location, since the property is a maze of nearly-identical structures and intersections.
Photos published on the Web purport to show the location today looking very much as it did in ’75.
Hipgnosis hired Hollywood stuntmen Ronnie Rondell Jr.(pictured) and Danny Rogers (inset) to pose for the photo. Rondell arguably had the tougher job of being lit on fire, which, no surprise, presented challenges.
“I’d been doing a lot of fire work in those days, and I had the special suits and all this stuff for fully enveloped fire,” Rondell explained in the 2012 documentary “Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here.”
“But a partial is basically pretty safe, pretty easy one to do,” he added, “in most cases.”
Though he was protected by a fire-retardant layer underneath his business suit — which extended over his head underneath a wig — Rondell didn’t make it out of the shoot unscathed.
After being dowsed with gasoline, sparked up and taking position, Rondell withstood 15 shots before being singed. “The flames were blown back and ignited his real moustache for an instant,” Thorgerson recalled. “A close shave, one might say.”
“There’s a funny thing about fire,” Rondell said. “When it gets in your face, you’re going to move.”
“He fell to the ground, absolutely smothered with foam and blankets and everything like that, and he got up, said, ‘That’s it. No more,’” according to Powell, who was behind the camera. “Luckily, I got it in the can.”
As told by Thorgerson and Powell in “100 Best Album Covers,” wind direction presented a problem. To allow Rondell to appear on the right with Rogers on the left, Rondell actually posed on the left, Rogers on the right, and the two shook hands using their left hands. Hipgnosis then reversed the image in the darkroom.
If this is true, we presume some darkroom trickery must have been applied to un-reverse the number 20 that is seen on the building in some versions of the photo.
In the end, it was just another job for Rondell. “It was pretty easy to do, not too life threatening, and paid well,” he said.
Two photographs from the shoot were used for the album cover. One, shot using 35mm color transparency film, was used for the album’s U.K. release. Another, using 120mm transparency, appeared on the U.S. release.
They can be distinguished by one’s leaning forward and down by the flaming man; and the other’s leaning back and up by the flaming man, who is consumed by much more flame than in the alternate shot.
Decades later, with so many reissues of the album having been released, which photo corresponds to which edition of the album, is uncertain — to us, at least. Furthermore, several photo outtakes have been made public in the interim.
As a final act of commitment to their theme and a bold coupe d’grâce, Thorgerson and Powell remarkably chose to conceal the fruits of their labor inside an opaque black wrapper. A graphic designed by Hipgnosis’s George Hardie — the same man responsible for Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” prism design — was the only identifying mark on the album’s exterior as it was originally displayed on store shelves. The graphic depicted a twist on the cover image: a mechanical shaking of hands. “Welcome to the Machine,” indeed.
“I have heard it said that some folks carefully cut the edge with a blade and slid the record out,” Thorgerson said. “Thus they have the album to this very day still wrapped in black plastic and have never seen the burning man on the front.
“How absent can you get?”
“There’s nothing better at Christmas than you get a present that’s wrapped up and you tear off the wrapping paper, you look inside, and then the box, and you open the box and there’s your present,” Powell told us in our 2015 interview with him. “Well, the same thing applied when we did ‘Wish You Were Here.’”
Drummer Nick Mason said the shrink-wrap was delicious icing on the cake for the band, which, at that point, had begun to view the industry with no small amount of cynicism. “I suspect we probably enjoyed the shrink-wrapping more for the trouble it caused in the boardroom than its artistic excellence,” he said. “It was obvious that the record company was not familiar with the work of Christo.”
The band’s reception to the artwork was swift and enthusiastic.
“I was very self-conscious,” Thorgerson said. “Luckily they thought it was fine.”
After Thorgerson presented the it to the band, management, producer, engineer and others at the EMI’s Abbey Road Studios commissary, he received a round of applause. “Very moving, for me,” he said.
The label’s reaction was less enthusiastic. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when EMI executives learned the new album from Pink Floyd would be nearly as black as Spinal Tap‘s “Smell the Glove.”
In the early-’80s, Thorgerson, Powell and third Hipgnosis partner Peter Christopherson, aka Sleazy, began to focus on film-making, eventually founding film company Greenback. Shortly thereafter, “a very difficult financial situation had occurred due to our own bungling mismanagement,” Thorgerson explained to us in our 1997 interview. “We were in a state of severe financial loss in ’85,” he added, and their financial difficulties exacerbated the partners’ differences of opinion.
“I don’t think any of us, particularly me, behaved very well,” he admitted. They eventually went separate ways. Thorgerson continuing doing design work under the moniker StormStudios; Christopherson went on to a career in music with Throbbling Gristle and Coil; and Powell continued film work using the name Hipgnosis.
Thorgerson passed away on April 18, 2013, succumbing to cancer at age 69. Christopherson had died a few years prior: Nov. 25, 2010, at age 55.
Rondell was already an accomplished stuntman when he posed for the album cover. Rogers’ career was just beginning. Both continued their work in Hollywood for many years following “Wish You Were Here.”
Both seem to have stopped performing stunt work in the mid ’00s. Rondell’s resume boasts more than 150 stunt-related projects; Rogers’ includes nearly 100.
“Wish You Were Here” went on to become a platinum-selling album for Floyd many, many times over. It’s considered by many, along with “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall,” to be one of the band’s best works.