Long before cheesy album covers from the 50s and 60s found their way into the backdrops of my photos, I collected these covers as a convenient (and cheap!) way to decorate my home. Can’t afford a Picasso? No problem, a nicely framed Les Baxter LP featuring a space-age cocktail party makes a great conversation starter.
Back in those pre-photography days I’d “cover hunt” when the opportunity presented itself — i.e. I’m out wandering around town and there before me stood a sawtoothed pile of records in the corner of a thrift store. Once in a while I’d make purposeful trips to odd record stores to look for vinyl, but for the most part my collecting was merely to find something unusually retro-rific to hang on my walls.
Ah, but in the years since, upon discovering that I could tell unique and creative stories on digital “film” using vintage slabs of cheesecake imagery in the background… my vinyl habit has grown exponentially! Today, eBay, record stores, estate sales, and libraries play a big role in my vinyl hunting adventures for material suitable to stand in the background of my surreal photographic creations.
Let’s take a look at a few new additions to my cover collection (all purchased last weekend on Record Store Day) to see what it is about those records (as opposed to hundreds of others I flipped past) that grabbed my attention.
This first cover is from actress Gale Storm. I have no idea what Gale might sound like when she sings, but who cares?!?! Everything from the tilt of her eyebrows and the swoop of her shoulders, to the color of her dress is an ideal fit for the period style that is essential to my photos. I also really like the size of the image, as large faces provide more options to me in building a scene. The fact that text covers roughly 40% of the cover isn’t of great concern, as I can stand another cover in front of the text, and have Gale gazing out from the left edge of the scene I might build. The only real negative to this cover is the angle of Gale’s gaze — straight into the camera. I have generally shied away from such covers, preferring that the characters in the background train their gaze “off camera” to better build a scene in which the background characters are watching the action that takes place in the foreground. Recently, however, I’ve discovered that the hey-you-look-at-me fixed stare can be used to great effect to elicit a kind of uneasy engagement with the viewer. In any case, Gale’s Greatest Hits is a definite winner!
Next, let’s take a look at a cover from Walter Schuman. First, this ia a “Living Stereo” recording on RCA Victor, which makes it great regardless of the cover image or the recording within. Strike that. Living Stereo albums almost always have great looking covers, they just don’t necessarily work for my photos. At first glance, given that everyone on the cover is looking directly into the camera, you might think opportunities would be limited. Not so! It’s perfect! So why does this one work? Just look at those conservative, unhappy people! The mind simply boggles with wicked possibilities. Some of my very best work has come from composing scenes around group photos that strongly convey mid-century ideals. Most recently, this technique was used to construct an, um, “alternate portrait” for a choir of youthful “teens” (come on… how many of the people on this cover are under the age of 30? Or 40?) in my 2010 photo Envy springs forth from the pious song of man. Likewise, the background image seen in one of my most recognizable pieces, Final Frame at the Cuius Deo Optimo Open (AKA “bowling for nuns”) is an album cover portrait of an order of Polish nuns.
I strongly suspect “The Voices” Mr. Shuman is “presenting” above will one day be glorified by a similarly like-minded photographic fate.
Our third cover is also a Record Store Day find, and a cover that often pops up on web sites and blogs dedicated to the art of the cheesecake LP. I’m not sure how many Ray Conniff LPs I have in my collection, but I didn’t have this one, and it’s very, very good! This is a prime example of background characters directing their gaze and attention off camera, so I’ll be able to construct a foreground scene that obscures Ray, on the left, and has the willowy woman in red and her three tuxedoed admirers plying their attention on characters of my own choosing.
Best of all, ‘S Awful Nice is in excellent condition and won’t require much retouching when I get into post production. Many of my album cover finds are rescued from the dollar bins after years of storage abuse. Such covers necessitate a little “digital manipulation” to restore vibrant colors and correct decades of wear and neglect.
The next cover to consider, The Country Club Dance, is not quite as immediately “photo worthy” as the three covers above, but it does have definite potential — and a number of piyfalls. The characters are small, which unfortunately limits the scale of the figures I’ll be able to setup in the foreground. Also, all of the movement is to the extreme left edge — right off the cover — which means I’ll have to use this cover in conjunction with another to build a more complex backdrop. Still, the couple on the right are a great fit for the of-another-time motifs I often weave into my work.
Last but definitely not least is an album I found in the 50 cent bin at San Diego’s M-Theory Music. Being half the value of an album in a dollar bin, this one is pretty rough: split seams, severe cover wear, partially ripped cover… but just look at it!
Let the oooo-ing and ahhhh-ing begin! The swing’s to TV was released in 1958 on the heels of Bus Stop and The Seven Year Itch, so is it any guess as to who they were trying to imitate with the blonde model on the cover?
In all honesty, when I look at this cover I don’t immediately see how I’ll build a new composition around the image… but do I really care? No! Oh, yes, I suppose I’ll be able to construct a stage where the Marilyn-alike model is resting atop a stack of 45s, and I have a whole bunch of little plastic TVs I can use if I want to carry forward the theme from the background, but these are all 5 second top-of-my-head ideas. In reality, the battered and beaten album will be nicely stored in a clean vinyl sleeve and slipped into my cavernous stacks of wax. The, one day, an idea will hit that needs a busty blonde falling out all over a politically incorrect fur… and there I’ll have my cover at the ready!