Early on in “Squaring the Circle,” Oasis co-leading man Noel Gallagher recalls a quote (though without remembering who said it) that refers to vinyl as “the poor man’s art collection.” While the posh people have priceless works of art on their walls, the working class people keep their precious art on the floor stacked against the wall. That treasured artwork surrounds the black vinyl discs revolutionized by Hipgnosis.
Part of Hipgnosis’ rise to fame relies on the pure happenstance of Storm Thorgerson being friends with the members of Pink Floyd before the band was ever even known as Pink Floyd. But it’s the unrestrained artistry of both Thorgerson (who appears only in archival footage, having passed away in 2013) and co-founder and collaborator Aubrey “Po” Powell (as the driving subject of the doc) that truly put them at the forefront of respected and revered album artwork. Combine that with the unbelievable excess of money the music industry of the 1970s was spending at the time, and you’ve got the perfect storm for brilliant, trippy imagery to accompany some of the greatest rock music of all time.
“Squaring the Circle” doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the story’s presentation. Shot mostly in beautiful black and white photography (with albums and archival footage appearing in full color), it’s a standard talking head documentary with plenty of archival footage, as well as some cool, animated interstitials to introduce the album artwork being discussed. But it’s the stories from the fathers (hell, they’re even grandfathers now) of classic rock and roll, combined with insights from Hipgnosis, that make this a fascinating film.
You’ll find out how and why a simple image of a cow in a field became instant iconography on the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and how they lit a man on fire for “Wish You Were Here.” See how composite imagery featuring two children and the practical location of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland was used to create Led Zeppelin’s mystical “Houses of the Holy.” Hear about how much effort went into flying a statuette, which Paul McCartney won in an auction, to a mountaintop in the Swiss Alps to be photographed for the cover of “Wings Greatest.” Laugh about how much money was spent to photograph a sheep on a lounger on a beach in Hawaii, all so the photo could take up just a couple inches of space on the cover of 10cc’s “Look Hear?” album.
They’re not all instant classics though. Hipgnosis may be artists, but they were also making a living off their work. That’s why not every piece of album artwork was tailor-made for the music it was meant to represent. Sometimes, Thorgerson or Powell just had a wild idea, and they decided to make it happen. In fact, there were times when they would re-pitch artwork to various bands and musicians if it was rejected by someone else. One of the funniest moments in the documentary comes when Paul McCartney learns that one of his albums used a rejected piece of artwork.