exile: angels in b&w

by Art Chantry:

this is a nifty photo of the original pasted up ‘artwork” (such as it is) of the rolling stones’ “exile on main street” LP cover. it belongs to the permanenet collection of the EMP (experience music project) in seattle. for my money, it’s the single coolest thing in their entire collection (outsde of my posters, that is). you should really go check it out sometime.


this cover was ‘designed’ by robert frank (and john van hammersveld). frank is one of the most important american photographers of the last half century. along with other notables like diane arbus, robert frank established the ‘new york school’ of photography famous for it’s harsh b&w gritty poetry and metaphor. like arbus, he began as a fashion photographer, but then met some other art photographers like steichen, he began to use his camera for a different purpose.

after encountering jack kerouac and allen ginsberg, frank collaborated to create his breakthrough work for the book, “the amercians”, finally finding a publisher in the grove press. the edgy, harshly honest depiction of american lifestyle and culture boosted him into the upper eschelon of american photography and at the same time alienated him from mainstream america.

in 1971, he was asked to work on the artwork for the ‘exile on main street’ project by mick jagger (usually the guy in charge of artistsic visual decisions for the stones). frank was hip and famous and cool, so he got the nod. he hung around the infamous recording session in that french chateau surrounded by the apex of sex, drugs and rock n roll. the images he shot are the most classically beautiful and decadent of the rolling stones’ entire career – the stuff we still bring to mind when we think of the stones. in a weird way, his photos of the stones in this period cemented our image of them forever.

this album cover was pasted up so crudely (virtually incompetently) with scrawled handwriting (mick’s) scotch taped into a cruddy collage next to test prints of robert frank photos and found images of sideshow freaks. this is the sort of thing that makes printers HATE graphic designers. this is a mess, a totally impossible piece of artwork to reproduce. i would hate to be the production pre-press guy who had to work with this thing.

but, the result is one of the single greatest record covers in the entire history of the artform of rock and roll. it graces (for my money) the single greatest record that rock and roll ever produced. everything about it is prefect – even the brash incompetence of the design and production ‘craft’. it’s as if some sort of decadent collapsing zietgeist were captured for preservation in amber forever.

john van hammersveld (the great los angeles graphic designer who did so many amazing iconic images of pop culture that it’s hard to list) loves to take credit for the design of this. he likes to say he invented punk rock with this cover design. well, ok, john. whatever you say‚Ķ. if you want to take credit for this incredibly incompetent piece of crap paste-up, well, then go ahead. but, i doubt you could have done this – especially so incompeteantly and amatuerishly as this. there is no way you could have dumbed yourself down enough to do something this crappy and stupid and ignorant of graphic design rules.

so, i have to question how much of this thing van hammer actually ‘created.’ there is nothing else in his portfolio that looks anything like this – even remotely. and robert frank’s work often looks exactly like this. so, i have to question who should get the credit for this design. so, i MUST credit both, but i think this was robert frank’s work for the most part. van hammersveld was probably the poor son of a bitch who handed this mess and then had to turn it into a reproducible piece of production artwork for printing. so, he saved this fly in ember for posterity. for that alone, he deserves all the love the world could offer.

robert frank was also contracted to shoot a documentary film about the exile project. i dunno if he shot much footage during the actual recording process or whether he was dragged in after that, but the result of h

fforts was the exceedingly dodgy, nasty and crude “cocksucker blues”. that movie is the cinematic equivalent of this record cover. it’s full of all the ugly horrible debased behavior one would expect on a massive monster rock tour in 1972, coupled with live performance of the majestic rolling stones at their superlative artistic peak. it’s a really an amazing whiplash-style document.

upon completion, mick jagger pulled the film from release fearing he would run into legal troubles in immigration for the behavior depicted in the film. since then it’s been shown rarely, but heavily bootlegged. it’s fairly easy to find. “official” screenings are restricted to rare annual private showings by robert frank. it’s become one of the most famous ‘hidden’ films of all time.

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