Pink Floyd’s “Back Catalogue”

I’ve been thinking about this photo in recent days. I’m sure many of you have seen it before. What strikes me about this image is how many layers of meaning it has. One could argue that this is one of the most “meta” artworks ever produced.

On the surface, it’s a photo of naked women. It’s sexy and risqué, and it works on that level. I’m sure there are some who will decry it as sexist and demeaning, and yes, the world has changed in the 25 years since this photo was first published. Context and subtext are different these days. But if all you see is a bunch of naked women, really, you’ve missed the point altogether.

On another level, this photo is a commercial artefact. The image was commissioned by EMI Records to promote the re-release of Pink Floyd’s back catalogue (“back” catalogue – get it?). As a piece of advertising, it’s brilliant. The old marketing maxim says that “sex sells”, and the fact that this image is mildly titillating has given EMI exposure (no pun intended) far beyond the original 1997 marketing campaign. After all, here we are talking about it 25 years later. The image itself has taken on a life and meaning beyond its original commercial intent, which is the outcome all advertising creatives dream of.

The photo itself is beautiful. Shot by photographer Tony May, it displays a masterful use of composition and lighting. The filters applied make it look like an oil painting. In fact, for a long time I wasn’t sure whether it was a painting or a photograph. This is clearly intentional, since May has framed his subjects against the beamed ceiling and roman columns in a way that references renaissance art. It’s a cheeky nod to Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”.

The models’ backs were hand painted by artist Phyllis Cohen in a painstaking process that required the models to stay motionless for up to six hours. The images, of course, are copies of the Pink Floyd album covers originally created by famed photographer and graphic artist Storm Thorgerson. So the image is, in fact, a photo of paintings of photos.

But there is a deeper layer of meaning, and that, of course, is the music. This image is all about music, even though no musicians or musical instruments are present. None of the tropes that painters have traditionally employed to represent music (musical scores, dancing, etc.) are employed, and yet, anyone familiar with Pink Floyd’s music cannot look at this picture without melodies and rhythms running through their head. These album covers represent sound worlds and, for fans, the images and sounds are inexorably linked. In fact, when I see the cover of The Wall I cannot help replaying in my mind the eery animated sequences of the film – duck-marching hammers, the school master mincing children, and bombs falling over London. So really, both music and film are represented here.

This image is the ultimate in artistic collaboration. It couldn’t have existed without the work of several different artists: photographer Tony May, painter Phillis Cohen, graphic artist Storm Thorgenson, and the musicians of Pink Floyd. It also wouldn’t exist without the more prosaic commercial objectives of the EMI marketing team. It is a self-referential artwork, yet it takes inspiration from both within and without. It’s funny (it is, after all, just an elaborate pun), sexy, cheeky and light-hearted. And yet it is well-executed with tremendous skill from great artists.

It is what I would call “meta-art”.

An outtake from the “Back Catalogue” photo shoot.

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