Good album covers make you want to hear the record, creating curiosity and building expectations. They help set the tone, whet your appetite, fire your imagination, and—when you finally listen to the music—enhance the listening experience.
And they don’t just happen. As musicians call on, say, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, or Joe Henry in search of the perfect sound, they often seek out an appropriate artist or photographer to create a certain look. Album covers may, with time, seem intrinsically connected with the music, but they can also achieve their own autonomy. By the 1970s books like the popular and trend-setting Album Cover Album were already popular. People often frame covers, and the term “art cover” has been coined for works by Andy Warhol, Ben Shahn, Raymond Pettibon, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others. Some artists and photographers have developed such a distinct style of album art that they have ended up becoming their own kind of auteur.
Michael Wilson (www.michaelwilson.pictures) belongs in that category. Since his pictures started appearing on album covers in the late 1980s, Wilson has combined his passion for the history of photography with his own personal vision, and in the process he has amassed a huge body of work. To date his pictures have shown up on over 300 front covers; booklets, other inserts, and back covers push his album art total over 500. (Besides his work for the music industry, Wilson has also published four books, shot for magazines, and exhibited in galleries and museums.) His projects have sent him to Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Belgium, France, England, the Netherlands, China, India, and all over the United States. You’d have a hard time finding a popular genre that hasn’t benefited from a Michael Wilson album cover—folk, jazz, Americana, indie rock, blues, classical, and bluegrass form a partial list–and the labels he’s worked with include Nonesuch, Lost Highway, New West, Blue Note, Verve, Concord, Hightone, and Warner Bros. Bill Frisell, Over the Rhine, Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett are among the artists who have repeatedly requested his services.
Wilson is quick to acknowledge the influence of historically significant photographers—including August Sander, Bruce Davidson, Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Robert Adams, and Andre Kertesz—and this begins to explain why many of his pictures evoke an earlier time. The majority of his album covers are black and white; he still shoots film, processing and printing his own black-and-white work. Sometimes the pictures are shot out in the country, where the sky is likely to be overcast and gray. The trees tend to be leafless and the ground dry. You see old buildings that show the signs of age. Inside them, you see large rooms with tall ceilings; the rooms are empty, or nearly so, and the walls are usually bare; if there’s any furniture at all, it’s the skeleton of a chair. In rooms with tall, narrow windows, sunshine sometimes registers as a single block of light, obscuring the outside world. There’s an air of mystery to his pictures but at the same time there’s something inviting about them.
You almost never see crowds of people in his photographs, although you do see places that once drew a crowd, like old churches or abandoned storefronts. A business district may be decaying, but there is a poetry to that street that you’d miss if you drove past it in a hurry. Wilson’s images encourage you to slow down and notice things you might otherwise overlook. What you might consider drab turns out to be striking, yet nothing is romanticized or dramatized.
His musician portraits aren’t glamour shots with rock star smiles and flashy outfits. These photographs seem frank and unfiltered, the subjects staring back at the camera as directly as it looks at them. Wilson’s subjects seldom smile, and their faces sometimes project fragility and sensitivity, but they don’t emit a tortured-artist vibe.
Wilson and I are both Cincinnati residents, and recently I visited him at his home, which, although it’s in a city neighborhood, has a rural feel. Located at the end of a dead-end street, the house is on two acres, with a garden, two goats, and nine chickens. His basement functions as both a darkroom and an office in which everything from negatives to finished album covers is stacked and shelved and filed. While showing me various samples of his work, Wilson revealed how the media had changed since his photographs began appearing on album covers. At first his pictures solely adorned compact discs, which—remember these?—were housed in long boxes (“Those drove art departments crazy”); interestingly, 12-inch LP-size images exist for his CD-only covers, as record companies produced flats for advertising purposes.
In a curious twist of fate, Michael Wilson has been active long enough to see the media reverse course. While CD-only was standard at the start of his career, almost all his projects now include a vinyl release; in fact, some early albums have been reissued as first-time-ever 12-inch LPs, including some Buddy Miller titles and the classic cover for the final Replacements studio album, All Shook Down. I visited on a day when Wilson was waiting to learn what photos Nonesuch had chosen for Brad Mehldau’s 8-LP release, 10 Years Solo Live, which will contain a 20-page booklet with photographs and an extended essay by Mehldau. In person Wilson is soft spoken, down to earth, focused, and lucid. It turns out we were born a year apart, and during the conversation there was no need to explain pop culture reference points—especially when it came to music.
That isn’t to say, though, that Wilson was part of the musical mainstream while attending high school in the 1970s.