The Album Cover Photography of Michael Wilson

A Bad French Horn Player Makes Good

The Album Cover Photography of Michael Wilson

“When I should have been listening to the usual suspects—Aerosmith, Zeppelin—I couldn’t care less,” he confessed. “All through high school I had four Dennis Brain French horn records that I would listen to over and over. My love of the French horn led to photography, in that I’d saved up 800 dollars to buy a horn.” At the last minutes he changed his mind, though. “That was about the exact same time that I had the realization that I was a little delusional,” he said. “Although I loved this instrument, I was about the worst horn player in the high school. I just honestly couldn’t play it.”

Rather than buy a French horn, he loaned his brother money for a Martin guitar and got himself a Pentax 35mm camera. When offered a college scholarship, Wilson learned, after talking to a counselor, that he could major in photography. Quickly what began as a course of study transformed into a calling. “It was like walking into a darkened theater where someone gave you a ticket to a movie or a play,” Wilson explained. “You only went to it because they gave it to you for free. The curtain goes back. You realize, I love this. I certainly didn’t seek it out, but once it was shown to me I was a goner.”

Wilson happened to connect with pop music during a period when it was experiencing a burst of creativity. “I got all ate up with the Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads,” he said. “I was more typical for someone my age.” During this period Wilson looked at photography books in libraries and album covers wherever he could find them. “I would spend lots of time hanging out at record stores,” he said. “I’d see a Robert Frank photograph on a New Lost City Ramblers record. I’d see a Stephen Shore photograph on an ECM cover. ECM covers were always so beautiful. In two hours in a record store I’d see five or six that were just as appealing as anything I saw in the photo books at the library, and I would be just as moved by these photographs.”

After college, the jobs Wilson landed in the photography business threatened to dull his passion. A friend who knew what Wilson really wanted to do suggested he send pictures to some record companies. “Among the other music nerd things, when I was looking at album covers I would pay attention to the art director,” Wilson explained. “There was a woman’s name that showed up on a lot of the album covers that jumped out at me. My friend was like, ‘Does she even know you want to do this?’

“About 1989 I printed a handful of portraits. My wife Marilyn bound them together in a book I sent to this person. All I knew was her name, Jeri Heiden, and that she worked at Warner Brothers. It turned out she was the head of the art department. She was one of those rare people who didn’t need a salesman. She saw something in the work. I now realize what a rare gift that is. There’s such a minority of people that can recognize something and say no, I trust you, do it. I got a postcard back from her. A couple weeks after that management from the BoDeans called on Jeri’s recommendation and asked me to shoot the band as they were touring near Cincinnati.”

Getting your foot in the door isn’t the same as making it, and when Wilson met with Jeri Heiden in her L.A. office, he nearly thwarted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I had a really horrible portfolio that was like everything I had done for two years as freelancer, neatly laminated, all meant to impress her with how professional I was,” he said. “It was embarrassing. She was looking at the same photographs I was for inspiration—you know, the history of photography—but I was showing her this stuff that was at best mediocre commercial photography. As we’re leaving her office I’m feeling miserable.

“Fortunately, though, Jeri Heiden threw out a lifeline to me. She said, ‘Did you bring anything else you could show me?’ I said ‘Well, it’s just my own stuff’—pictures I was going to show a friend that lived in L.A.—and among those was the two dogs in the street that became the Replacements cover and some other pictures. She immediately pulled those out and called in another art director who was designing the package, Kim Champagne, and she asked Kim who was shooting the Replacements. They had booked another photographer in L.A., a really great photographer, and Jeri Heiden said, ‘Why don’t you send Michael to Minneapolis?’ That was huge.”

Asked why his work clicked with Jeri Heiden and other art directors, Wilson pointed to the history and tradition of photography. “My inspirations are pretty apparent in my work,” he said. “The portraiture of August Sander and Irving Penn…I love the editorial approach and the insight of people like Robert Frank, and that carries.”

Emerging during the “CD-only era” offered Wilson some advantages, as CD inserts often include a series of photos that interact with each other. Wilson’s portraits, nature shots, building shots, street shots, and other imagery that end up on the covers and inserts usually belong to a single session, forming what could be interpreted as a narrative with the musician or band as the main character. Often likening the portrait process to a conversation, Wilson linked the subject and the surrounding scenery when he said, “I love looking around the edges of the conversation.” Like a jazz musician, Wilson relies heavily on improvisation. “Let’s say I’m meeting somebody at their home in Nashville,” he explained. “I get the address, and maybe I go and I find out where it is and then spend an hour where I park the car and walk through a neighborhood—is there anything here I see? It’s very much a scavenger thing. And then you get these gifts thrown at you sometimes—you show up somewhere, and there’s this beautiful place that makes itself available to you.”

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