A chicken in a gas mask, a pigeon in a sandwich, a purple skinned model sitting on a cliff with a guy in a diving suit behind her….you’ve probably never heard of album cover photographer/designer Gene Brownell, but for a time in the 1960s and 1970s, his otherworldly work made the neighborhood record store a strange place.
Brownell did at least 40 or 50 covers, some for major record labels, but his life is a bit of mystery. At least as far as the Internet is concerned – not that the internet is the be all and end all in information, but it’s what we turn to these days, for better or worse. Seeming to have arrived on our planet from some far-flung galaxy sometime in the mid-60’s, he apparently returned to his world around the end of the 70’s. During that time, he transmitted his unique vision of infra-red people, explosions of color, very literal interpretations of band names, and a somewhat complicated relationship with birds to us.
Let’s have a look.
Brownell is and was in many ways obscure, but he was nominated for a Grammy for best album cover in 1969 for his cover for a band called Pidgeon:
And he actually won the best cover design award three years later for a band called Pollution. Which proves that a Grammy doesn’t always mean much, as those bands, like Brownell, are long-forgotten now.
Continuing his bird watching, he designed a striking cover for American Eagle’s 1970 self-titled album. No more is the bird a victim, as in the previous designs. This eagle looks like it’s ready to eat a pigeon.
The American Eagle (as well as the Pidgeon cover) were literal interpretations of the band names, albeit done creatively. For Wishbone Ash, he took a photo of a burned-to-ash wishbone. It is a nice photo though. The troubling bird relationship continues, as the chicken the bone came from probably didn’t volunteer for the modeling job.
Yet, for Help’s Second Coming album, we have a rainbow-winged bird rising majestically from an egg – a much more spiritual image than the unfortunate gas masked chick who hatched from Pollution’s egg. On the back of Help’s album is a beautiful multi-coloured Amazonian hat (?) echoing the bird wings from the front cover. But, a few years later, it’s growin’ out of Barry White’s head!
And a few years before that, Brownell showed us a similar image for Mars Bonfire, with a rainbow of concentric wavy circles encircling a guy’s face. He’s looking up. Up to the sky, perhaps up to space to Brownell’s home planet.
On that planet, or another, there may be snails – big, glowing snails.
Yes, using a snail to illustrate a cover by a band called Snail is a bit literal, but how ‘bout a stack of phone books for the Yellow Payges. That’s just a sad band name to begin with.
A Strawberry Alarm Clock, anyone?
Perhaps Brownell’s greatest contribution to album cover art was his prolific use of infrared film. From the evidence available, he must have loved it. Everybody was now pink and purple and earth was a different place, possessed of a mysterious aura.
Sometimes the world he created was just plain confusing. What is the guy in the diving suit up to behind the silver clothed model here? Is he contemplating a dive off the cliff to the chilly depths below to search for submerged chunks of meteorite for his Venusian girlfriend who’s staring icily at the camera because you’re interrupting this moment? And for the Hook – what the hell is going on here?
Even when he used regular film, his subjects sometimes had makeup on that made them LOOK infrared.
Not even John Denver was safe. Though Brownell didn’t bend Colorado to his infrared gaze, he gave John and Annie very pallid, grey complexions, perhaps hoping that maybe next time they would agree to be cast in purple under a deathly violet mountain sky.
Sometimes his subjects WANTED to look scary. Kind of (there’s that face makeup again).
Here, we see how the phone company treats its employees. Unpaid overtime indeed.
William Shatner, no stranger to the odd himself, was photographed for his first album at the height of Brownell’s infra-red period, yet surprisingly is not aglow in pink or purple. One gets the feeling that his version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was freaky enough for the record company and they had to draw the line somewhere.
Gene Brownell eventually disappeared from the public radar, similar to the “poof and they’re gone” of Pipedream when he did their album cover.
Perhaps he returned to another dimension of time and space. Or maybe he was just an average guy who retired to a little pink (a little infrared pink) house in New Jersey, and spends his days raising chickens in gas masks. Maybe he’s out there now, actually, thinking about glowing snails, Venusian princesses, and circular rainbows of color…
He was a creative guy who enriched the music and graphic design world during his time. An artist’s role is to present the world to us in a different way and cause us to see things in a new light, and that’s exactly what Gene Brownell did.)
[All images from Discogs]
9 Comments Add yours
I remember some of those covers (Leon, Barry and a few others)
Thanks! Yeah, in reading up on him I was surprised to see many covers I knew.
Wow. Great write up. You just unearthed work I had never seen in my life from him. That’s my uncle. He passed away a few years ago. Thank you very much for your research.
Oh and the baby chicken. He raised it in his studio.
Thanks for the comment- your uncle did some great work!
Did he retire from album photography in the late 70s?
Yeah. The 60’s and 70’s took their toll. Spent his remaining years in Arizona. Did some teaching with at risk youth. Have a couple prints of his downstairs. Snail was one of my fav’s (it’s also in the background on the Work and Mindy set) but the Pollution cover is the best. His father was a killer photog as well http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/search/collection/imlsmohai/field/creato/searchterm/Brownell
Would like to talk about your uncle! I worked with him and was his rep. for three years,from his first studio, first album cover et al. Would love to know where he went, Arizona? When? We did a huge amount of experimental testing, mostly for fashion-oriented clients, magazines such as the late great Avant Garde and the LA alternate newspaper. I just found this site, so I hope you get this!
Hi Peta, I’d love to talk to you about Gene. I was married to Gene for 20 years almost. He spoke of you often. We spent his last years here in Cottonwood AZ, where he taught photo and had a studio in Jerome and later we built an amazing studio space here in my (our) current home. Please send me a note and maybe we can connect.
Thank you, Peggy
Oh, by the way…very good artical
Thanks- glad you found it!