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Elliot Gilbert on his work with The Cars, Tom Waits, Van Halen and The Motels

Elliot Gilbert Album Covers

When I started planning interviews for Cover Our Tracks, the first image that came to mind was the face that appeared on The Cars' 1978 self-titled debut. The photo - one we all know - features a deliriously beautiful woman behind a clear steering wheel - she's wearing a wide smile with her head thrown back, her nails and lips are so vibrantly red that she appears to be exploding out of the cover. Maybe it was a tad unoriginal, considering The Cars cover was everywhere when a lot of us were growing up. But for album art enthusiasts, it hits all the right notes. In one way the image feels familiar, recalling the glamazons featured on the decadent Roxy Music covers of the seventies. In another way, it's innovative, if you think of it as a predecessor to a later cover that would define the next decade: Patrick Nagel's artwork for Duran Duran's Rio.

Like many of the cover portraits photographer Elliot Gilbert shot during his career, The Cars was released at the tail end of the seventies, when the musical landscape was dramatically evolving. While the eighties often are recalled as a period that went for style over substance, that era saw a variety of new musical genres move to the forefront: hip-hop, new wave, and heavy metal, to name a few. For better or worse, rock bands were becoming more polished, and the many of the new pop acts were decidedly edgier than in the early to mid-seventies.

Gilbert had already made a name for himself in the music industry, shooting covers for established acts like Tom Waits, John Denver, Bill Withers and Blue Oyster Cult. Music videos wouldn't arrive until 1981, and through his photography for numerous debut albums, he found himself in the unique position of introducing to us artists who would later dominate that format. Whether it was a performance-inspired photograph of David Lee Roth in a backbend; a glossy close-up of a model as an interpretation of The Cars’ slick, synthetic rock; or a more subversive take on the traditional bathing suit shot for up and coming new wave band The Motels, Gilbert conveyed in one photograph the style and sound of the bands his work represented. His cover art feels like a preview of what we'd later see on MTV.

Gilbert's work is featured on over two hundred albums covers, and he was nominated twice for GRAMMY awards for "Best Album Package." His iconic covers are included in numerous "Best Of" lists and album art books. Not only was he generous with his time for our interview, he forwarded some rarely seen outtakes from his photo sessions for The Cars and Tom Waits. Enjoy!


LK: Tell me a bit about your background. Where are you from originally and at what age did you begin pursuing photography?

EG: I was born in Germany, then lived in the U.S., but I got into photography when I was in Europe at the age of 24. I worked on an U.S. airbase while living in Mainz-Kastel in a youth hostile. I didn't have a camera, but I taught myself by reading magazines. It was during Vietnam, so the base would fly in supplies from Europe. I worked as a PX driver and was delivering stoves and refrigerators. At night I would teach myself photography with a magazine.

LK: Were there any specific photographers during that period who inspired you?

EG: I was most impressed with advertising photographers. They seemed more interesting to me than the artistic ones like Ansel Adams and Ed Weston and all that. There was Richard Avedon and there was a guy named - he was more creative in a different way - Jerry Uelsmann. And Guy Bourdin. Bourdin was a big influence on me. He was ahead of us. There also was a guy named Reid Miles who did ad work and albums. He did more of a Norman Rockwell type of a look. I liked the ads for Levy's Rye Bread. It was simple portraiture and they were on subways everywhere.

Influences: Clockwise from top: Guy Bourdin, vintage Levy's Rye Bread ad, Jerry Uelsmann, Reid Miles and Richard Avedon.

I have always been inspired by magazines and advertising. Even today I go to magazine stands and spend $100 or $200 without thinking about it. Magazines are inspirational, but I remember that as a student I tried not to look at magazines because I knew somewhere in my thoughts, I would reproduce something that had already been done. I wanted to keep my mind pure in that way. I didn't want to copy anybody. I wanted my own imagery and my own thoughts.

LK: When did you first pick up a camera? Were you still in Germany?

EG: No, it was after I came back to the U.S. I could figure technical things out by the time I left Germany, like what aperture was.

LK: Like many record cover designers and photographers of your era, you attended the Art Center College of Design in California. When did you enroll?

EG: Early mid-seventies. I went to junior college first and took art classes. I took with a teacher who I called "The Coach." His name was Harvey. He was this prim and proper kind of guy. He looked like a fireman from the 1800's with the mustache and the beard and he always wore a coat and a tie. He was just the nicest. There was no photography department at junior college. But there was a darkroom there, so Harvey opened it up for just a few of us students who were interested in photography. He brought the chemicals and the enlarger in and showed us how to use everything. I stayed with it.

Harvey offered to send me to Art Center with his money because he said I was the best student he ever had. I wouldn't do it. I went on my own. After I graduated I began doing record albums almost immediately.

LK: It's my understanding that back then many members of the faculty worked as art directors for record labels. Some students were discovered either while still in school or landed work right out of school via those connections. Is that true in your case?

EG: Very true. The teachers were working professionals in different fields. They would come in and teach you and critique your work. Sometimes you would get an actual assignment from a photographer, designer or art director, so on occasion they did offer work to a student.

LK: Were you still a student when you shot your first major label album covers for the American Graffiti soundtrack series?

EG: No, it was immediately when I got out. It came through the art director at MCA. I didn't know there was such a thing as photographers for album covers and that one actually gets paid for it. It was a nice surprise!

LK: How did they find you? Did you have a portfolio that was sent around?

EG: Yeah, well one wishes, but most people were like me. We went around to companies ourselves. There was a time when you'd call somebody up and they would actually answer the phone, or a secretary would answer and they allowed you to go through. Ninety-nine percent of your calls went through, and as you got more well known, the more people were happy to hear your name.

LK: So you cold called MCA?

EG: I called MCA and I asked if I could come speak to the art director. He had a great office overlooking the valley and being a young artist/photographer, it was like heaven to go into a room like that. Usually they put the art department somewhere underneath stairwells or in the basement. My first paying job post-Art Center was indeed the MCA cover for More American Graffiti.

Front and back covers of American Graffiti Vol. III (MCA, 1976).  Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: You shot two for the series: More American Graffiti and American Graffiti Volume III.

EG: Yeah. And there's an interesting story about one of the girls in the background on the third cover. She was always famous for doing nothing. Like, she was Kardashian before the Kardashians. See the blonde sitting on a car in the background? She is still famous today for doing nothing. She's in her eighties and she dresses like a vamp. Everything she has is pink, including her car.

LK: She has the corvette. Is that the infamous L.A. billboard queen, Angelyne? You're kidding!

EG: No, that's Angelyne. She was upset with me because I wouldn't "put a pretty girl like her" on the front. She kept saying, "Why would you take a pretty girl like me and put her in the background?" I'm thinking, "Because you’re not that pretty and you don't do anything!" She was miffed. They wanted a wholesome all-American girl and so that's what we used on the front cover. Anyway, that's just a sidebar. But the American Graffiti series was my first paying job after Art Center. From there it took off into different directions, but mostly album covers. I think I've done about two hundred of them.

LK: Easily. I thought for purposes of the interview, we'd focus on four of your most well known covers.

So, let's start with Van Halen's self-titled debut. The four individual "concert" shots that appear on the front cover captured the band exactly as they were to be thought of throughout their careers - as these high-energy performers. Had you seen them live before you photographed them, and did that influence the concept for the shoot?

EG: I was probably the first person to ever see them live outside of their little coterie of friends and people like that. It was just my assistant and me. They came to my studio, which was kind of smallish, and I had them play one by one. They got louder and more and more crazy. They played songs for four or five hours, each one of them. The whole studio was vibrating with this collective sound.

LK: Was the idea of the live shoot what they had in mind the first time you met with them?

Front cover of Van Halen - Van Halen (Warner Bros., 1978). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

EG: I met them at the Warner Bros. office. It was the whole band, the producer Ted Templeton, the art director, and the designer Dave Bhang. David Lee kind of led the discussion in that way - with what he wanted and didn't want. David Lee wanted to look like "cocks and balls." He said, "I wanna look like cocks and balls."

LK: That sounds like David Lee Roth.

EG: I didn’t know what the heck that meant, but okay! He wanted to look a certain way. Hard. I don't mean that sexually, but he wanted it to look a certain way. Then he gave me a big jar of marijuana. That was, you know, nice, but I didn’t need the jar.

It was weird too, because I had done an album before that for The Brothers Johnson called Look Out for #1 and it was kind of famous in the seventies. Dave Bhang asked me to bring my portfolio, so I did, even though they already had decided I was the guy. But Dave wanted me to show the band my portfolio. I didn't want to because I thought, "Jeez, why show my work and maybe not get the job?!" Just as I unrolled the photo of The Brothers Johnson faking like they were singing and playing their music, David Lee said, "We don't want a picture of ourselves faking like we're singing." I tried to roll it back up as quickly as I unrolled it. I was unrolling the exact thing that he said he didn't want. I was nervous I wasn’t going to get the job.

LK: What they were like to work with? What stands out in your memory about the day of the shoot?

EG: The one who blew me away completely was Michael Anthony. Michael was like a rock god. I rarely use that expression, but he was on another planet. He could literally throw a note to a person. He would do these spins, and then he would hold notes and throw them through me. I can't describe it, but he would do this certain back and forth, and then all of the sudden an explosion of sound came at me. It literally went through my body. It would completely destroy me. I would lose my concentration.

Eddie Van Halen was pretty much the way he looked on the cover - very friendly and very approachable. Just this smiling guy who knew how to play the guitar. I mean, that's a nice, simple way of saying it.

Alex - I don't know if you've seen those exercise balls that when you turn them in one direction there is something in the interior that gives it resistance and goes the other direction. It looks like a baseball-type thing, but inside is a counterweight, and it's like a gyroscope kind of thing you use to build up your wrists. He had one and he was just wired. I don't mean that in a drug way, I just think he was predisposed to be a drummer. Unbelievable energy.

LK: How do you get those red and green trail effects in the photographs of Eddie and Michael?

EG: There was a way of manipulating shutter speed with your f-stop in such a way that you could get trailing colors. Today it is really simple to do, but back then it was really difficult. I took a small spotlight that focused only on the electronics and then created a shutter speed that was much, much longer than necessary to take the pictures. It kind of paints in that color. The flash image would impregnate the film with something hard, so the combination of the hard and the soft is what happens.

LK: Alex looks like he is about to catch on fire.

EG: Again, that's lighting. I was trying to convince him to do one big tub of fire...just slamming the sticks into fire, but we ended up using fire for the second album.

Photo of David Lee Roth from back cover of Van Halen - Van Halen (Warner Bros., 1978). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: The back cover shot of David Lee Roth is a stunner. Did it take several attempts to shoot him in that backbend pose, or did you happen to catch that as he was performing?

EG: He was limited by space, so he physically had to wind up his body to get into kind of the premier karate pose. He was posing and began spinning and kicking and doing the things he does. When he did that arch, I remember stopping the photo session and walking up to him, readjusting his legs and asking if he was okay, because I wanted to take some pictures of that. So the music went back to playing and he kind of remade himself hard again and we took a roll of it.

LK: On the inner sleeve you capture them looking sweaty and worn out, which is how they would look after a show. Was that inspired by the impromptu performance in your studio or had you had that idea in mind beforehand?

EG: I went through a period where I wanted to photograph people looking like they were just coming out of a concert...spent, sexually spent. I wanted them to look sexually spent and it may not have been connected to what they were doing. Sometimes I would have a makeup artist just spray people down and redo their makeup. I like the idea of what a person looks like sexually spent. Man or woman, there is something at that one instant I always thought might be interesting.

Inner sleeve of Van Halen - Van Halen (Warner Bros., 1978). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: You shot part of the photography for the back cover and inner sleeve on Van Halen II. We were talking about the fire used on Alex's drumsticks. How that was done?

EG: Back then you just set it on fire or you didn't do it. We did it the old-fashioned way. We just wrapped some stuff around the sticks, put them in lighter fluid and set them on fire. We never thought about liability or whether he would get hurt. Today you would do it digitally, but back then you would have to do everything by hand.

LK: Was he nervous?

EG: Young kids at that time...there is nothing that can go wrong when you are that age. That's how Michael Jackson set his hair on fire. Today there would be a thousand lawsuits going back and forth. We also had this red smoke machine that was just a little canister. You put the fluid in it and once it heats up you push down on a plunger and it makes smoke. Today people would be worried, "Is it toxic? Is it this, is it that?"

LK: Was it David Lee Roth's idea to include the women in the nurse's uniforms?

EG: I didn’t shoot the David Lee photos that ended up on the second album. I think that was one of Dave's "Just a Gigolo" moments. I thought that idea was lame.

LK: So what happened?

EG: It was when the panoramic camera came out. I loved the format and wanted to use it - and I used it for that album. I could never get art directors to understand that you could redesign the album cover to open up so that it's panoramic. Anyway, originally I had a dance routine for David Lee that I worked out on film. He was supposed to hit four spots while the music was going for the four shots. It was very ambitious. He never made his mark - I think he hurt his knee during the photo session. So the photos of David Lee and the nurses were taken by another photographer. But the panorama idea came from me because no one had ever used a panoramic format.

LK: You use a similar dark background to great effect on The Cars. That image immediately transports me back to my teenage years in the early eighties. I'm sure you hear that a lot, given how often it's referenced as one of the most memorable of that era.

EG: I tell you how crazy it was. I know it is considered by Rolling Stone as one of the top covers of all time. It's a trip. One time I walked through this underground tunnel in San Francisco, went up the stairs and there was an entire side of a six-story building covered with that album cover. I wish I would have had a camera, but the iPhone had not been invented so I couldn't record it. Sunset Strip had billboard of it up. One time, three of my covers were up there.

The Cars - The Cars (Elektra, 1978). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: I read somewhere that the idea for the cover was entirely yours...that the record company handed the project completely over to you.

EG: They told me they needed a cover for The Cars. I listened to the advance and the notion of a girl driving a car with the lit up steering wheel came to me. Originally the front of it was going to be her crashing into two of them, and then on the back the others would be hiding behind that post. The idea that the record company told us what to do is not really the way it happened. They advised us, they knew the difference between Frank Sinatra and The Cars, but they didn’t really have an idea of how they wanted to do things. Someone could tell me something and twenty or thirty images would come in. I had a habit of rejecting my first few ideas, because I thought, "That's what everybody would think." Like with The Cars. You can take a picture of a car. Everyone's going to think of that one, so I would always reject my first images, even though I thought I was brilliant guy. When you are freelance and you are trying to make a career of it, it's different.

Inner sleeve from The Cars (Elektra, 1978) designed by drummer David Robinson.

LK: The drummer, David Robinson, has stated in some interviews that he wanted a collage similar to the interior sleeve to be the front cover, but the record company disregarded that idea.

EG: He had these pictures of himself and they were just...imagine like two people standing in front of a white background and you photograph them doing everything: laughing, smiling, angry, crying and hitting each other and choking each other. Every variation you can dream of in black and white 35 mm, in a horizontal format, which doesn’t fit the square format. The only way it would have fit was to put five or six photos in all at once. So the original looked very much like the inner sleeve, meaning, it looked like the group did it. The only thing they were missing was some shitty Def Leppard type graphic. Honestly, I was like, "You guys are on dope." But when the rest of the band saw the one that's now the album cover, everyone went crazy. The truth is he was beaten to a pulp, in a manner of speaking. What can I say, he has a right to his opinion.

LK: The band used that cover model motif on other album covers. Regardless of what he said, I feel like you were very influential.

EG: I appreciate you saying that because with the second album cover, oftentimes people will say to me, "Oh, that's beautiful picture of her laying on the hood," and I say, "No, that's another album cover." The point I'm making is that a lot of people got into The Cars because of the first album cover. I really believe had they gone with that black and white collage it would have been a different story. That's not the kind of graphics you want out there. It was garage band kind of stuff. He prevailed in having his inner sleeve made, he prevailed in getting album cover number two more indicative of the way he liked it - an illustration rather than photographs.

LK: Tell me about the cover model, Natalya Medvedeva. She later went on to become a singer, writer and political activist so I've always been intrigued by her.

EG: I knew her as Natasha. She was Russian and came from an agency up in Hollywood. She came in for the interview and of course she was The One. And with the lipstick she was The One plus. She was almost uncontrollable, just wilder than my ideal. She couldn't stop moving. She had a great personality and was pounding the steering wheel. She was a blast. Putting her together with this steering wheel, which was held up on some apple boxes and some sandbags to hold it down - and she was able to position herself like it was real.

Outtake of The Cars cover model Natalya Medvedeva (left). Back cover and outtakes of the band (right). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: The steering wheel looks almost like lucite.

EG: There was no lucite steering wheel back then, except in certain models of cars, you had to make everything. It's all analog. I had the steering wheel, I just recast it. I cut the edges off and put a strobe light against the plastic. I didn't know what it was back then, but I wanted the steering wheel to glow. It was like fiber optics. I wanted something more see through so the light would kind of go around it and illuminate the steering wheel. It worked halfway down and then it kind of faded away. Today you could do it digitally.

LK: You always knew that it was going to be a tight shot of her face with the steering wheel?

EG: Yeah, I've even seen the outtakes and all the outtakes are pretty much exactly the same. I literally moved up close on her. I never really moved away. I have a polaroid of it somewhere but that was the shot. I directed her fingers, I directed her face, I directed every fingernail. Nothing was by accident. I've never taken a photograph that was by accident.

I've always been an amateur designer, so I thought in total terms. I never thought of just a photograph. I thought of the location of the typeface and always made a visual place for it. The Art Director, Ron Coro, once complimented me by saying that I was the only photographer he'd ever worked with who didn’t need type. My photos could stand without type. The Cars didn’t need typeface, it just didn't need it. His first inclination was to put no type on it.

LK: The red lipstick and fingernails, the steering wheel all seem as if they are popping out of the album cover.

EG: She came in with the nails and the lips of course, but then I went to the makeup artist and said, "Make it bigger, make it heavier." The goal was to make it bigger. With the nails, we just kept adding sizes. I had this concept of things coming out of the physical boundaries. That somehow these pictures should be coming out at you. I wanted it to become three-dimensional. I used that idea with my recent career as an automotive photographer. I'd redesign magazines so the images will come out instead of you looking into the confines of a page. There's a periphery you can't see, but that was my goal was to create that periphery.

LK: The Brothers Johnson cover we talked about earlier is very similar in that way.

The Brothers Johnson ‎– Look Out For #1 (A&M, 1976). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

EG: My goal has been to kind of break out from the frame. I've always seen the frame as kind of arbitrary and I've always looked at the edge. I never looked at the center of the frame. I mean, I look at it to focus, but I never really look at the center. I'm always trying to crowd the edge, as if to say there is something just outside what you can see. There's something outside that square or that horizontal that exists and I'm trying to express that there's an empirical edge to the frame. There's only that distance in our periphery, you know, we see things that we don't really notice. I always notice the edges. The center takes care of itself. The edges are always what I was looking at.

I tried to be as individual as I could, so I was always looking for new formats, a new light or a new reflector or a new something. I'd call up art directors and tell them I had a new lens. With The Brothers Johnson - that was an ultra wide lens. I was literally in their faces pushing the edges. Normally it distorts people so much to have a wide-angle lens while photographing someone that close - you usually get like a bulbous face or nose or something. One would never look at that and say it was taken with an ultra wide lens. It was a 40 mm on a two quarter, so it's really wide. An 80 mm is like a normal lens, even though 100 mm was really normal, but 80 mm was the Victor Hasselblad I used. I never really liked the 80 mm. I thought it was a flat kind of a look. So I would either go with a long lens or I would go with an ultra wide lens. But then the challenge is to not make it look like an ultra wide lens.

LK: How would you do that?

EG: It wasn’t really magic, it's just that I was aware of it. I was aware of my edges and pushed the edges and what you see, there is no cropping. I would never crop any photographs. So what you see is what I shot. It was to the edge. I remember handholding that Brothers Johnson cover. It was not shot on a tripod. I was holding it. I held my position like I was on a tripod and I would make micro adjustments to people's faces. The guy on the left - I would literally turn his head with my hand because that's how close I was. I turned his hand so it wasn’t distorted and then I would work on the other guy. They don't look distorted but there's distortion like crazy going on.

LK: Did you use the same technique for The Cars cover?

EG: I vaguely remember that I might have. Like I said, I didn’t like an 80 mm. I didn’t think the normal lens had character at all. In an album cover format I never liked the way it looked. It just didn't look right. It was like B-flat vanilla when you have all of these choices. I kind of remember that I shot it with the 120 mm and that had enough character for The Cars. What you see is exactly what I saw. There's no cropping.

LK: The way you employed the lenses and shot physically close to the subject - was that something that you picked up from studying other photographers, or was it always your natural style?

EG: As I got further into my career, I got closer and closer to people. Most people wanted to put telephoto lenses on their cameras. They talked to people from wherever they're comfortable: ten feet, twelve feet, fifteen feet. I was never afraid to approach that close. And I enjoyed talking to people and actually controlling the frame. So when I showed up with expensive telephoto lenses to photograph a model or a rock group, I always chose the shortest of the telephoto lenses because I wanted to be next to them. I didn't want to be ten feet away. I felt like I was too distant and it became more of a portrait rather than an expression.

LK: Let's chat about the Motels cover, which was also released in 1979. Both The Cars and The Motels were pop/rock bands that rode the new wave genre into the eighties. The cover model, the colors, and the concept for this cover is the polar opposite of The Cars cover, but represents that time period in music just as well. How did the Motels cover happen?

The Motels - Motels (Capitol, 1979). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

EG: This was a different situation for me. Capitol Records called and said, "There's this band called The Motels and they want to shoot at a motel." Okay! They didn't want to go far from where they were staying and it needed to be done quickly. So I went over to where they were staying. It was this low-rent motel. They said they had a model in mind. I never thought that they would bring a woman of that age!

LK: Wow!

EG: They had the idea that they wanted to put this woman on their cover. I think she already was wearing bathing cap and I was like, "What?" Because it's sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and I thought I was going to cast a model. I would have fun casting a model, you know? But they had the model and I think it was someone's mother. I'm not really sure. But she wore that 1940's style bathing suit and I had to figure out what the hell they were talking about. I thought, "These guys are crazy." Because it was so anti-sex at the time. It was not a 1980's group type thing.

LK: What was she like? I can't imagine where they would find an older woman who would be game to do this in a bathing suit for an album cover for an unknown band. Do you remember anything about her?

EG: No, nothing. They said, "Here’s your model" and I said, "Okay" and they said, "Here's where we're going to shoot - make something happen." And I see my career just going down the tubes.

LK: Were the pastel colors and geometric fixtures part of the original design of the hotel? You said it was pretty rundown, so I was wondering if the photograph is representative of what the location originally looked like when you arrived.

EG: I remember counting the aqua panels in the background, and the one on the far left was not aqua so I asked the office to give me a screwdriver, and I sent my assistant up there to create an aqua panel from a different part of the motel and put it up there so that I had balance and color. For the rest, I sent him out to find me some towels in that color. And there was no way to text me a picture of it and I could say yes or no, it was just, "Go and get me four aqua colored towels just to give me some balance in that aqua color." I told my assistant go to Broadway or wherever the store is - The May Company - and get me some towels. While he was gone, I faked it and screwed around with the lights. "And bring back some sunglasses. Don't come back without it. Come back with something." That was always the goal. I sent them out and in an instant an assistant became a designer.

LK: The focal point, besides the model, is the pool. I'm guessing the way you shot it made it look larger and bluer than it was in real life.

EG: I never liked the shape of the pool. That was the combination of being in the wrong spot at the wrong time. That was also shot on a 40 mm with my Hasselblad. I got low and that's the reason she looks really tall. It's distorted.

The sun was in the wrong position. I should have shot it much earlier in the day because of that shadow that's kind of in the background. Today it would be easy to remove it. You can't light an area that big without a whole bunch of people, a bunch of electricity, and a bunch of power equipment. I was really flummoxed with the whole thing because I had to make something happen right then.

(Left) Back cover of The Motels - Motels (Capitol, 1979)  and inner sleeve (right). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: You shot the band for the back cover and inner sleeve that night?

EG: Yeah. They came out of their motel room. By the time I finished, it was dark. The photograph on back cover was lit with strobes. I didn’t have a conversation with any of them. Not even Martha. I just told them where to stand. They were just sitting there drunk or I don’t know what, so I just told them where to stand and sit and I would take some pictures. I remember it was the wrong number of people. I was always into odd numbers: ones and threes and fives - never two or four or six. It's a design of shape and odd numbers - you know, one works better than two - three works better than four, five works better than six. Even numbers don't work when you make designs. I never really liked even numbers because I always looked for shapes.

LK: That's clear from the cover and the way it's tilted. Was it shot that way to highlight the shapes behind the model?

EG: Yeah. That's my ones and threes and fives concept. It was a way to look at it as lines only and not the person. I walked around the pool about two dozen times trying to find a shape that worked and an angle that I could shoot. I have an innate sense of trying to make shapes, so to me that was a large space and then a small space. It came about that way. I actually enjoyed the pressure of coming up with something out of nothing.

LK: Set designing was a huge part of your job. Which is a great way to move onto Tom Waits’s Blue Valentine, since I know you have some stories about creating that set.

EG: He wanted to hang out at a gas station. So we drove around looking at gas stations and they were all new. He wanted some old, run-down crummy place. We drove around and I didn't like anything he showed me.

Tom Waits - Blue Valentine (Asylum, 1978). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: Was this the first time you'd met him?

EG: When I met Tom it was with his manager at this place on Sunset Boulevard. I didn't know who he was. Tom was Tom in a way I’d never seen a person before. I don't know how to explain it, except that he was extraordinarily cool, and extraordinarily physical.

Then I met him at Denny's restaurant at two in the morning. We just hung out at the coffee counter. And then we drove around at nighttime and he was playing me his music. I didn't know he was like a counterculture kind of hero. People were coming up to him saying they couldn't make it without listening to his music. While we drove around, he played some music for me and I honest to god couldn't take it because it was so incredible. I told him to turn it off. He thought I hated it but it was the complete opposite. It was just...too much. I'd never heard words and music played like that. I just asked him to turn it off. I said to him, "You know, I know exactly who you are and I know exactly what you want to do. Okay, turn it off. You want to be at a gas station. I get exactly how to present you in a photographic way."

LK: I was surprised to read on your Facebook page that you actually built the gas station set.

EG: I looked all around for old gas stations and just couldn't find anything like that. I started renting props and parts from studios and some sex shops. Rented some things from Culver Studios - its coming back to me - it's where they did Gone With The Wind. I went there and got the main pieces. The spark plug that sits on the wall - that's actually what inspired me - that one spark plug.

We ended up building the set. I did. It was easier for me to come up with it. He kind of just left it to me to find some gas stations. You know, these guys have schedules and they have to do something - go into the studio or whatever they have to do. You have to come up with something in an instant.

LK: How long did it take?

EG: I'd say it took about two or three days. Yeah, I took the parts and then I reconstructed it. We just did it in an empty lot, we didn’t even ask permission. It's just stapled and taped up there. I forget how big my crew was. I think I had three or four people working, but we just kind of taped it together, really.

And then I was thinking of the sleaziest colors I could come up with. I wanted to keep it simple and I couldn't think of anything sleazier than green and blue - colors that really don’t match and they are not pleasing colors. It's, you know, ugly. That was the goal - to make it as sleazy as I could. The most mismatched colors I could find were green and blue. If I had had more help I probably would have wet the ground to make it look sleazier. So I lit it up and that's how that album cover came about.

LK: All of the photos remind of film stills. Was that intentional?

EG: I got a vibe from him and the art director when we went out looking for locations. His album was a feeling of a city and hanging out late and that kind of stuff. And you know, he had that grease monkey look. He showed up like that, all dirty.

LK: Was he receptive to having you shoot him close up for the cover?

EG: I think I used a telephoto on him, but I was focused very closely right up in his face and he didn't really speak. Throughout the entire session, he didn't say anything really. It was unnerving because those were the days of film and we didn't have time to reload the camera between twelve shots, so it was this the combination of shooting and taking chances. He just kind of got contemplative and I learned not to speak and just take pictures.

(Left) Outtake from Tom Waits - Blue Valentine (Asylum, 1976). Back cover and interior photos featuring Rickie Lee Jones (right). Photography by Elliot Gilbert.

LK: Rickie Lee Jones who was his girlfriend at the time, appears with him on the back cover and inside the gatefold. Was she expected at the shoot?

EG: I didn't know she was going to be there, but I assumed she was might show up because that was her boyfriend. I was never formally introduced to her. She just kind of came in. I positioned her near the car and I may have moved her hair or something. I don’t really remember. But it worked out.

LK: Is that his car and did it already have "Blue Valentine" painted on the side of it?

EG: Yeah, it was already there. I didn't think that lettering looked good. Also, that's my car that is way on the right. It's kind of reddish. I call that my "fatal flaw." It was to prove that it was made by me. I got so involved with something as simple as styling it up that I forgot to move my car. It's happened a few times in my career where I lose tools or something and it's in the photograph and people don't notice, and I don't notice it. Or cables to run electricity that I've left in the photograph. I've come to call those the "fatal flaw." I have album covers where I've left cables in it or I've left people's combs in it or makeup or something and I kind of kick myself afterwards because when you stare at something for hours and hours and hours, you don't even see it. Afterwards I'd think, "Oh I really screwed that one up." It's an interior kind of dialogue I have with myself about making the perfect photo. But of course, the perfect photo is something with flaws. That’s how you know that it’s real.

For more of Elliot Gilbert's work, see the gallery below:

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