The History of the Fisheye Photo Album Cover

Like goth­ic script in heavy met­al, the fish­eye album cov­er pho­to seems like a nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring fea­ture of cer­tain psy­che­del­ic strains of music. But it has a his­to­ry, as does the fish­eye pho­to­graph itself. The Vox video above begins in 1906 with Johns Hop­kins sci­en­tist and inven­tor Robert Wood, a some­what eccen­tric pro­fes­sor of opti­cal physics who want­ed to dupli­cate the way fish see the world: “the cir­cu­lar pic­ture,” he wrote, “would con­tain every­thing with­in an angle of 180 degrees in every direc­tion, i.e. a com­plete hemi­sphere.”

Rather than putting them to under­wa­ter use, lat­er sci­en­tists employed Wood’s ideas in astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tion. Their next stop was the pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phy mar­ket: the first mass-pro­duced fish­eye lens, made by Nikon, cost $27,000 in 1957. From aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals to the pages of Life mag­a­zine: mass media brought fish­eye pho­tog­ra­phy into pop­u­lar cul­ture. An afford­able, con­sumer-grade lens in 1962 brought it with­in the reach of the mass­es. For the way it com­press­es angles, the fish­eye lens “was, and always has been, a handy tool to cap­ture tight quar­ters, as well as huge spaces.”

The fish­eye lens suit­ed the Bea­t­les phe­nom­e­non per­fect­ly, com­press­ing back­stage hall­ways and sta­di­um-sized crowds into the same hyp­not­i­cal­ly cir­cu­lar dimen­sions. “Per­haps its great­est strength was mak­ing rock stars appear larg­er than life.”

The fish­eye pho­to “reflect­ed the trip­pi­ness of the psy­che­del­ic era.” Although one of the ear­li­est uses on an album cov­er was Sam Rivers’ Fuschia Swing Song, it soon adorned the Byrds Mr. Tam­bourine Man and—of course—the cov­er of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Expe­ri­enced. The icon­ic band pho­to of the Expe­ri­ence, tak­en by graph­ic design­er Karl Fer­ris, inspired hun­dreds of psy­che­del­ic imi­ta­tors.

Fer­ris thought of the fish­eye pho­to with ref­er­ence, again, not to the ocean but the stars: Hendrix’s music, he said, was “so far out that it seemed to come from out­er space.” In order to intro­duce the band to audi­ences who hadn’t heard of them yet, he con­ceived of them as a “group trav­el­ing through space in a Bios­phere on their way to bring their oth­er­world­ly space music to earth.” Insep­a­ra­ble from space trav­el after NASA’s many fish­eye pho­tos of the Apol­lo mis­sions, the fish­eye album cov­er con­tains entire worlds in a sin­gle droplet, and promis­es to trans­port us to the out­er reach­es of sound.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter the Cov­er Art Archive: A Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of 800,000 Album Cov­ers from the 1950s through 2018

The Impos­si­bly Cool Album Cov­ers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Cre­ative Team Behind These Icon­ic Designs

Peo­ple Pose in Uncan­ny Align­ment with Icon­ic Album Cov­ers: Dis­cov­er The Sleeve­face Project

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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