Joel Brodsky, 67; shot iconic album covers

Washington Post

Joel Brodsky, a photographer whose memorable album cover pictures of Jim Morrison, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin and dozens of other performers helped define the visual image of popular music in the 1960s and ‘70s, died of a heart attack March 1 at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 67.

Brodsky was an artist in a now obsolete format, using the 12 3/8 -inch square of the album cover as his canvas for pictures that varied from moody portraits to surreal atmospheric scenes to stylized illustrations of ideas.

He photographed about 400 album covers for a diverse cast of musicians that included B.B. King, Carly Simon, Barry Manilow, Kiss, Iggy Pop and Gladys Knight and the Pips.


His best-known picture, made at his New York studio in late 1966, shows a bare-chested Morrison of the Doors, with his arms outstretched. Featured on the cover of the 1985 “The Best of the Doors” album, the black-and-white image depicts the messianic, sensitive and dangerous qualities that made Morrison such an important musical figure of his time.

Brodsky described the session in a 1981 interview. The 23-year-old Morrison, he said, was “totally plastered ... so drunk he was stumbling into the lights.”

Still, he projected an edgy charisma that Brodsky was able to capture on film.

“You know, Morrison never really looked that way again, and those pictures have become a big part of the Doors’ legend,” Brodsky said. “I think I got him at his peak.”

Five of Brodsky’s photographs of the Doors appeared as album covers, and he received a Grammy nomination for the group’s 1967 debut, “The Doors.” His cover shot for “Strange Days” (1967) showed carnival acrobats, a strongman and a midget in a conceptual street scene.

In 1971, Brodsky photographed soul musician Hayes in sunglasses and a striped robe for his “Black Moses” album. The cover unfolded in the shape of a cross to a size of 3 feet by 4 feet.

Later in the 1970s, Brodsky designed and photographed a series of seven groundbreaking covers for albums by the Ohio Players. Without showing the band itself, he illustrated such titles as “Ecstasy,” “Pleasure” and “Pain” with frankly erotic images, sometimes with sadomasochistic elements.


Brodsky was a meticulous craftsman, spending hours setting up lights, scenery and cameras.

“What Annie Leibovitz and David LaChapelle ended up doing, Joel was doing 30 years ago,” said gallery owner Chris Murray, who gave Brodsky his first exhibition in 2001 at Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. “Joel’s work was a precursor to the illustrated concept album.”

For several years, Brodsky was house photographer for Stax Records, a Memphis label that specialized in soul music and rhythm and blues. Many of his Stax covers were simple black-and-white portraits, but others were atmospheric images shot on location.

In Memphis, he photographed Booker T. & the MG’s walking across McLemore Avenue in Memphis as a visual echo of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” cover.

Brodsky was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 7, 1939, and showed little interest in photography until he took a course at Syracuse University, where he graduated from in 1960. He found a job at a Brooklyn camera store and began to take pictures on the side, opening his studio by 1964.

He had no particular photographic specialty until a friend who managed a folk group asked him to take pictures for an album. Although Brodsky had an enormous record collection, he wasn’t always inspired by the musicians he worked with.

“I never actually heard him listen to the music he shot,” said his son-in-law, Sid Holt, a former managing editor of Rolling Stone magazine. “He didn’t particularly like the Doors.”


After about 10 years, Brodsky left rock ‘n’ roll to concentrate on commercial work. Until he retired in 2001, he traveled all over the world shooting advertising campaigns for such clients as DuPont, Revlon, Avon, department stores and shoe firms.

“His music stuff, he just packed it away and said that would be his retirement,” his wife said.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Valerie Brodsky of Stamford; three daughters, Jill Holt of North Salem, N.Y., Brooke Brodsky of New York and Alexandra Alland of Boston; a sister; and three grandchildren.