Andy Earl made the instantly recognisable photograph of Johnny Cash that was used on the cover of the Grammy award winning 1994 album American Recordings.
That photograph is now one of the best known images of Johnny Cash and became an instant icon. It shows Cash dressed in a long black coat, with his guitar case in front and a dog at either side, a wheat field as the backdrop and drama in the skies. The album was hailed by critics and many declared it to be Cash’s finest album since the late 1960s.
Andy Earl recalls: I remember getting the call from the art director saying they urgently needed a photograph for the cover of the album. The problem was, I was in England, the record label was in America and Johnny Cash was in Australia! We discussed a few ideas about how to make the cover really iconic, make it stand out and look modern without losing Johnny’s identity. We wanted to capture his importance and power which, at the time, was starting to be overlooked. Johnny was a man of few words, charming but with a powerful presence and a glint in his eye. I could tell that he was not to be messed with. We drove out to the location, just myself and the art director, with Johnny Cash in the back of our truck! He was a bit baffled as to why we were heading out of town just to take pictures, especially to such an isolated desolate place, but he was intrigued at the same time after we explained our idea, so he was happy to do what we wanted.
I noticed that there were these fields of wheat nearby. I could see storm clouds gathering, Johnny was dressed all in black, looking very much like a preacher man and this gave the scene a religious look. I asked if we could do a shot there against the sky, so Johnny stood by the side of the field clutching his guitar case to his chest. The wind was picking up now and his coat and hair began to blow about. These conditions made him look a little awkward so I asked him to move round so that his back was to the field. He put the guitar case down and held it there in front of himself. All of a sudden the stationmaster’s two dogs came over and stood next to Johnny, like pillars, one on either side. Johnny put his hand out to one of them but they only stayed like that for a couple of frames. And the wind calmed down… It was perfect.
For me, that was the moment when all the elements of what I wanted to achieve came together, in that shot. I knew it could be the cover. It summed up Johnny Cash. It had a slightly religious feel and captured what he was all about: his sense of presence, the fields of wheat, the storm clouds, animals, the man in black, being very iconic. The famous cover image was pretty much one of the first shots I did with him. There are many stories that I’ve heard about it since. One is that the dogs were specially trained stage dogs brought along especially with handlers there directing them with doggy biscuits so they would pose the right way for the shot. One of my favourite stories was told by Johnny himself when asked about the photo, which was used all over the place when the album came out and he was promoting it (aside from posters and merchandise, it was used as the backdrop during his shows). Johnny told the interviewer a very elaborate story about how he saw the dogs as representing hell and redemption! It was great to see that that photograph came to represent him and became his image. The truth that the dogs only wandered into the frame for a couple of shots is not quite so interesting but it’s one of those moments that couldn’t have been staged even if we had thought of it. These photos were originally taken as part a standard campaign to help promote a new record but some took on a whole new meaning and have come to represent this important part of his life. The album was rightly acknowledged as one of the best and most important in Johnny’s career and it brought him to a whole new generation of fans. I am honored to have witnessed and recorded it.”
Andy’s limited edition photographs are available to purchase.