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Joni Mitchell and the Ice Storm of the Century Print-ready version

by flasputnik Wisconsinology
February 21, 2008

The great ice storm of 1976 produced one of the great album covers from the classic rock era. It all happened in Madison. Joni Mitchell was in town, her upcoming concert at the Dane County Coliseum was sold out....

"March 4, 1976, was one of the most trying days in Madison history. That's the day when weather conditions combined to levy a huge ice storm on the city and much of the southern half of the state. Some 600,000 homes lost power, some up to five days. Homes were without heat. Twenty-three of the city's 27 water pumping stations were shut down. Live power lines fell to the ground and trees came crashing down because of the weight of the ice, posing terrible danger to people. It was a grim scene that people who lived through it still remember as if it were yesterday." Visually, it was a once in a lifetime photo opportunity. The morning after the storm, I got up, grabbed my still camera and spent the day taking pictures. Not far from my tiny apartment, on nearby Lake Mendota, photographer Joel Bernstein was hard at work doing the same thing....

The original quest to capture the classic Hans Brinker pose on film was realized in Madison, Wisconsin, where she and Joel Bernstein were staying, after "forces united to disrupt a tour." Overnight the nearby lake fogged and froze over. When Joni awoke, she donned a pair of black men's skates, a long black skirt and a fur cape, took a limo to the lake's edge and managed to conquer bitter winds and an already thawing, spongy ice while Joel took the pics. To their surprise, they got the shot they were after, but felt that the "unruly" pose of Joni "with the attitude of a crow" was more interesting. Still, it didn't convey enough the album's themes of "melancholy and movement" and "romantic winter."

It was back to Norman Seeff (who often photographs her) for a portrait of Joni looking "haunted, like a (Ingmar) Bergman figure." And then the ideas started coming together. She used an instrument called a Camera Lucida to enlarge or reduce the 14 photos from the different series to various sizes within one image area, and then shot one big negative with all the resized photos in place. An air brusher corrected all the light sources and smooths over the edges.

"If I had done the cover as a collage, it would've looked much more primitive," she says, "this way it's so polished, as if it's exactly one photograph."

So, there you have it, one of the classic LP covers of all time - a collaboration between Joni, Joel Bernstein, Norman Seef, and a major Wisconsin ice storm.

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