Cover artwork

November 2001 saw the publication of I Am Iman, the elaborately designed autobiography of the fashion model, whose husband, David Bowie, contributed a foreword.

The cover photography for I Am Iman was taken by New York-based Swiss photographer Markus Klinko, and the book was designed by British designer Jonathan Barnbrook. Both were subsequently invited to work on the Heathen artwork.

Klinko’s portraits of Bowie were taken in early 2002, and were digitally treated by his partner Indrani.

I was brought into the project quite late. I remember chatting to David on the phone the day before the shoot, which was pretty much when he told me that he wanted me to do it, and then him saying: “We have the photo shoot tomorrow so if you have any ideas that you want us to include, let me know”. I kind of went into a cold sweat and mumbled something about emailing him. Then when I did, I just asked him to come up with something and I would create a design with it. So it wasn‘t that planned, but then sometimes a creative process can work well that way. So the idea of desecrating the images (not specifically religious) was from me, but prompted by the objects they had photographed. It was directly based on a project I had done when I was at college, which was about the beauty of destroyed paintings.
Jonathan Barnbrook, September 2018

Barnbrook took the title Heathen to refer to “this destruction of something beautiful, the duality in the image”. He had hoped to use a vandalised painting by Rembrandt on the cover, but the request was denied.

Heathen was the album released after September 11, so it’s pretty clear from the lyrics on it that he was feeling pretty disillusioned with the world.

The design of that really tried to put over in a much more direct context, and a much more political context, a number of classical paintings and things that people would think of as great cultural value, but desecrated.

It’s a violation of beauty, and it’s also about a violation of things that we think are good morals, but actually are not. And it comes from the word Heathen – a desecrater of religious objects. I took religion to mean of things that are valued, rather than specific religious meaning.

Jonathan Barnbrook

Bowie and Barnbrook mainly collaborated online via email and Skype, sharing ideas and critiquing work.

It may not be very well known but David was an extremely well organised – I think it was to do with wanting to be there for his daughter – so his messages would always be written at ridiculously early times in the morning and he was always clear and concise in what he thought, which is a great help. I can’t fault his way of working with me – he was always respectful and encouraging, while guiding you to a solution he thought would work. Having worked with many different people, famous and not famous, in the 30 years of my career in design this is a rare skill, which very few people possess. It is clear that he didn’t do that just with me but with all of the musicians and other collaborators he worked with.
Jonathan Barnbrook, September 2018

The front cover featured a portrait of Bowie with blank, semi-opaque eyes. These, Bowie explained in 2002, were to signify fishes’ eyes, in reference to early Christian symbolism.

The cover did not display Bowie’s name, and presented the title upside down, presented in Barnbrook’s Priori typeface.

Heathen album cover

We took the theme of Heathen as someone who goes against the popular pre-concieved or ‘sacred’ notions, as Bowie has been for the majority of his career. This sacred could be values that people believe in, or new creativity which rides roughshod over what is regarded as ‘proper art’. The desecration of the old with a bold statement of the new is a constant in all areas of creativity. The design represents this by using the destruction of religious art as a symbol of this renewal or spitting on the past. At first shocking but having it own beauty and adding to it. It is also symbolic of the often melancholy atmosphere of the album.

The cover shows a picture of Bowie without his name. We wanted to have the absolute minimum number of elements on the cover, and Bowie is well-known enough to recognise from a photo. The title is upside down a symbol of something that is ‘against’ what we expect.

The text in the booklet is treated in a similarly desecrated form – Bowie’s ‘sacred’ lyrics are crossed out, scribbled over, hard to read, even though the style of the typography has almost given them a religious feeling. It is again a metaphor for the need for humans to evolve, change and go against what they have done before.

The booklet for Heathen contained desecrated renaissance and medieval paintings, including Guido Reni’s Massacre of the Innocents (1611), Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child with Six Angels (1300-05), Carlo Dolci’s Magdalene (1660-70), Raffaello Sanzio’s St Sebastian (1501-02), and an engraving based upon the undated Christ and St John with Angels by Peter Paul Rubens.

There were also three leather-bound book spines on the rear of the booklet, presented in a mirror image. The books were The General Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein (1915), Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation Of Dreams (1900), and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science, 1882).

He would look at the stuff, and talk about what he liked and what he didn’t like, not in a rude way, just clear and explaining his reasons why, he was also fulsome in his praise when he liked something. Sometimes he would throw a spanner in the works and ask me suddenly to do something completely different for the project for an hour. That was quite a refreshing way of working and often produced good results as it meant you put aside all of the responsibilities of the project for a moment and could just play.

He was always really respectful about the people who bought his music, so he wanted them to understand the ideas. There was no point in doing something when it was so obscure that people wouldn’t get the reference; it had to relate absolutely to the music.

He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it. We had a renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s of album covers because the format of vinyl, but then it dropped when CDs were introduced. There are still good record/CD covers around, but a lot of time nowadays the cover just had to be “nice”, it wasn’t a thing that provoked discussion, our covers wanted to have that discussion again. Some people hated them, some people really liked them.

Jonathan Barnbrook