Speaking in 2003, Bowie claimed that the title Reality was intended ironically.
You haven’t seen the artwork yet, but there’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines that. It’s the old chestnut: What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.
The front cover for Reality was an illustration of Bowie. Non-photographic artwork had appeared on his albums before, on Diamond Dogs, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Tonight, 1.Outside, and the cartoon cover of The Man Who Sold The World. None of those, however, was as polarising as the Reality sleeve.
The illustration was by Rex Ray, the acclaimed American graphic designer and collage artist who died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 58.
Ray first encountered Bowie during the singer’s joint tour with Nine Inch Nails.
In 1995 I did a mildly controversial poster for the David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails show. I’d been a huge Bowie fan in the ‘70s and it was while gazing at the cover for Aladdin Sane in 1974 that I dreamt about doing such things myself. The DB/NIN poster was a computer-based collage of various body parts, meat and bondage gear, which upset some people at BGP [promoters Bill Graham Presents] but was printed after much discussion. Then, in 1997, Bowie returned to San Francisco for three nights on the Earthling tour and again, I did the poster for those shows. After they were printed, I asked the people at BGP if they could have Mr. Bowie autograph a poster for me but was told that “it wasn’t a possibility”. So, I put on my stalker cap and set about getting a poster signed on my own.
Through some friends (spys!), I heard that Bowie was in a certain bookstore one morning, so I hopped on my bicycle and raced across town. I approached him as he was leaving and asked if he’d mind signing the posters for me. He was very gracious and accommodating and complimented me on my work. We spoke for a while about books, design, and I can’t recall what else, and he went on his way. I was beyond satisfied and thought that was the end of the matter.
Unbeknownst to me, at a sound check later that afternoon, the people at BGP asked Bowie to sign a poster for me. Bowie replied, ‘I’ve already signed posters for Rex but could you arrange to have him come backstage after tonight’s show to sign posters for me.’ I arrived backstage after the show and was escorted into Bowie’s dressing room where we talked at length about art, books, what he should do while he was in town, etc., and I signed posters for him. Once again, I was satisfied and thought that was the last I’d hear from him.
A year later Ray received some emails, signed ‘db’, inviting him to collaborate. Ray, not realising they were from Bowie, ignored the messages, until Bowie identified himself as the author. Thereafter the artist worked on a number of projects, including the launch of Bowie’s internet service provider BowieNet, his 1999 album ‘hours…’, 2002’s Best Of Bowie, and the bonus disc of the Bowie At The Beeb collection.
In 2002 Bowie approached Ray once again, sending some images as directional material for the Reality album. Ray’s cover illustration was based on a photograph of the singer by Frank W Ockenfels III.
Initially, Bowie asked if I knew any illustrators who worked in an anime style who could produce a Bowie character for use on the cover. I asked if I could take a shot at it and developed the character that eventually appeared on the final package. While keeping the anime style in mind, I also used the paintings of Margaret Keane as a reference and worked endlessly developing a face and hairstyle for the figure. I can’t begin to describe the enormous responsibility of coming up with a hairstyle for David Bowie. The Reality package was a collaborative project between Bowie, renowned British designer Jonathan Barnbook, and myself. I developed the illustrations and imagery and Barnbrook created the amazing typographical work that appeared on the final package.
The Reality cover received a broadly negative reception from fans, although Ray counted it among his best works. Reality marked the end of his work for Bowie, and the beginning of a move away from graphic design.
I remember staring at those amazing covers of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs albums and thinking, ‘I’d like to design covers like this some day’ and, some thirty years later, that wish had come true. It was as though I’d reached my goal and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do in the field of graphic design. I could also see the writing on the wall – the same writing the music industry can’t quite seem to understand. Album covers – at least the way I appreciate them – are becoming things of the past…
After that great run with Bowie, I began phasing out the graphic design work I’d been doing for so many years, not taking on any new clients or large projects and began focusing on the finer, more personal artwork that sustains me today.
Reality was Bowie second collaboration with British designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who had previously worked on Heathen.
Barnbrook incorporated Ray’s illustrations into Reality‘s design, using the typeface Drone for the main titles.
Reality is the cover that people least like, because as the imagery is not so much or who you would consider David Bowie to be. There’s a photograph of Bowie in the same pose, on the inner slip.
I’m not sure, some of the things work, some of the things don’t. I don’t think it worked so well and the typography didn’t work so well. Not everything is a success.
Dezeen, January 2016
Despite his misgivings over the cover, Barnbrook said his working relationship with Rex Ray had been good.
I was in touch with Rex and I found him an absolutely lovely person to work with. I know a lot of fans don’t like that cover and honestly I have my doubts about it too, mainly because I felt like I didn’t go deep enough into understanding the music to create something original for it. I look back and wish I could have done a better overall design for it. There could have been more ideas in there and it could have aesthetically been more tuned to what was right for David. I think improving as a creative person means that sometimes you need to accept that there are things that don’t go so well and learn from them.
David Bowie News, September 2018