David Bowie found album cover inspiration from myriad sources

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ABOVE: “David Bowie Is” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on Sept. 23. | AL PODGORSKI/SUN-TIMES


David Bowie’s album covers were designed as lasting emblems, with the knowledge that his 12-inch cardboard sleeves would be held and scrutinized by studious fans between flips of the vinyl platter. Bowie assimilated classical paintings, glamorous stars of the silent film era, fashion, provocative gender politics, theater, and the work of leading contemporary artists into symbolic representations of his evolving music.

Here are five of his most iconic covers:

“The Man Who Sold the World” (1970, UK cover) — In the original U.K. artwork for his third album, Bowie is photographed in repose on a couch. He is wearing a “man’s dress” created by British fashion designer Michael Fish. Although the U.S. release had featured a different, cartoonish cover, Bowie wore his Mr. Fish garb during stateside interviews. With long, blond hair, Bowie’s exploration of an androgynous image was beginning in earnest.


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“Hunky Dory” (1971) — The pensive mood and airbrushed grace of Bowie’s fourth album cover were influenced by a book of photos featuring glamorous German actress Marlene Dietrich, famous for films including early talkie “Morocco” with Gary Cooper. In a key scene from “Morocco,” cabaret singer Dietrich wears top hat and tails and steals a kiss from an unsuspecting society girl. The gender-bending move surely appealed to the risk-taking Bowie.


“Aladdin Sane” (1973) — Bowie’s sixth album was his first as a full-fledged star. It was also Bowie’s second exploring the character of glam-rocker Ziggy Stardust, and followed a U.S. tour that inspired many of the album’s songs. British fashion photographer Brian Duffy captured Bowie on film and hired artist Edward Bell to repaint the image. The red-and-blue lightning bolt painted onto Bowie’s face is possibly his most recognized image. Duffy also worked on 1979’s “Lodger” and 1980’s “Scary Monsters & Super Creeps.”

“Diamond Dogs” (1974) — Bowie began work on his eighth album with interest in developing a theatrical production of George Orwell’s “1984.” Although denied the rights, conceptual elements including a theme song were included on “Diamond Dogs.” The album’s artwork was painted by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, named in 1974 by Elle magazine as “the Michelangelo of Pop.” The cover features a lean and androgynous Bowie, lying on the floor and flanked by two grotesque figures. Opened to its full gatefold length, Bowie’s hindquarters are that of an anatomically correct canine male.

“Low” (1977) — Bowie’s 11th album was the first of his “Berlin trilogy” that includes “Heroes” and “Lodger.” “Low” was one of many from his catalog to simply feature a striking head shot. If it appears to be his most cinematic, that’s natural. The photo was actually a still captured from footage of director Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 science fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which Bowie starred. Seen from his righthand side, many fans understood the visual pun made by placing the photograph underneath the album title: low profile.


“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972) — Formatted as a “location shoot” on London’s Heddon Street, this cover image was Bowie’s busiest and most theatrical. Bowie is illuminated by gaslight in his Ziggy gear, standing with one foot on a garbage can. Above him is the shingle for now-defunct furriers K. West. Many fans read significance into the sign, positing that Ziggy Stardust’s journey represented a “quest” for transcendence. It has been speculated that the cover is modeled after the opening scene of an underground British film about a serial killer from 1960 called “Peeping Tom.”

“The Next Day” (2013) — Although some criticized the design as lazy, it would be more accurate to say that the artwork for Bowie’s unexpected 2013 album was easily rendered. In a sense, it was brutal. The packaging for “The Next Day” is a surprisingly irreverent deconstruction or “sacrilegious disfigurement” of 1977’s “Heroes” cover and package (which had been inspired by German painter Erich Heckel’s “Roquairol”). In that way, this package is connected to the interior artwork for 2002’s “Heathen,” which depicted the desecration of classical paintings and text.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

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