Pop Culture

Did Snoop Dogg Really Buy Crypto Artworks Worth $17 Million Under the Moniker ‘Cozomo de’ Medici’?


About a month ago, a new Twitter profile was created under the name Cozomo de’ Medici, an apparent reference to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Renaissance-era patriarch of the dynastic Italian banking family. Like his namesake, the Twitter user billed themselves as a patron of the arts, but rather than trafficking in Donatellos, their passion was NFTs.

Almost overnight, Cozomo established themselves as a real player in the market, amassing a collection of CryptoPunks, Art Blocks, and other NFTs worth an estimated total value of more than $17 million. The Twitter admirers came too: thousands followed the account, where they found updates about new acquisitions peppered with nuggets of investment advice, such as: “For there is a strange, cultural ‘ponzi-nomics’ to NFTs, [where] much like contemporary art, no one wants to sell for less than the previous high price.” 

The myth grew, and quickly, as others online came to wonder about Cozomo’s real identity. Surely this was somebody of note, right?

Speculators soon got their answer. On September 20, Cozomo announced a contest to reveal who was behind the account. A celebrity, the anonymous figure explained, would publicly claim the Cozomo name on Twitter, and the first person to spot the tweet would be gifted 1 ETH, worth roughly $3,000. 

“I am @CozomoMedici,” rapper Snoop Dogg tweeted later that day, ending the mystery and sending the crypto-community into a tizzy.

In a way, it made sense: the seemingly bottomless supply of cash, the Medici bit, the bizarre courtly air of the tweets. Snoop—given name Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.—is predictably unpredictable, and belovedly so. He’s also proven to be a hungry investor, backing tech businesses, plant-based food companies, and ​​cannabis startups through his venture capital firm Casa Verde.

But then again, maybe it makes too much sense—an elaborate troll job neatly packaged in a little Twitter flimflam?

At least that’s the theory some online are now pursuing. VICE recently broke down all the holes in the Snoop story, comparing the geo-tags of the rapper’s social media photos to those of Cozomo, who appears to spend a lot of time in Italy. The NFT influencer also once tweeted out a photo of himself with fellow collector Jason Derulo on the shores of Lake Como. Both of their faces were covered with avatars, but it’s clear which one was Derulo and which one was not, and the one who was not was…well, it wasn’t Snoop.

D-O-Double G or not, this modern-day Medici is sitting on an impressive hoard of crypto artworks. In addition to Punks and Art Blocks, they own a Cai Guo-Qiang NFT and recently acquired a character piece by artist XCOPY for 1,300 ETH, or about $3.9 million—which should ensure the fickle art world’s continued attention.

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Legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins on Getting Rejected from Film School and Releasing His First Book of Photographs at 72


Shortly before Roger Deakins sat down for this interview about his new book of photographs, Byways, the cinematographer received an email from director Denis Villeneuve, with whom he’d worked on Blade Runner 2049.

“I can see it’s you,” Deakins recalled Villeneuve saying about the book, meaning that he recognized the eye behind the images. 

I can too. Embedded throughout Byways, published this month by Damiani, are many of the Deakins hallmarks made famous by his lens work for directors including Sam Mendes and the Coen brothers, and in such acclaimed films as The Shawshank Redemption and Skyfall. In the book, the yawning highways and wind-whipped hills from a set of shots taken outside Albuquerque seem to recall the landscapes of No Country for Old Men, for instance, while a handful of bleached-out Norwegian vistas put Fargo front of mind. Occasionally, the connections are more overt: here, the tree from the parting shot of Mendes’s 1917 makes a more permanent cameo on the page.  

As a cinematographer, Deakins looms large: he is, for many movie peoples’ money, the greatest person doing the job today (witness his 15 Oscar nominations, with two wins). But his reputation as a fine-art photographer is far less developed. Not only is Byways his first monograph, it’s also the first place many of these pictures have ever been shared publicly. 

It’s for this reason that, as satisfying as the similarities between his films and these pictures are, the differences are just as revealing. Comparing the two bodies of work is an exercise in comparing the essences of film and photography, and an uncommon opportunity at that: rare are the practitioners who are equally accomplished in both formats.

The central difference between Deakins’s two bodies of work makes spending time with Byways a special pleasure. Whereas a film is a collaborative endeavor, one routed through the mind of its director, this collection of still images represents a wholly personal project. It may be the purest distillation of Deakins’s vision—stark, plaintive, and reverent of land and light—we ever get.

Roger Deakins. Courtesy of the artist.

Roger Deakins. Courtesy of the artist.

There are 150-some photographs in the book, representing roughly five decades of work. How many pictures did you go through to come up with that selection? In other words, how big is your archive?

Not very big—I don’t really keep much, you see. I mean, I take a lot of photographs when I’m working on a movie, but they’re just a reference for the film. The photographs that I take for my own pleasure are quite few, really. I don’t have the time when I’m working, and thankfully I’ve had quite a productive career.

So you’re not somebody who carries a camera with you at all times? 

I’m not that obsessed by it, I must say. I do have a camera with me most of the time when I’m shooting a film, but I think it’s a very different thing to spend your own time with a stills camera, looking for something that grabs you.

Roger Deakins, <i>Albuquerque Cemetary Rainbow</i> (2014). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Albuquerque Cemetery Rainbow (2014). © Roger A. Deakins.

Do you use the camera to record memories, or is it more of an aesthetic instrument for you, a tool to make art?

I don’t like the word ‘art,’ really. [Laughs] I’ve obviously been on holiday and taken snapshots of a memory, but the photographs that are in the book, they just grabbed my attention. I liked the frame or I liked the light. Often I liked the slightly surreal quality of the image, a juxtaposition of things in the frame. It’s not art; I’m not a photographer and they’re not memory aids. I don’t sketch with a pencil. I sketch through the camera, I suppose.

 

In the foreword to the book, you write, ‘The choice of when to take a picture, and which of the resultant images has a future, reveals something of us as individuals. Each of us see differently.’ Do you think someone who knows your film work could see these images and know they were made by you? What are the ‘Deakins-isms’ we might see here? 

I think there’s definitely a sensibility. That’s true even when I work on a film. I’m not the author of the film, obviously—I’m working for a director and with anywhere up to a couple of hundred people—but I do think you stamp your point of view, your taste, on the work you do. When I shoot films, you can see there’s a continuity, that there’s an individual behind the camera. I look at some other people’s work in film and that’s true, too. I could always recognize a film that was shot by Conrad Hall, for instance; there’s a certain sensibility that he had. That’s the case for still photographers as well. 

Looking back through these photos, I wondered if my eye had changed, and I don’t think it has, really. The photographs I took back then are really quite simple; they’re pared down in terms of what’s in the frame. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. [Laughs]

Roger Deakins, <i>Teignmouth Dog Jumping</i> (2000). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Teignmouth Dog Jumping (2000). © Roger A. Deakins.

Why haven’t you shared these pictures before now? 

I don’t know, really. The earliest photographs I took in North Devon, and they’re part of a public archive. But the other images are just things I’ve shot over the years. Some of them were taken in Berlin, for instance. When we were over there working on a movie, I’d go out and explore the city on the weekend. I had my camera and would snap the odd shot. There’s probably three or four in the book from Berlin; maybe I only ever took a dozen total. I don’t take many photographs. It has to be something that grabs me, and then obviously you have to be able to get it at that moment. There are a lot of things that grab your attention but you miss the shot.

These are just photographs from here, there, and everywhere. There’s not really any structure to the book. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, other than the fact that they’re all shots that I like. Some people had asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do a book?’ And eventually I just thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’

One of the first jobs you had out of art school was as a photographer. Can you take me back to that gig? How did it impact the way you saw the world?

Originally I wanted to be a painter, a bohemian! [Laughs] Then, while I was at art college, I discovered photography. My paintings were fairly naturalistic, just based on things that I’d seen, so it made sense to have a camera and photograph the things I saw. A great photographer, Roger Mayne, was teaching at the school; he would come in for a few days every now and again. He was quite an inspiration, him and his work. So I thought I would become a photographer. But then I was talking to a friend who was applying to the National Film School, which was just opening the year that we were finishing at art college. I had always been interested in film, especially documentary filmmaking, and so it seemed like that might be a great opportunity.

Well, I didn’t get in the first time I applied. But in the interim, I was offered this job recording country life in North Devon. I was really hired as a recorder, not necessarily a photographer. I didn’t do a very good job, I don’t think, because I’m not very skilled at recording. I took a lot of photographs, but they weren’t great in terms of documenting a historical moment. Nevertheless, it was a great learning experience for me. I just spent all day every day with my camera, experimenting with framing and other things. It was a great time to play. 

Roger Deakins, <i>Weston - Super - Mare, Looking for Summer</i> (2004). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Weston-Super-Mare, Looking for Summer (2004). © Roger A. Deakins.

I was going to ask you about your relationship to painting. I know that you’ve always had a love of the medium. Does it influence your work behind the lens?

It’s funny, when somebody asks, ‘What are your influences?’ I don’t know what to say. Surely your influences are every experience you’ve had. There’s so many painters whose work I love and know quite well, whether it’s Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch or Giorgio de Chirico. I studied many of them in college. But to say how much they’ve influenced me, that’s hard. There’s a couple of photographs in the book that remind me of de Chirico, maybe, but is it an influence or just a coincidence? I’m just as influenced by growing up in South Devon and spending my childhood out at sea, fishing. These things accumulate.

All of the photos in the book are black and white, which might come as a mild surprise to people familiar with your work in film, where you have displayed such a mastery of color. What is it about black and white that interests you when it comes to still photography?

I’ve been trying to work in color and I just can’t do it. I just find it uninteresting! [Laughs] Black and white is much more about the content, the frame, and the light. Color can be so distracting. There are very few photographers that really work in color and use it well. Alex Webb is a great example of someone who can use color to his advantage.

Maybe it’s just because I grew up in love with the work of Brassaï and Bill Brandt and Alfred Stieglitz, all these great photographers that worked in black and white. Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur.

 

Roger Deakins, <i>Paignton Lion and the Gull</i> (2015). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Paignton Lion and the Gull (2015). © Roger A. Deakins.

The relationship between film and photography is something I think about often. It’s a question I’ve asked many photographers in interviews like this one: ‘How has film informed your pictures?’ Every time, without fail, they play it down. 

I believe it.

Why do you think that is? Do you feel that there’s a line to be drawn between the work you do as a cinematographer and your experiences taking photographs?

Obviously, there are things that you learn in one that help you in the other, technically speaking. But I do think capturing a still photograph is very different.

I say at the beginning of the book that I’m not a photographer, and I’m really not; I’ve just taken some pictures. But I think with great photographers, you look at their photographs and there’s a story within them. You can’t really do that in a movie because those frames keep moving. You can’t make the frames too complex, because you’re telling the story as a composite. It’s a different way of communicating, you know? 

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Here’s the Real-Life Story Behind ‘Reefa,’ a New HBO Max Film About the Life and Death of a Miami Street Artist


This weekend, a new biopic of sorts will arrive on HBO Max, telling the story of Israel Hernandez-Llach, a real-life Miami street artist who was killed by police in August 2013.

Hernandez-Llach, 18 at the time, was spray-painting an abandoned McDonald’s when a local police unit approached. The artist fled; the officers chased and ultimately stopped the high-schooler with a taser. Hernandez-Llach later died in their custody. 

After dropping their target, the officers exchanged high-fives, according to the young artist’s friends who witnessed the incident. 

Dramatized versions of those moments form the climax of Reefa, the film written and directed by Miami-based filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch and named after Hernandez-Llach’s graffiti name.  

The rest of the movie, meanwhile, lays out the stakes for the titular subject in the summer leading up to that fateful night, often with a heavy dose of creative license.

Hernandez-Llach is depicted as a voraciously creative, constantly skateboarding, and skirting choleric cops through neon-lit streets, or butting heads with his father, a Colombian immigrant anxiously awaiting the arrival of green cards for his family. He wants to move to New York for art school.

The film opens with the street artist plotting his “magnum opus”: a statement mural on a derelict Miami hotel (a stand-in for the McDonald’s) that will introduce him to the city’s art world.

“I wanted to focus on Israel’s life in the last couple of weeks before he passed away,” Dornbusch told CBSMiami in April. “He had just gotten an art scholarship. He was about to go to New York. He had found love for the first time. He was spending time painting and time with his family and friends, and then the tragic ending.”

Originally meant for the 2020 Miami Film Festival (which was canceled because of the pandemic), Reefa debuted this spring on video-on-demand and in a few theaters. The movie will likely command its biggest audience yet when it hits HBO this weekend.

“Sadly, we could not plan a more timely moment in history to release this film,” Dornbusch said. “I think it will resonate. It puts a name and a face to the statistics.” 

Dornbusch worked on Reefa for more than six years, she explained in a recent blog post. Getting the project off the ground was a grind involved multiple fundraising efforts and a run-in with the Miami Beach police that resulted in the production temporarily being shut down. 

Tyler Dean Flores, the Harlem-born, Puerto Rican actor who plays Hernandez-Llach in the film, told CBS that he hopes “it raises a ton of awareness on his case and plenty of other cases that involve police brutality.” 

“I also hope that people feel very inspired by Israel’s family’s creativity and pursuit of whatever their passions are,” Flores added. “No matter what situations you’re in, if you want to create, create. If you want to express yourself, express yourself.”

A still from "Reefa" (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

A still from Reefa (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Following their son’s death, Hernandez-Llach’s parents held a press conference in which they called for an independent investigation. Roughly two years later, in 2015, a Miami-Dade attorney announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers involved in the incident, saying that medical examiners had determined the death to be accidental.

In 2017, the City of Miami Beach reportedly paid $100,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the victim’s family. They admitted no wrongdoing. 

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Britney Spears, Allegory of the 20th Century? How the Misunderstood Pop Star Has Inspired Visual Artists as an Avatar of the Early Aughts


In Because of You, French painter Claire Tabouret’s 2016 solo gallery debut in the U.S., the titular works were a pair of portraits of Britney Spears, mostly shorn, with the remnants of a brunette mane still hanging from the back of her scalp. In soft washes of oil paint, the canvases tenderly immortalized the infamous moment in 2007 when the pop star had shaved her own head, as well as the obsessive, particularly cruel media circus that followed. 

That episode was the first Tabouret had ever heard of Britney—but she was instantly struck by the singer’s removal of her own hair, a quintessential symbol of femininity. To her, this was an act of re-appropriating one’s image, a powerful rebuttal to the suffocating demands of unrelenting public scrutiny.

“These are themes that are often present in my work,” the painter told Midnight Publishing Group News, “the representation of the female body in public spaces and the politics of body language.”

Tabouret is not alone in her fascination with Britney’s image. Its undeniable potency recently reentered the headlines with the viral success of Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary on the ongoing battle to #FreeBritney from her father’s conservatorship, followed by Spears’s own explosive testimony in a recent court appearance.

Claire Tabouret, <i>Because of You (Green)</i> (2016).

Claire Tabouret, Because of You (Green) (2016).

Like Tabouret, Framing Britney Spears also reflects on the media obsession with a star who regularly went viral before the invention of the term. It revisits the early aughts, when tabloids responded to the public’s insatiable appetite for Britney by paying up to $1 million for a single photograph, fomenting a spectacularly ruthless and constant invasion of her privacy. 

As Framing Britney Spears and the copycat documentaries that followed examine this startlingly toxic behavior, they join a project that artists had already started: a kind of cultural reckoning where Spears’s likeness becomes a vehicle of serious cultural critique.

Over the years, across painting, digital collage, and other media, Tabouret and others have used the star’s image to pose questions of media ethics; the role of technology in representation; authenticity versus artifice; and above all, pointed instances of sexism that were deemed perfectly acceptable in the very recent past. 

Looking to the past with a fresh pair of eyes, what emerges is an unlikely transformation: a former teen pop star turned allegorical symbol.

#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Pop in the Age of Digital Retouching 

In (Pop) Icon: Britney, artist R. Luke Dubois’s beguiling 2010 work of digital animation, clips from a DVD box set of Spears’s greatest hits morph from one scene to the next in a glowing, almost ethereal haze. Throughout the never-ending sequence, her eyes are unwavering, locked in position within an elaborate gilded frame. Her vocals are haunting, having been digitally hollowed-out to match the acoustics of Italy’s San Vitale Basilica, one of Western Europe’s most important sites of Byzantine iconography.

DuBois presents Britney as an icon in the original sense of the word—an object of religious veneration—while touching on the disruptive technologies that had emerged alongside her career. “She was the first pop star to exist entirely in the age of AutoTune and Photoshop,” he said, having taken digital audio and visual retouching to dramatic heights in his piece. 

R. Luke DuBois, “(Pop) Icon: Britney,” 2010 from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

The work also references the popular obsession with catching Spears at her most unvarnished and unretouched, an “incredible violation of privacy” that she faced on a day-to-day basis. “I wanted to recontextualize [the media frenzy] in the broader framework of surveillance capitalism and surveillance culture,” he said, noting that the never-repeating imagery of (Pop) Icon: Britney is generated by a facial-recognition software that the U.S. military had developed in 2002, during the ascent of Britney-mania.  

The religious framing alludes to the fact that “Spears’s entire media management ecology was setting her up to maximize the Madonna-whore dichotomy in really gross ways,” he added. The Freudian theory suggests that men can view women as respectable virgins or objects of sexual fulfillment—but never both.

Sexism on a Popular Culture Scale

Although Britney is a talent in her own right, artists have looked less to her creative output than her place in a particularly fraught period in white American culture. Having dropped her first album in 1999, her most active years bookend a mythologized era of starry-eyed Americana: Below the glossy veneer of neoliberal optimism, rhinestoned trucker hats, and teenage romantic comedies (recall 1999 as the year of Cruel Intentions, American Pie, and She’s All That), it was the era of George W. Bush, the rapid expansion of the military industrial complex, and an encroaching economic collapse. Within a decade, the nadir of Britney’s career would coincide with a global recession. 

“The early 2000s seems to me almost the crescendo, the high point, the most dramatic version of sexism on a popular cultural scale,” says artist Casey Kauffmann, whose online practice of digital collage looks back at that period with both nostalgia and contempt.

Casey Kauffmann, <i>#dumphim</i> (2015), iPhone collage. Courtesy of the artist

Casey Kauffmann, #dumphim (2015), iPhone collage. Courtesy of the artist

She layers images of MTV sensations, including a young Britney in bedazzled short-shorts, between princess clip art and sparkling rainbows, the kind of superficial, candy-coated aesthetics that were prescribed to young girls during Kauffmann’s adolescence. On her Instagram feed, a space where women have recently found control over their own images, Britney, Paris Hilton, and other former teen idols appear to revel in the absurdity of each collage, but upon closer inspection, express exhaustion, frustration, and dread.

To Kauffmann, the recent Britney documentary was particularly hard to watch; she was struck by the cavalierness with which grown men could ask a young woman about the status of her virginity, her fitness as a mother, and the size and authenticity of her breasts.

All of this connects to the much longer history of male authorship in the representation of women, she said, which came to a head during the relentless paparazzi culture of the early aughts. According to Kauffmann, “You cannot disconnect Britney Spears from that era of deeply personal exposure, of extreme sexism with only a hint of agency.”

Artifice and Authenticity 

In Christophe Rohan de Chabot’s solo show at Gaudel de Stampa in Paris last year, the artist mounted two identical, close-up portraits of Britney across from two identical paintings of human skulls. Between them, immaculately combed “semi-natural” blonde wigs lay on the floor, suggesting she had been stripped of some synthetic veneer all the way down to her bones. 

“She’s always appeared somehow to me as a product, not simply as a human being,” Rohan de Chabot said, recalling the nervous anxiety he felt as a 13-year-old boy when Spears first appeared on his T.V.

In contrast to Tabouret’s description of Britney in terms of female empowerment, “that was not my vision of femininity,” he recalled, but rather of commercial export—an aggressively over-manufactured, over-sexualized version of the all-American girl. 

Christophe de Rohan Chabot, <i>BRITNEY/SKULL</i> at Gaudel de Stampa, Paris, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Gaudel de Stampa, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

Christophe de Rohan Chabot, BRITNEY/SKULL at Gaudel de Stampa, Paris, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Gaudel de Stampa, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

The reality of who or what Britney truly is gets lost somewhere between these polarized extremes of public opinion. “It’s easy to project on her,” DuBois said, especially given the proliferation of imagery taken without her consent.

Even as Framing Britney Spears critiques the distortions and lack of agency in the singer’s public image, director Samantha Stark admitted that Britney had zero participation in the documentary’s production.

“Since Britney has such a tight circle around her,” she told Entertainment Tonight, “journalists haven’t really been able to interview her freely.” (Britney later condemned the hypocrisy on Instagram, although fans fervently debate how much control she really has over her own feed.) 

What remains is a kind of symbolic abstraction that sits apart from reality, pieced together from snapshots that amount to literal seconds of Britney’s life. But as is the case for any allegorical figure, the accuracy of the depiction is less noteworthy than how it channels the cultural values of a specific time and place. As artists have used Britney’s image to confront various forms of cultural toxicity over the years, their wide-ranging sentiments span compassion, nostalgia, derision, and shame. 

Laura Collins, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in a Car. Image courtesy of THNK 1994 and the artist.

Today, arguably almost a decade since her last hit single, Britney’s ongoing place in the headlines affirms her enduring appeal, the scale and divisiveness of which have been met by few others. 

“Lady Diana was kind of similar, right?” DuBois wondered, recalling how media obsession eventually ended a princess’s life. But for him, the Britney phenomenon is truly singular.

After the commercial and critical success of his work (Pop) Icon: Britney, which is now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, he and his dealer briefly discussed creating an entire series with other celebrities. DuBois ultimately declined, realizing that Britney’s virality is unparalleled.

“I would have had to come up with a whole other reason, another visual language for other people,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense with anybody else.”

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Magazines Are Trading Celebrity Covers for Artworks as They Strive to Stay in Touch With the Serious Issues of Our Time


Last summer, after weeks of protests precipitated by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two of the country’s most recognizable magazines used their covers to make a statement. And they each turned to artists—not photographers—to do it. 

For their respective September issues, which came out within days of each other, Vanity Fair commissioned painter Amy Sherald to make a defiant portrait of Taylor, while Vogue tapped artists Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel to make their own exultant paintings of Black women.

These images were a far cry from the tired Annie Leibovitz photographs usually found on the front of these magazines. And at a time when magazine covers routinely foment here-today-gone-tomorrow Twitter wars, these issues seemed to get people talking for all the right reasons.

That these covers were done by artists was a big reason why, says Mark Guiducci, Vogue’s creative editorial director who oversaw the September issue. He and his team had actually planned to commission a painted portrait for the issue prior to the protests—a practical decision more than anything else, given the difficulty of staging big-budget fashion shoots during the pandemic. But as a nationwide racial reckoning played out, the notion of showcasing a model or celebrity on the cover suddenly felt out of touch.

Kerry James Marshall's cover for Vogue. Courtesy of Vogue.

Kerry James Marshall’s cover for Vogue. Courtesy of Vogue.

“How could one personality encapsulate that moment of pain, of pandemic, of reckoning?” Guiducci said. So they turned to Marshall and Casteel, and gave both artists carte blanche—a privilege rarely bestowed by the magazine.

“That’s why you go to an artist,” he said. “They give you the vocabulary to see the world in a new way. That’s powerful.”

Vanity Fair, meanwhile, knew it wanted to celebrate the life of Taylor in its September issue. But republishing one of the few pictures of Taylor circulating online at the time didn’t seem to do her justice, said Kira Pollack, Vanity Fair’s creative director.

“In order to make something truly transcendent, we felt it was important to create a new image of Breonna,” Pollack said. “We knew that Amy’s voice, and the intention and care she brings to her work, would be exactly right for such a powerful portrait at such a sensitive moment.”

Rihanna by Lorna Simpson for Essence Magazine 2020.

Rihanna by Lorna Simpson for Essence Magazine, 2020. Courtesy of Essence.

Vogue and Vanity Fair aren’t the only major magazines to turn to artists for their covers in recent months. Essence put works by Lorna Simpson and Bisa Butler on its covers this year; issues of the New Yorker featured paintings by Wayne Thiebaud and Nina Chanel Abney; and a 2020 edition of O Magazine was illustrated with a painting by artist Alexis Franklin, marking the first time in its history that a picture of Oprah wasn’t on the publication’s cover. 

Of course, magazines have run artworks on their covers for as long as they’ve existed, and many famous artists—from Salvador Dalí to Robert Rauschenberg to John Currin—have had their turn on the newsstand. What is novel today is the prevalence of this strategy to mark the occasion of important issues. What may have started as a response to the limitations of lockdowns has become the way mainstream publications signal that they really want people to pay attention.

“In a culture that is overwhelmed by visual media,” Guiducci said, “the idea of painting, in particular, is quite resonant. It doesn’t feel like something that is made quickly or easily or digitally, and that is impactful.”

Alexis Franklin drew this portrait of Breonna Taylor for Oprah magazine. Courtesy of Oprah magazine.

Alexis Franklin drew this portrait of Breonna Taylor for Oprah magazine. Courtesy of Oprah magazine.

D.W. Pine, the creative director of Time, noted that the role of the magazine cover has evolved in recent years. Its function, he said, is not to “tell the news anymore”—that job has been supplanted by social media. The cover’s purpose today is more about the conveyance of emotion than information.

A cover today says, “I can’t really tell you what happened, but I can kind of get you to the why, and I can definitely get you to think about it,” Pine said. “Artists help us do that.”

Time has probably been the biggest player in this trend, having commissioned artists such as Red Hong Yi and Charly Palmer, among many others, for recent high-profile editions. Time‘s “Vote” issue, pegged to the 2020 election, featured an illustration by Shepard Fairey, for instance, while a special pandemic report was accompanied by a photo of a JR installation. (Both artists have created multiple covers for the magazine.)

In Time’s case, the draw for artists isn’t necessarily the paycheck. Every cover artist, regardless of his or her stature, has been paid the same fee for years. (Pine did note, however, that some recently resurfaced Andy Warhol invoices from the ‘70s took him by surprise: “It was a lot more than what we pay now!”) What Time can offer artists instead is exposure: Its weekly readership tops 60 million.

Conversely, what artists grant the magazine is “soul,” as Pine put it. “This past year we needed to provide more meaning and a feeling and a soul to the stories that were presented to all of us,” he said. “All of us were reacting to these stories each week. That’s where it’s important to turn it over to the perspective of an artist.”

The cover of Time magazine's June 15, 2020, issue, featuring Titus Kaphar's painting, Analogous Colors. Courtesy of Time.

The cover of Time magazine’s June 15, 2020, issue, featuring Titus Kaphar’s painting Analogous Colors. Courtesy of Time.

One recent issue illustrates this “soul” quotient in particular: Time‘s June 2020 “Protest edition, which featured a cover by Titus Kaphar.

Kaphar’s painting depicted a grieving Black mother holding a silhouette of her child—an effect the artist achieved by cutting into the canvas. It was a literal, legible expression of the losses so many have felt at the time.

“In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies,” Kaphar wrote in a poem to accompany the cover. “As I listlessly wade through another cycle of violence against Black people, / I paint a Black mother… / eyes closed, / furrowed brow, / holding the contour of her loss.”

“He cuts the canvas out and shows what a mother’s loss is during this time,” said Pine. “That’s the meaning and the soul that we wanted to get at with everything that was going on.” 

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