Life & CultureRihanna’s Stardom Weighed In New Phaidon Photographic Biography

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How do you celebrate the life and work of someone with thirty million Instagram followers, a $600m fortune, and careers in music, fashion, cosmetics, movies and philanthropy? Only with a photographic biography which is a work of art in itself; a tome so weighty it drops like a falling star. 

Rihanna, published by Phaidon, does just that; marks the 10-year career of singer/actress/fashion mogul Robyn Rihanna Fenty in a massive photographic biography. 

Rihanna has sold 60 million albums, launched her beauty line Fenty Beauty in 2017, her lingerie line Savage X Fenty in 2018, and most recently her luxury fashion line Fenty with LVMH in 2019. 

She is perhaps best known for her visual image; the constantly changing hairstyles, the opulent Met Gala costumes, the distinctive tattoos—notably the Goddess Isis on her chest and the tribal markings on her hands. 

There have been books about Rihanna before (2010’s Rihanna: The Last Girl on Earth featured photographs by British artist Simon Henwood), but nothing quite like Phaidon’s; a 504-page tome with 11 inserts, including a removable poster, and seven gatefolds. The cover features a stunning colour photograph and wrap-around cloth binding and the book comes in a printed black carrying case.

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Image © Dennis Leupold/Phaidon

Intimate

“We are excited and proud to publish this incredible book by this extremely talented and influential woman,’ says Phaidon’s CEO, Keith Fox. “Rihanna is such an important and groundbreaking artist, style icon, and entrepreneur.” 

A visual narrative with a freewheeling, roughly chronological thread, the book takes an exclusive, inside look into Rihanna’s world, from her childhood in Barbados to her worldwide tours, from quintessential fashion moments to private time with friends and family, showcasing intimate photographs of her life as a musician, performer, designer, and entrepreneur.

Arts & Collections asked photographer Dennis Leupold how it felt to have his work presented in such a monumental format. “It feels amazing to be able to collaborate with such an inspirational and talented artist like Rihanna over a long period of time (seven Years),” he told us. “The book is a beautiful collection of memories and really shows her journey over the years as a musician to becoming a mogul with so many successful businesses. The book is one of my proudest moments of my career so far and the imagery has helped shaped my entire career as a photographer.”

Image © Dennis Leupold/Phaidon

Ambition

But is it hard for a photographer to create memorable images when we’re surrounded with the flood of material from the internet? “I think the flood of images on the internet actually makes the book even more unique! Back in the day, print publications were our only access to imagery and every publication was a very curated and produced project.

“I think the book is a stark contrast to the Instagram age, where we are accustomed to swiping through thousands of small images a day. Just the size and quality of the book alone makes it very unique and special. Social media helps us take in massive amounts of information in a very short time, but there’s also a disadvantage of never seeing the images printed in full size. The most artistic and unique moments tend to get lost and drained out by very loud and bold images that scream for attention.”

Fulfilling a long-held ambition to work with Rihanna, the book gave Leupold the opportunity to shoot the star everywhere from backstage in Miami to holidays in the Turks & Caicos islands. “Many of these images trigger a lot of emotions for me because everyone on the team is like family and we’ve experienced a lot together. Jay Brown (Rihanna’s manager) gave us complete freedom for the project, there was no set timeline and it was a very organic process from start to finish.”

“My approach to shooting is always to be a quiet observer and capture the real moments that are not staged or altered. I try not to insert myself into situations, but rather be a ‘fly on the wall’ without making people feel uncomfortable. It’s a fine balance to be engaging and social, but at the same time not to forget your assignment and always be ready to take a picture at the right moment.”

But Leupold’s photos, of which there are over 1,000, form only part of the package; London creative studio Barnbrook had the huge but highly enviable task of designing the interiors, typography, and cover for the large-format book. Barnbrook (founded by Jonathan Barnbrook) is one of Britain’s most well-known and highly regarded independent creative studios, recognized with a retrospective at the Design Museum in London in 2007.

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Image © Dennis Leupold/Phaidon

Interiors

The hardcover book is portrait format, bound in a bespoke black fabric with a matte black, laser-cut, steel logo inset into the front cover. Additional features include three paper stocks, seven single- and double-page gatefolds, nine bound-in booklets, a tip-in sheet, and a double-sided, removable poster (35-3/8 x 26-3/4 inches). 

Endpapers feature a custom design by The Haas Brothers in spot gloss on a rich, black paper stock.

Jonathan Barnbrook said: “The pacing of the book was dictated by Rihanna’s life. She is right in the middle of this crazy universe and she is this incredible energy attractor so the book and the design had to reflect where she is at.”

Marwan Kaabour added: “You can tell a story in a variety of ways. And the sheer scale of this book, and the number of images, allowed us to tell a very detailed, and very intimate story. The words are there to kind of tap into one memory, or one location or one event. And, in addition to that, there are all these inserts that provide an anecdote here and there, so there is a lot to go through.”

And how did Barnbrook deal with the design demands of new types of media? “I think the typography was certainly a response to that” says Jonathan. “It had to be quite robust and strong to go through all these different viewing platforms. Current technology means that things have to work in different kinds of media—from the lowest common denominator to the highest. 

“For record covers and books now, we look at the cover quite small to see how it might work. Because a lot of people just see the end product at postage stamp size—they don’t see the real thing. They don’t go into a record shop or a book shop.”

Image © Phaidon

Limited

In addition to the large-format edition of Rihanna published at £120, Phaidon and Rihanna have collaborated with The Haas Brothers on three limited editions. 

Twin brothers Nikolai and Simon Haas from Austin, Texas often explore aesthetic themes related to nature, science fiction, sexuality, and psychedelia. 

The Rihanna: Fenty x Phaidon edition features a Haas Brothers designed steel tabletop bookstand called This Sh*t Is Heavy, inspired by Rihanna’s hands and finished in matte, powder-coated green and mirrored silver chrome. Price of this edition is £140. 

Then there’s a third edition of the book limited to only 1,000 copies. Rihanna: Luxury Supreme featuring Drippy + The Brain is signed and numbered by Rihanna and the Haas Brothers. 

The book for this edition is bound in a custom-made black fabric with an inset, matte black, laser-cut steel logo inset into the front cover and completed with a cast-resin tabletop bookstand covered with a bespoke black vermiculated fabric. The book and stand together weigh 126 pounds.

Drippy + The Brain, the custom cast-resin tabletop bookstand measures 57 x 43-1/2 inches and is plated in an 18-carat gold colour with mirror-finish, topped with a cushioned platform made from high-density, laser-cut foam covered with a bespoke black vermiculated fabric. Price of this edition is £5,175.00. 

(There’s also an Ultra Luxury Supreme Edition—limited to 10 copies and already sold out at $75,000—featuring Stoner, a custom marble pedestal designed in collaboration with The Haas Brothers, hand-carved in Nazaré, Portugal from a unique piece of solid Pele de Tigre marble with a soft, eggshell finish. The book, pedestal and packaging together weigh almost 2,000 pounds). 

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Image © Dennis Leupold/Phaidon

Beautiful

The Haas Brothers told Artspace’s Loney Abrams about their work on the project. Simon Haas said: “The bookstand for the Fenty x Phaidon edition is based on Rihanna’s hands and her tattoos. The hands are open and the book rests on them, so it’s like she’s handing the book to you. I’m a huge fan of hers, and I’ve always thought her hands were very important. She’s got iconic hands.”

“The second stand, for the Rihanna: Luxury Supreme edition, is gold-toned, and it’s got little flanges that Niki sculpted. We based it on Doctor Zoidberg from [the animated television series] Futurama. It’s one of the shapes that we return to a lot. It looks a little bit like a splash, and it has a pillow on it that is covered with a vermiculated material. Vermiculation is something that we do that is basically two layers of fabric that are sewn together in a very specific pattern, and one of the layers is shrunk. One of my favourite parts is the endpapers in the book, which have a print of the vermiculation pattern in clear gloss over black paper. It shimmers almost like a spider web. And it has her name hidden in it. It’s really beautiful.”

Image © Phaidon

The Rihanna Book is available now, online at therihannabook.com and in bookstores.

This feature was originally published in the latest edition of Arts & Collections, which you can read here 

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