Rankin designs covers for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

Exclusive: photographer casts models as characters, creating an amalgam with their ‘dæmons’

The photographer Rankin has designed the covers for a forthcoming edition of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials.

Rankin, who has photographed everyone from the Queen to David Bowie, created eye-catching images for each of the three books, which tell the story of Lyra, an intrepid young girl who encounters otherworldly characters in parallel universes.

Rankin said he was excited by the project because he was able to bring out the darkness of the stories with the surreal images, which were published for the first time in the Guardian on Monday.

He has cast models as characters of Pullman’s imagination, photographing them alongside their “dæmons”, animal manifestations of a person’s soul.

Woman with monkey
Rankin’s cover for The Subtle Knife. Photograph: © RANKIN, 2021

Portraying Marisa Coulter, who has “tortured and killed without regret”, Rankin juxtaposed her with her golden monkey dæmon so that their eyes appear almost superimposed.

He said: “I wanted to create this amalgamation of the dæmon and the person. It’s really trying to embody the darkness of the series.”

The photographer said book covers should be more dramatic: “With classics, there’s a lot of playing safe … because one aesthetic or another might not be liked … What’s great about His Dark Materials is that the publisher and Philip went for the stronger, darker, more mysterious images.”

He added: “Unfortunately, publishers tend to go for something that’s a bit softer, sweeter and happier. I was excited to be part of something that’s more movie poster than book cover… There are so many book covers that look the same. It’s not that they’re bad, but they’ve become homogenous.”

His criticisms were echoed by Pullman, whose novels have sold in their millions. “The function of the cover is not just to keep the pages clean,” he told the Guardian. “You buy a book because the cover has made you interested enough to turn to page one … The real test is the words, but of course, you’ve got to get people to pick it up.”

His Dark Materials, which began with Northern Lights in 1995, which was followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, has attracted top literary awards, with critics likening it to the works of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. It was originally aimed at children but is enjoyed by readers of all ages. Worldwide sales have exceeded 18m copies.

When Pullman’s publisher, Scholastic UK, suggested photographic covers, the author was initially doubtful, fearing that the models would “be read” as photographs of the characters.

But he said: “They managed to get the great photographer Rankin, who was quite clear he wasn’t making portraits … He is extraordinary technically … He lights and captures an image with such technical brilliance. There’s something a little surreal about it anyway. They don’t look like portraits.”

Girl with a pine marten
Rankin’s cover for Northern Lights. Photograph: © RANKIN, 2021

Rankin jumped at the chance to work on Pullman’s books, being a “massive fan”. “They’re really exceptional pieces of literature. I’ve read them all two or three times,” he said.

He cast his wife, Tuuli Shipster, an actor and model, as Mrs Coulter. “I’ve always felt that Mrs Coulter was incredibly beautiful and charming, but very sinister,” said Rankin. “I’ve always been quite scared of her as a character – it’s not that my wife’s like that at all. She’s acted and modelled, so I knew that she could give me that look.”

Rankin’s cover for The Amber Spyglass
Rankin’s cover for The Amber Spyglass. Photograph: © RANKIN, 2021

Lyra is described in the books as “brave and good”. Rankin said: “In my imagination, she was always a girl that wanted to be a boy, this short-haired, scruffy, quite androgynous-looking girl. That’s what I went for.” She poses alongside a pine marten dæmon as Pullman’s “powerful ferret”.

Rankin with monkey
Rankin with his own ‘dæmon’. Photograph: © RANKIN, 2021

When readers first meet Lyra’s explorer uncle, Lord Asriel, he is described as having “a face to be dominated by”. Rankin portrays him with a snow leopard dæmon lit in the shadows. “The darkness is there. It’s a massive part of the books and … the photographs,” said Rankin.

He has also created a self-portrait with a monkey dæmon – although, in real life, he believes his dæmon is his three-legged rescue dog called Hooligan.

Lauren Fortune, fiction publisher at Scholastic UK, which will publish the new editions on 2 September, said of the project: “It’s bringing together two absolutely iconic storytellers.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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