Born in 1946, Chris set the world of science fiction alight with his covers for greats such as Harry Harrison, Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov. Following success in print he moved to the silver screen with concept work for classics such as Superman and Alien. He works at his Guernsey studio.Web: www.chrisfoss.net
It’s hard to overstate the influence Chris Foss has had on our collective vision of the future. If you have any classic SF books, chances are you have classic Foss. If you’re not big on print, you’ll know his film work. Familiar with Alien or Superman?
Until he arrived on the scene, the future was a needle sharp, sleek-looking place that got less and less human. Chris introduced us to a human future, where space ships were “rumbling bumbling bangy things with bits of metal hanging off.” People responded with wide-eyed recognition.
“All I ever wanted to do was be an artist,” Chris recalls. Like parents the world over, the Fosses were sceptical about the value of an art school education. “They fought me tooth and nail,” recalls Chris. “Their argument was that once you have a degree, you can go and do your art stuff.” He adds: “My parents were struggling school teachers. Then mum bought a Picasso by accident in a drapers shop. She was terrific at rooting and ferreting.”
The pressure was too much for young Chris, and just as the 60s started swinging he ended up in Cambridge studying architecture. This was a mistake though: “I went to two lectures in two years and by the end of the second was drawing cartoon strips for Penthouse.”
Room with a view
You see, Chris has more than one feather to his cap. “My first break was with erotic artwork,” he says. “Because that’s what they wanted at Bob Guccione’s new magazine, Penthouse.” And strangely, once you know of this ‘other side’ you can see that it somehow suffuses the SF images too.
It also explains something of the magic behind the peculiar Foss vision of the future: “For me a giant spaceship would have topless female stokers shovelling in nuclear nuts,” laughs Chris. “Whereas for other people it was the Z-drive.”
An intimate familiarity with the human form, not just as an object but as a sexual form produces an organic way of seeing the world. Chris makes no attempt to imagine himself as a robot or an AI. “I’m perfectly aware that technology advances in leaps and bounds,” he points out. “I’m just amiably waiting on the side lines for the most usable bits of technology.”
Old Jumbo Jets
Chris has produced covers for just about every classic SF author – Philip K Dick, Heinlein, and he was the Asimov man for a long time. In the 1970s, Chris was the source of SF imagery: “JG Ballard too. I did a lot of his covers.”
An editor at Penthouse guided Chris to recruit an agent, as he was being limited by the work he was getting on the magazine. “The first big job I got was for the Sunday Times, illustrating an article by Stan Kubrick on ESP.”
The thing was, Chris didn’t need a photo reference. “The guy I went to see at Pan books was overjoyed. He said: ‘Thank God, I can finally have spaceships!’” This ushered in a golden era: “The publishers were all located in and around Soho so we used to drink in this lovely little pub on Poland Street with the various art directors.”
From Dune to Alien
Drawing for Penthouse while still at university, cover artist to the SF aristocracy, what next? “They were casting about for an artist to illustrate this book by Alex Comfort.” So Chris drew the illustrations for The Joy of Sex. Exciting as that was, it was not the zenith. “That began when I started on Dune with Alejandro Jodorowsky.” This maverick genius had bought the rights to Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and convinced a French industrialist to make it.
“Somewhere out there is this huge book with the entire storyboard in it,” muses the artist. When Dune was canned by shortsighted Hollywood execs, Chris didn’t miss a beat; he’d already been commissioned to do the artwork for another classic: Superman.
While Chris was still on a high with the caped crusader, Jodorowsky pulled a rabbit out of his hat: “The work we did for Dune ended up as the basis for Alien.” Mr Foss, take a bow, your place in history is assured.
A prolific artist, Chris continues to expand his universe in many directions while attempting to marry the two threads of his work – erotic and futuristic. “People like me are the filters,” he ponders. “We take in everything around us and out the other end come these images.”