With a career spanning over 15 years, you’ve likely seen the work of artist and art director Akiko Stehrenberger, even if you may not have heard of her. In the last year, her film posters for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Honey Boy, have gained well-deserved recognition online. Back in 2009, her poster for Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games (2007), depicting a visceral close up portrait of Naomi Watts, was named the best film poster of the decade by MUBI.
In her new book Akikomatic: The Work of Akiko Stehrenberger, co-edited by J.C. Gabel, which collects nearly 100 of her posters to date, Stehrenberger commented on usually being brought on to a project when “a studio wants a less conventional poster and more often than not, a secondary poster where they can take a bit more of a risk.” What sets Stehrenberger’s posters apart is her commitment to integrating illustration. She often uses a mix of traditional and digital painting to gain the desired final effect, evoking emotion in a way that doesn’t often translate in your average film poster. For Céline Sciamma’s period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the oil painted flame at the center of the poster has a distinct, deeply sensual texture. What makes the poster even more engaging is its optical illusion, as the flame also contains the silhouettes of two women kissing, a gesture to the film’s plot. Stehrenberger regularly uses such illusions in her posters; see her work for Colossal, Red Riding, and Netflix’s Unbelievable.
Stehrenberger’s work is most compelling when it’s seemingly at its simplest, focused on distilling the mood of a film via the faces of its protagonists. Artwork for films like 500 days of Summer, Spring Breakers and Her demonstrate that Stehrenberger isn’t afraid to push and play with boundaries, and while illustrated poster art usually evinces a sense of nostalgia, Stehrenberger’s work feels fresh in its use of bold colors and considered compositions. It’s a testament to the importance of film art work, and an exciting example of how more risky takes on posters can and will pay off if given the opportunity.