Rankin: photographer of the famous
PUBLISHED: 09:38 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 10:37 13 February 2017
He is the celebrated photographer of the famous, from the Queen to Kylie, a go-to creator of high-end adverts, and an innovative backer of charitable projects. Here, Rankin charts his journey from uncultured St Albans teen to international artist
If the name Rankin isn’t familiar, then his work will be. His is synonymous with cutting-edge portraits, his lens capturing the cultural and political figures of our age. His images have adorned the covers of Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, GQ and Rolling Stone. He is equally well known for his advertising shots for the film, fashion and beauty industry. He has also helped to create charity campaigns, including for Oxfam, Breakthrough Cancer and Women’s Aid. He has published magazines, more than 30 books, exhibited regularly in galleries around the world and has his own gallery in London. And his client list reads like a Who’s Who of pubic life in the UK and beyond. In short, he has a clear view from the topmost branches of the photography industry.
Rankin was born John Rankin Waddell in Glasgow. His family moved to North Yorkshire following a promotion for his dad, then on to St Albans, where Rankin spent his teenage years. Seeing his output and passion for capturing images of people, you might expect him to have been immersed in art and culture from a young age, but it wasn’t something his parents were interested in, he says.
‘I wasn’t really surrounded by much imagery growing up. My parents were lower-middle-class. Art and culture wasn’t something they ever had any contact with and consequently I didn’t either.
‘Growing up, my only connection to imagery was through films. My dad would often take me to the cinema. I found myself really seduced. I related it to what I would see out of the car window.’
His first encounter with photography (he admits he has very few photos of his youth) wasn’t until his late teens, when a hairdresser who cut his hair into ‘a crazy style’ asked if he could take his photo.
‘I just liked the idea of the glamour of it all at that point. I didn’t start taking photos until I was 21.’
It was while doing an accountancy degree at Brighton Polytechnic that he picked up a camera and began to investigate the medium. Quickly realising this was what he really wanted to do, he abandoned the degree course and went back to A-levels to study photography.
Taking a degree in photography at the London College of Printing – ‘the critique of your work was heavy and semiotics driven’ – he met Jefferson Hack and together they founded Dazed & Confused, a ground-breaking monthly style magazine that developed cult status, documenting the Brit Pop and Britart movements of the time. Despite launching during the recession of the early 1990s, the magazine (now called just Dazed) celebrated 25 years last year.
‘The main reason Jefferson and I started Dazed & Confused was because we couldn’t get jobs. We promoted nightclubs – that’s how we survived. We put clubs together and we’d do nights, get a couple hundred quid, and that was enough to get us through to the next week’ he says.
‘There was a thriving music industry at the time, which had quite a substantial amount of money to commission photographers. I would get PR jobs for record companies from Dazed & Confused. It was a direct link, where we would photograph musical artists, and they would like the photos and use them for promotional purposes. From there, it was about getting the right agent and the right portfolio, continuously putting stuff out there, doing exhibitions and that sort of thing.
‘From that era, I’ve taken away the idea that you should do stuff for nothing, because that’s what you had to do then to get ahead. To be innovative is to be in control of what you do, and if you do work for nothing then you have got a lot more control.’
He adds, ‘I think we were lucky, being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude. It was the advent of desktop publishing, I wanted to get invited to cool parties and shoot people I admired. In all honesty, we didn’t think it would last more than a few issues and here we are all this time later. It was a really creative time. We all came from similar backgrounds. We were very excited by the potential of success and doing something that people were interested in and that mattered.’
He says the motivation for his images was and remains to discover people’s characters.
‘I’m really inquisitive about them. I think it probably came from my dad. My parents brought me up to question everything and everybody and were constantly trying to answer everything for me. I love meeting new people and getting inside their heads. The best models have great personalities and it really makes my job so much easier.’
When he’s photographing subjects, whether models, celebrities or regular people, he will talk to them incessantly, he admits.
‘I do it mostly to get a reaction so that I can capture something about their personalities. Every person will have a different reaction, a different outlook. Portraiture for me is all about making a connection with my subject, building up a rapport, which the viewer also feels.
‘I see it as a collaboration, I try to make it fun, which also comes across in the photographs. I think a good portrait is based on how people feel when they’re having their portrait taken. Basically, if they feel great, it’s pretty easy to make them look great. Also, it’s important that people feel they can be ridiculous; sometimes you have to risk looking uncool to make an emotional connection with the camera. But for that, you have to trust the photographer to know they won’t make you look stupid. Last but not least, most people hate having their photo taken – even the famous ones. If you know that, it helps with the way you treat them.’
One of his most surprising shoots was the Rolling Stones. ‘They were so young at heart and so enthusiastic about everything. You get a lot of bands that are photographed a lot and they are really serious and quite mellow and a bit grumpy. I think that the Stones even at their age now were excited that they were still doing it and excited about life, which for me was a surprise.’ Although often seen as a celebrity and fashion photographer, it’s his projects featuring real people that have stood out. What woman didn’t love his award-winning Dove’s Real Women campaign that featured non-models of all shapes and sizes looking beautiful?
It was the drive to capture non-famous people that also inspired one of the biggest projects of his career – Rankin Live, a huge interactive exhibition showcasing the accessibility and speed of modern photography. For seven weeks in 2009, he photographed more than 1,600 Londoners straight off the street, one every 15 minutes, proving that anyone can look like a cover star. He retouched, printed and displayed each image within half an hour of the photo being taken.
His affiliation with charities has seen him create powerful charity campaigns. He says of the experience of working with Oxfam in Kenya, ‘I was sick of seeing people in the developing world portrayed as victims in photographs, and I felt that we had become numb to it. I suggested that we went for something positive instead. I wanted people here to relate to people there, the expressions in their eyes and on their faces.’
The campaign raised £1m to give a better life to some of the poorest in the country.
He also worked with Mencap in that charity’s powerful Here I Am campaign. The photos aimed to connect the viewer to individuals and change the public perception of disability. The personalities jump out from these images.
From stills, he has turned his hand to film documentaries, such as the BBC’s The Seven Photographs that Changed Fashion, recreating iconic fashion images by Bailey and Beaton. And not shy of a difficult subject, he documented terminal illnesses in Alive: In the Face of Death, believing art is an important way of tackling the subject.
Five years ago, Rankin returned to magazine publishing with a new publication, The Hunger, a bi-annual fashion and lifestyle magazine in print and online at hungertv.com. He has also branched into directing music videos (for Kelis, Miley Cyrus, Rita Ora and Cheryl Cole among others), commercials and short films, saying that while this is a whole new way of working, it has enhanced his photography.
He has come a long way from his days as an accountancy student taking photographs in his spare time and he puts his success down to consistent drive.
‘I really do feel like a “big break” is a bit of a cop-out term,’ he says. ‘It’s like saying it was my destiny, which it never was. I worked hard, consistently and knocked on doors until they all seemed to open at once. I still don’t think it’s real, so I’m still striving to be successful.’
Is there one photo he is particularly proud of? Not one but many. ‘Photographs are parcels of time that you send out to people, which they hopefully enjoy and connect with. I love the idea of capturing a moment in time. I think that’s why anyone wants to be an artist in the first place, to communicate ideas to people.’
He feels his relationship with photography hasn’t changed much over the years. ‘The ideas and concepts, and the way I shoot are very similar. I’ve embraced learning how to take better photos. Technically, I’m a better photographer because of age. I’m still hungry to take more photos and for the next photo to be the best I’ve ever taken.’