"I hope that people don’t ever think I crossed the line."
His work borders on the surreal at times, risk-taking an unfamiliar word in his vocabulary, but that's the world that the larger than life fashion photographer Rankin inhabits. A magazine publisher, photographer, and part-time activist he's trailblazed his way through more than four decades of photography.
In doing so he’s produced an incredibly unique and eclectic body of work that challenges every possible norm thrown at him.
After losing both his parents within a year of each other 13 years ago, Rankin responded dutifully on a quest for something a lot deeper, several more serious humanitarian projects ensued. Little do people know Rankin possesses a body of work that represents a more reflective side to his personality.
From the Queen of Pop to the Queen of England he’s learnt more about people than most would in several lifetimes. Now as the lens turns on him, he sits down with us in a reflective mood, in this exclusive raw sometimes nervy chat Rankin unpacks his thoughts on the #MeToo movement, why he sees himself as his biggest competition and why he feels like he’s just getting started.
Grace Bol, The Fearless, Hunger, Issue 7, 2014
Neelam Gill, The Fearless, Hunger, Issue 7, 2014
You exude a lot of honesty in your interviews, is that something you are aware of or just a natural part of you?
I guess I don’t see the point in talking to people without being as honest as I can. A lot of what I try to do in my work is about finding honesty. Lying on any level doesn’t connect with the person or audience looking at it, it just doesn’t work for me.
Some people love making stuff up because it’s fun in interviews, it has never turned me on. My job is to get along with people quickly, to try and dig deep and that’s a skill.
I tend to trust people very quickly with my thoughts and feelings, and I’ve run into problems with that a couple of times. I also have a dark sense of humour, so I have always enjoyed having said those things that you’re not meant to. I feel political correctness is all well and good, but it’s fun to say things you’re not expected to say because it makes life way more interesting. But it’s a good question, I guess that’s the way I am I don’t know how else to be, and I have gotten myself into trouble sometimes with stuff I’ve said off the record.
Would you classify yourself as gobby [def.]?
Yes, I have been in the past and necessarily not thinking before I said stuff. That’s my worse trait, but you know inherently, the way I’ve been brought up is all about collaboration and respect.
I’ve been doing a bit of therapy lately and my therapist helped me work out why I get frustrated. It’s because people are different from me and they have different compasses. For example, I’d be frustrated about the way we do birthdays because I never thought it was very respectful. I fucking hate my birthday so much.
"I fucking hate my birthday so much."
Rankin on ageing
Why do you hate your birthday?
I don’t know, I just never liked it, I don’t like that attention for that reason. It makes me feel weird.
You’ve gone on record saying “You feel you’re a weak person if you don’t work hard enough”, you also strike me ultra-competitive, you seem very hard on yourself?
Weirdly, I’m competitive with myself, I got over being competitive with other people probably about ten years ago, but I realised the person driving me more than anything was me.
I created a bit of a bubble for myself, and I am more aware of that bubble as I get older. But at the same time I’m a workaholic, there is no question I get very frustrated with myself if I don’t work.
Are you comfortable at the top of the mountain or do you think there’s more to do?
Weirdly, I am very aware of my age at the moment; I’m reading this great book at the moment called he: A Novel, about the silent movie star Stan Laurel. written by John Connolly.
He’s taken all this research and created a diary out of his life to the point where he’s just about to die and then circles it back towards situations as he’s coming up as an entertainer.
It’s interesting how much of that I feel connected to him as an older guy, even though I’m nowhere near that age when he died. I remember the renowned photographer David Bailey once said to me, “When you hit 50 they start treating you a bit differently.”
People start thinking about treating you in a certain way, and I’m like, “Fuck that, that doesn’t reflect who I am.” But I do absorb it.
I feel like instead of being successful, I have become competitive with myself about my age, and I want to become physically fit. You start having these inner monologues with yourself – it’s just those moments when you stop to think about those things.
I don’t feel like I’ve achieved that much and I feel like I have a lot more to produce. Something I feel like I am dealing with at the moment is ageism, it is bizarre, and I have never been ageist.
I think about creating a place for my work to exist, not connected to me. And I find that where people get a little bit cynical or critical is where I’ve always decided to promote my work very heavily, that is something I’ve never been scared to do.
You have to be 49% critical and 51% supporter of your work, and again this is the way I work, and this is my approach, it’s not right for everyone.
I’ve always had that confidence, at the same time, I’m much more critical of it than most people would be. Whenever anyone says it’s shit, I say “Well yes, I’ve already analysed that.”
#No Filter, Hunger, Issue 13, 2017
You’ve looked through the lens thousands of times in your career, has anyone ever asked you what you have lost in doing so, have you destroyed something through that process? Have you become desensitised from all the ego, vanity and sex.
Well, I don’t think beauty was an inherent thing I started looking for when I started. When you work with beautiful people, you do become more desensitised to that than anything else, and probably sex.
I can look through the camera and see that someone has the attributes of being beautiful or sexy but I think having done it so often it ends up becoming more about the personality, and I honestly think that where I was coming from in the beginning. But in the last ten years, it’s become more and more about the person I’m photographing than the physicality of that person.
"I don't feel like I’ve achieved that much and I feel like I have a lot more to produce."
But you have done so many different things and been with so many different people and characters. Something must have shifted within you?
Before I started working digitally with Rankin Live, as a photographer I was always in control, and I never felt 100% comfortable with that. I wanted people to look at polaroids and wanted people to feel like we were doing this together.
When digital came along with Rankin Live – I photographed 1800 people in the space of 3 months. And in doing that I began to rely on this instinct on how a person was feeling.
I would say nine times out of ten I know how that person is feeling about the photo I was taking of them. 20 years ago it was just about building the instinct and confidence to do all of that.
Now, I could sit by a computer with someone and 19 times out of 20; I would choose the picture that they liked most.
But aren’t some of the best shots when people are not feeling comfortable as well?
Yes, I did this interview with Terry Jones from I-D, and he said, “I love the bit where they are not posing for the camera, I love the bit before the other picture, I love that moment.” And it worries me because I feel like I want to make something where we’re making something together. That’s why I like making other things such as videos and commercials.
When I look back at my fashion work, especially, I feel like I’m most creative. Because I’m probably working with subjects in a much more dictatorial way, it’s not that it’s not about being collaborative, it’s just that the person is there for the photograph and it’s the way I want to see the image.
Mannequin Fashion, 1990
Speaking of feeling uncomfortable, I’m interested to know how you view the whole #MeToo movement and doing what you do under these circumstances.
There has been a shift in accountability in a post-Weinstein world. Photographers like Bruce Webber, Mario Testino; Terry Richardson have had all experienced their reckoning. The casting couch was probably prevalent in your world, do you ever feel like you crossed a line with your subjects?
I always felt that models weren’t looked after by the industry, so if you go and look at my work early on I did a couple of shoots called Livestock, which was about how I felt models were treated, and I just think that everything that is happening is essential and was much needed in my opinion in the way these things were dealt with.
My wife was a model, and she had stories from being in Milan and going on trips, and I think that every model and most have had those stories.
I hope that people don’t ever think I crossed the line, I don’t feel like I ever did. I’ve always respected models, the way I work is very collaborative, and I always wanted to make it comfortable for them, some people use techniques.
But I can’t say what’s right and wrong because that’s not how I work, the world has changed and that’s a good thing.
The publishing world has also changed immensely as well, you’ve been at the helm of some of the biggest pop culture magazines around like Dazed and Hunger, are you still confident magazines will remain popular? Consumption has changed to what they were decades ago.
I’m excited by all of the things that are changing because often I hear a lot of people living in the past bemoaning the changes, especially around social media.
But I mean that’s not entirely true – you’ve been quoted as saying “Being on Instagram doesn’t make you a photographer”.
I am on Instagram and active on social media, and I’m looking it at the same way you’re looking at it. But I think its too easy to say – “I find it boring and how shit it all is”.
Life is difficult, especially when it throws these new mediums at you. Sometimes I say to my assistant when they want to shoot on film, “I don’t understand what the fucking point is, I don’t get it, I don’t get what you’re getting out of it.”
And they’re like, “the colour and this and that”, and I’m like “Really? Do you believe that?” Or is it an excuse.
But I enjoy the way culture shifts and move, it excites me that things can change, like the anti-gun movement, Black Lives Matter, these are all positive things that media is allowing for.
Of course, there are those negative voices and aspects; it has scary ramifications for mental health, I’ve dealt with those things in my work and where it is taking us.
And it’s a different landscape – it doesn’t mean the world should fall apart or that the world shouldn’t be creative.
I keep telling my team to think ahead. I just did a whole series of meetings with people, where they didn’t want to talk about the magazine at all and it’s hard to hear that when you’ve spent six months putting something together you love so much.
When you think about Dazed first starting, we had a circulation of probably 5,000-10,000 for the first couple of print issues but now we’re at 3 million unique visitors a month. That’s phenomenal – that is like magic and that audience, can turn to that magazine daily and get their info and find things that influence them, and discuss it. I think that’s brilliant, except it’s not my magazine anymore.
Big Night Out, Rank, Issue 00, 2000
Why did you leave it?
We [Jefferson Hack and myself] realised early on that the magazine should be made by people who want to read it and when I turned 40, I realised I was too old to be creating this stuff, I’m not in touch with those interests anymore.
It needs to be created by the kids that are reading it, and the kids that are reading it are between the ages of 16-25. I think that was a smart move on our behalf, we also only wanted to make magazines, websites and platforms that interested us, you got to make it for yourself.
The work you do with humanitarian images could be seen through a cynical lens, was that a way to offset the more ego, ephemeral inspired work you were doing?
When you go to a country like Congo and see how people are living, the experience of it so insane, such a slap in the face and a reminder what you represent is so minuscule and unimportant that it can only be a positive thing for you.
I wanted to do it because I felt like I had a strong knowledge of documentary photography but also because I found our approach to third world countries was that of treating people as if they were victims. And actually, my instincts before I went there was that they’re just human beings, and they should all be treated fairly equally. Why don’t I put them into an image that glorifies them as human beings or even in the space as a celebrity?
When I went there, the first thing I realised was how little knowledge of it all I had and the second thing I felt was very unimportant, and it was an amazing slap in the face. It wasn’t me trying to make myself feel better. I wanted to address the imbalance of having lived in this world and been given all of this stuff, being paid well, having access to all these ephemeral, hedonistic, fleeting elements of culture.
"You have to be 49% critical and 51% supporter of your work."
Rankin on viewing his own work
Finally, who would you like to photograph that you haven’t already dead or alive?
I am fascinated by Charlie Chaplin. I’m intrigued by the advent of the moving image era from 1917-1937.
I’ve done a little bit of research on that time and I feel like Charlie Chaplin was not only the most famous icon of the 20th century but probably still one of the most famous icons in the world today. I’m generally interested in the Buster Keaton’s and the Hal Lloyds and that era. If I could do anything, I would love to do a portfolio on those silent era stars. I find what they did groundbreaking. A lot of them didn’t realise how famous they were until they left LA and went abroad where they were mobbed.
Unfashionable: 30 Years of Fashion Photography by Rankin is published by Rizzoli priced at £45.00 and available from all good bookstores