Over the years, the name Rankin has become synonymous with sensational portraits, where he gives each face the opportunity to tell its own individual story – stories as unique as each of the countenances.
In 1991, the passionate Leica photographer founded the avant-garde magazine, Dazed & Confused, together with Curator and Creative Director Jefferson Hack. It offered up-and-coming stylists, designers, photographers and authors a platform for innovation, and quickly established itself as a leading-edge publication. Over the decades, Rankin photographed countless personalities of rank and distinction, from politics to show business, including Queen Elizabeth II, Vivienne Westwood, Ewan McGregor, Björk, Heidi Klum and David Bowie. A comprehensive selection of his work is currently on display at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar, up until September 27, 2023.
Rankin spoke with us about the work preparing for the Zeitsprünge exhibition in Wetzlar, what he believes defines a good portrait, and the role played in the process by the person in front of him.
Your exhibition in Wetzlar will show highlights from your 30 years of work. A large portion will be portraits and celebrity shots. How did you decide what to put on display? How did you go through your archives for this exhibition?
It’s always tough choosing your pieces for a show. Thankfully I was guided by Karin Rehn-Kaufmann [Art Director & Chief Representative Leica Galleries International] and Inas Fayed [LFI Editor in Chief] on what they liked in my work, and what felt right with the theme of the show.
Which are your personal highlights in the Wetzlar exhibition?
It is all pretty cool actually. Just being shown in one of the great homes of photography is such an honour.
You’re also presenting new, unpublished work. For example, the Flower series (2023) or your Selfie Harm series? What are they about?
The Flower series is something I started back in 2020 during lockdown, and which I keep revisiting. I’d been trying for a long time to photograph flowers and I finally found my way in: I started photographing them like they were people, and went on from there. Selfie Harm is actually from 2018.
In addition to your work for exhibitions, you have published over 30 books. What makes the selection process for an exhibition different from picking out images for a book – or would it be similar?
It’s quite similar. When you make a book you are really trying to create a piece of art within itself, something that connects with your reader or audience. I always think of a book as a kind of time capsule, and a show as a moment in the mind of the creator.
What is your biggest challenge when taking photographs?
The challenge is different each time. Sometimes it can be the subject being nervous; sometimes it can be the technical aspects of the shoot. Occasionally it’s just the weather! It’s always something that I need to overcome, and to do so with wisdom and grace. So nobody really knows it’s a problem.
Can you remember all of your portrait sessions? What makes them memorable? Which were your most memorable portrait sessions?
I remember most of them. I mean I’ve done a lot, so it’s hard to remember them all! I think I really remember them when the subject is just incredible – like Vivienne Westwood, Jay Z or Robert Downey Jr. With the latter, he just wanted to be there and to push the shoot as much as we could together. It was so exiting to work with such an inquisitive and committed talent.
In your eyes, what makes a good portrait? Are there objective criteria? How do you separate the good from the less good ones?
I think a good photograph is when you see it and it immediately makes you feel something; then just after it makes you think something as well. The two things make you consider and remember what you’ve seen.
How do you decide about colour or black and white?
It’s really an instinctive thing. I very rarely go into a shoot with that decision made up front.
What’s the good thing about actors or musicians when it comes to photography?
Actors are great when you give them characters; they are never as comfortable playing themselves. Musicians tend to like taking the personality they have and turning it up to 11 or 12. All subjects tend to like the shoot to be fun and quick!
What should a good model have? What makes a good portrait subject?
All the great models have a fantastic sense of themselves: they know where the camera is and know how to give themselves to the camera and hence the audience. A good portrait subject is always one who wants to be there and, for me, one who wants to collaborate!
Why is it easier or more difficult to photograph someone you are friends with?
To be honest – I don’t think it is now. I used to think it was more difficult, but I’m so used to being behind a camera and reacting to the subject, that these days it’s second nature!
How do you develop your ideas for putting someone in scene: be it in front of a plain background, a flower arrangements, a wind machine, and so on?
Well I normally have an idea of what I’m shooting and have worked with a team of people to come up with those ideas. Then it’s all just about how it feels on the day. It has to feel right and then you kind of build up the picture!
What do you wish for your photographs? What would like to hear the public say about them?
Oh, I can’t answer that. It’s too weird a question. I just hope that people have a relationship with them and get something out of them. I have no assumption that it will be the same thing I tried to put into them, though!
Born John Rankin Waddell in Scotland in 1966, Rankin first studied Business Administration. After a BTech course at Barnfield College in Luton, followed by a BA course at the London College of Printing, he began focussing on photography. Together with Curator and Creative Director Jefferson Hack, he founded the magazine Dazed & Confused in 1991, and the Dazed Film & TV Agency in 1999. In December 2000 he brought out his own fashion magazine, Rank, and since 2011 has been producing the magazine Hunger. In 2012, the Leica S magazine dedicated its third issue, the Rankin issue, to him. Some of those motifs appear in the Wetzlar exhibition. The photographer, who enjoys working with Leica cameras, has been responsible for many advertising campaigns for well-known brands. Rankin has published numerous photo books, and his work has been exhibited worldwide. He lives in London with his wife, the Finnish model Tuuli Shipster. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram account.