Rankin once said that while the other photographers of his day were “pop,” he was “rock n’ roll.” Now 47, and reflecting on a career spanning over 20 years, the acclaimed British photographer is a bit more self-deprecating. “When I was 30 to 40, I was wanker, “ he says. He puts his past hubris down to “the arrogance of youth” along with “doing a lot of drugs and drinking too much.”
A degree of arrogance is perhaps excusable for someone who has photographed the most famous people on the planet, from Madonna to Queen Elizabeth II, founded an iconic magazine, Dazed & Confused, and been credited with helping shape pop culture in the 1990s.
He is still influential and as prolific as ever. He just directed Miley Cyrus in her latest naked romp music video, “Adore You.” He also launched a new magazine, Hunger, last year and has just released a book commemorating his finest work titled More. He also operates his own in-house full service agency, which created the recent “From Sketch to Store” campaign for French Connection.
In front of an audience at Leo Burnett London recently, Rankin reflected on his career and spoke about his creative process. Here are a few of his insights.
Fixating on the person you are photographing is the key to creating a great portrait–a lesson Rankin learned from the legendary David Bailey. “You’ve got to be in love with your subject, and become obsessed by them,” he says. “If you’re not, you’re not going to get that much out of them.”
Of the long list of celebrities who have been in front of his lens, Rankin singles out the model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as an ideal subject because of her ability to engage with the camera. He likens photographing her to “dancing with Ginger Rogers.” Robert Downey, Jr., whom Rankin describes as “a hero,” is another favorite: “He’s got this innate sense of making people confident in [him].”
Don’t be cowed by celebrity if you want to capture the person behind the public image. “Treat people like human beings, “ Rankin advises. “In my photos you’ll see a person, not superstars.” He sees humanity as a key theme in his work. “I never look for the object but the subject, even in nudes or erotic work.” He makes a point of searching for flaws. Even with supermodels, like Kate Moss who has posed for him countless times throughout her career, his eye is drawn to the imperfections. “That’s what makes Kate,” he says, “It’s really nice, really exciting.”
Having earned himself a reputation for unabashed egotism, Rankin has received a lot of hate mail over the years. But he doesn’t let it bother him. “People hate me and it’s okay,” he says. When working with his team, he favors confrontation over tiptoeing around people’s feelings. “I go from funny and nice to complete bastard in five seconds,” he confesses. But the criticism is not all one-sided. “I’ve got a creative director who works on the magazine who thinks everything I do is rubbish. It pushes me to do better. I encourage people to be straight with me about the work.”
Even someone as highly regarded as Rankin has moments of self-doubt. “Some mornings I wake up and go, ‘Am I any good at this?’” he says. The best way to ensure success, he believes, is to go with your heart and leave “the intellect bit” behind. “If you do that you create better work.”
Rankin prides himself on being a provocateur. “Shoot after shoot, my photos provoke a reaction,” he says. But there was a time at the beginning of his career on his first advertising shoots when he did what he was told. He soon realized that was a mistake. ”The reality is you don’t pay me for that. You pay me to have an opinion,” he says, adding: “Never be satisfied with average. I’ll be the one at end of the shoot saying ‘Let’s do another one.’”
David Bailey once remarked that digital photography “just means the world will be more full of shit pictures.” Rankin takes a similar view on the subject.
“What makes you a good Instagrammer doesn’t make you a good photographer,” he argues. “So many people ask me ‘Have you looked at my Instagram account?’ I’m like, ‘Why would I do that? You are not a photographer.’”
Working with people that “scare the shit out of you” is something to aim for in Rankin’s view. Why? “Because you’ll always get good work out of it. Never work with people you love.”