Written by James Read
11 Monday 11th April 2011

Rankin has photographed pretty much everyone. From The Queen to Cindy Crawford and Robert Downey Jr to Gordon Brown. Oh, and he also started Dazed & Confused. He has cemented his position as one of the most acclaimed British photographers of our generation. Most recently he has curated The Peroni Collection – Italian Style on the Silver Screen alongside film expert and cultural commentator Anna Battista. The exhibition features seven never before seen images, shot by Rankin exclusively for this exhibition and inspired by his love of Cinema Paradiso and  Italian style and is online at www.peroniitaly.com. We spoke to him about running Dazed, teaching photography on Jamie’s Dream School and how to get a great photograph.

How was it shooting Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?

They are both very interesting men - and very different to shoot. Tony Blair only gave me a small amount of time to shoot him in, and I don't think that he was very keen to be photographed by me! It was quite hard to get him to relax, and that shows in the image - which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It tells a story. Gordon Brown was quite the opposite. He is incredibly warm, and we instantly got on. Its funny how differently he comes across in the media compared to how he is in person. He is so charismatic, and very personable. That cold distant person who the media made him out to be is absolutely the opposite of what I found. 

What do you think that the most important aspect is in getting a great photo?

When I'm photographing subjects, whether they are models, celebrities or regular people I try and keep the atmosphere relaxed and chatty. I do it mostly to get a reaction so that I can capture something about their personalities, and 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. 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.

How do you go about directing a difficult subject?

I always try to capture something that other people don’t see. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes when you think it doesn’t work, it actually does. For example, I shot Eminem, and he just gave me nothing! But in giving me nothing he gave me something...each shoot tells a story. The story of the relationship between the photographer and the subject, and also the story of the subject alone.  I relax people on set by turning the music up, telling anecdotes, messing around and making fun of myself. I try not to put all the pressure on them and instead I deflect it onto myself. People soon forget themselves and thats when they open up and give that something extra. That is what makes a good portrait, a great portrait. 

Do you prefer photographing fashion, beauty or portraits?

I’m basically a portrait photographer, so my beauty and fashion work is just an outgrowth of taking portraits.

I started out doing a more documentary style of photography. Then, when we set up Dazed & Confused, I became known more for my fashion photography. I fell out of love with fashion quite dramatically from 1999 to 2008. I was repelled by the preoccupation with what was cool and who was cool. It was too elitist. I’ve always tried to have a democratic approach to photography. I don’t want my work to be inaccessible. At the start of my career I was seduced by fashion, I loved it. Since then I’ve learned that I don’t have to be part of an elitist group to be able to take fashion photos. I’ve moved towards people who aren’t that way. Now I’m really happy to be a fashion photographer because it’s not just about a label, it’s about what you do with your photos. 

However, while I do still love fashion photography, photographic portraiture is really what interests me most. I am always intrigued by people and I love the expressiveness in eyes. Photographing faces never gets dull or loses its depth as people are so multi-faceted.

How was it in the early days of Dazed? Would you do it differently now?

At that time, there weren’t any jobs in the media. The country had just come out of a big recession and we knew that if we wanted to work for a magazine, then we had another five or six years of working as assistants or interning before we got anywhere.

It was a closed shop. We were almost left with no choice but to create our own magazine. We were lucky because it was at the same time as the revolution of desktop publishing. It made it accessible; it made doing a magazine on a computer possible.

It was exciting to be at the heart of a scene with people who were all very similar in their approach to life. It was a very ‘DIY’ approach. It was a really creative time. We all came from similar backgrounds. We were very hungry, very excited by the potential of success, doing something that people were interested in and that mattered.

I’m very proud of Dazed. I’m so proud of what it’s become. Creating it was such a life changing experience - I wouldn’t change a thing.

In 2009 you did Rankin Live (which the photo above was taken from), where you invited members of the public to be photographed. How do you feel about that project now - was it what you expected, and what did you take from photographing so many people less used to being professionally photographed?

Rankin Live was a fascinating project. A real feat - seven weeks shooting seven days a week...it nearly killed me! But it was absolutely worth it. I met some incredible people, and got a real insight into how people outside of the fashion and photographic industry view it. So many people are so phobic of having their photograph taken - and it is often because they think that they look bad, and are comparing themselves to perfected (retouched) images that they see in the media. I think that for many of the subjects I shot for Rankin Live, the exercise made them realise that everyone can look good with the right lighting, angles, and a small amount of retouching. I hope that it exploded the myth that the media builds up, that everyone should look perfect. The biggest challenge for me as the photographer was the speed which I had to shoot at - I shot up to four people per hour. And also how to get acquainted with my subject in that time and get them to a point where we knew each other well enough that they trusted me. Taking a picture is all about building trust with your subject. Without that, you get an empty portrait, which doesn't tell you anything.

A few years back you said in an interview that you were "good at avoiding going on television". How was it teaching on Jamie's Dream School? Do you think the program is an effective way of illustrating problems and solutions to them in British schools?

Well, I have to say that that statement no longer stands true! I have now presented three documentaries for the BBC, and have more in the pipeline. And there was Jamie's Dream School of course. I do think that the show highlighted something very valuable to the government and the general public. It is so easy for schools to sideline the difficult kids - and I do understand why, as they bring down the children who are working well in the system. But these kids get left out, and it is so hard for them to make good of themselves once they are seen as outcasts. Creativity and a difference of approach in teaching is vital to keep hold of the attention of these kids. And they are really bright - it was a pleasure meeting them, and I was astonished by their passion and their talent. It was just about channeling it in a productive way. The main thing I got from that is a tremendous respect for teachers.

What's next?

I’ve got loads of exciting projects coming up this year. I’ve got a fantastic show at the Milk gallery in New York at the end of May, and then around the same time I am opening up a pop-up gallery in Los Angeles. I publish my own books - and I have about five coming out this year. As well as a new magazine. So its incredibly busy! But that’s how I like it. 

See more of Rankin's work at rankin.co.uk

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  • Guest: stella.consonni
    Fri 15 - Apr - 2011, 18:30
    such an amazing interview! I love Rankin, he is a genius. I m a photography student at London College of Communication, what he says about the connection between photographer and model made me understand a lot about what I need to improve when shooting people.. thanks!