Visually, the pop-cultural world is made in part by Rankin. Billboards and magazines around the globe flaunt the hyper-real visions conjured by his camera—playful, witty, and often knowingly outrageous. However, he is also a startlingly intimate portraitist, known for his ability to reveal new aspects of familiar faces and combine glamour with character. In his portfolio, Sienna Miller peers circumspectly through a Venetian blind, Dame Vivienne Westwood makes an impish face, and, as if to emphasise her otherworldly looks, Kate Moss appears to be emerging from some galactic sea.
It seems to be faces in general —not just the faces of the famous— that fascinate Rankin, however. Last year he made headlines for his Rankin Live project, which recruited 'ordinary' people with a sense of eccentricity for a photo shoot. Did he mean the project to have a democratic flavour, implying that there is no difference between the famous and everybody else? "There is no difference. We are all people, and just as an actor can become a character in front of a camera, a 'real' person can for an instant feel like a celebrity. I wanted to show the illusion of perfection for what it is. Anyone can look good, given a little bit of tender loving care and flattering lighting. We are all obsessed by image, and I think it is healthy to question our fantasies and fascinations with perfection. Otherwise, it is a blind pursuit without any outcome or realisation."
He is often compared to David Bailey, and I ask whether Bailey was a conscious influence, in particular the Box of Pin Ups. "To be compared to Bailey is an honour. I admire him— he is outspoken, irreverent and doesn't really care what I or anyone else thinks of him. That's why I like him. He creates work for himself, and has a unique vision. It is impossible to be in my generation of photographers and not be influenced by Bailey—he has been so prolific over the past four decades that you just can't ignore him! I love Box of Pin Ups. It was such a unique idea when he did it, and still is now. I wish I had a Box of Pin Ups.... if anyone has one, please send it to me."The portraits that Rankin creates are usually one part quirk to three parts glamour. Given this apparently consistent formula, how much influence do his subjects have over the shoot? "I try not to have preconceptions about anyone I shoot. I am aware enough to know I shouldn't believe everything I hear or read, and like to start with a clean slate with people that sit for me. However, I am only human, so I suppose I sometimes have expectations! I shoot digitally, and really like the freedom that it gives me. I work with the subject and we discuss the images as we shoot: what's working, what we should change, how we can make the image better. It helps build mutual trust and results in a better image."
A famously industrious shutterbug, Rankin is no stranger to the busman's holiday, pursuing photography in his leisure time. "I do a lot of commercial work, and while I enjoy the collaborative nature of these shoots, I also like to use my personal projects to explore ideas that might not find a home in advertising. It's a passion more than a hobby." The most interesting of his special projects was his campaign for Oxfam Congo relief. Why did he decide on portraits of children and families, and did his subjects' joyousness surprise him? "I think we are all too desensitized to the suffering of refugees of conflict. We see images on the news of torment and pain and it is just too difficult for us to comprehend and relate to. Our idea of a nightmare could be a cancelled train. Their nightmares are very real, but paradoxically more intangible to us. I wanted to do the portraits because it took the situation out of the image. The photos are just about the people, about the characters who in the light of day are just like you and me. They want to live their lives, to be happy, to be safe. Theirs are universal desires that we can all relate to. I wanted to look at the images to see their humanity."
Rankin has always been cheerfully frank about his use of retouching to create the perfect image, and maintains that truth can never be captured in a photograph. "Photography creates an illusion from the outset —I am just capturing a millisecond of life and such a small fragment of time can only allude to reality. I do try to find an element of truth in all my images, but photography by its nature is a lie. Moments are not the whole story, and my viewpoint is not the complete picture. The viewer and the subject are separated not only by my interpretation, but also by the limitations of the medium. Retouching is just another element that distorts the truth and furthers the fantasy." He is more equivocal about whether photography can ever be art. "Photography inherently feels like documentation and rather than setting out to be a commentary on issues, it often is just the starting point for a debate. Good art is a critique of society —it gets under our skin, pushes the boundaries of what we see, of what we believe. My photography is a bit difficult to define and probably has a foot in both camps. I don't believe it captures unquestionable truth, but nor do I think it gives the creative freedom for interpretation that a canvas or conceptual work allows. In terms of my work, only time will tell if my photographs are considered art. If people in fifty or a hundred years' time look at my work and consider it valid and important, maybe then it should be considered art."
Despite his long and successful career, Rankin is far from complacent about having created some of the iconic images of our time. "I have been very lucky to photograph some amazing people in my career, people that have influenced politics and popular culture. Theirs are faces that are instantly recognisable, and I try to bring out something different in their character. If I manage to capture something of their personality, it makes the image far more successful and interesting to look at. I think to date I have achieved that, and I suppose that's why some of my images stick in your mind. I always want to feel proud when I see my work, whether it is in a magazine or on a billboard, and that drives me to create better images. I still feel excited when I see my work published."
The photographer who used to say that other photographers were pop and he was rock 'n' roll has clearly mellowed significantly since his early days. When he looks back, does he see himself as consciously trying to earn the status of enfant terrible? "I am who I am, don't take myself too seriously and enjoyed being young. It wasn't a conscious thing, but I did realise that I was gaining a reputation and didn't hold back. I don't judge myself by the standards of others, and as long as I am happy with myself, I'm not too bothered about my reputation."--Isabel Taylor
Many thanks to Rankin for his time, and to Triona Crowley and Nina Claridge.