It seems like Rankin’s creative mind works at shutter speed – publishing more than thirty books while creating genre-bending works with the world’s top icons, magazines, and brands. For more than 20 years, John Rankin Waddell, popularly known as “Rankin,” is in charge of prominent titles, such as Dazed & Confused, Rank, AnOther and HUNGER Magazine. Kate Moss, Madonna, David Bowie, Damien Hirst, Tony Blair, and the Queen of England are just a few of the most famous and powerful people in the world who once stood in front of his camera.
Although skillful at building meticulous composition, Rankin makes sure that his images convey air of spontaneity and genuineness that speak to the viewers. His intimate portrait style always seeks to explore the limits of his chosen medium, discovering an angle of view that reveals the subject’s humanity.
Here, Rankin tells Playing Fashion about his career, his recent project in Africa and his latest book, “MORE”, a retrospective collection of the past two decades that once shocked and amazed the viewers simultaneously.
I INITIALLY WENT INTO ACCOUNTANCY as my school was quite traditional and had encouraged me to study mathematics and science. My dad was a businessman, so it felt right. It was what I knew. My parents had no relationship with the arts. But accountancy really didn't suit me. In halls I was surrounded by all of these creative people and I thought, ‘I want some of that’. I eventually started taking photos when I was 21, and immediately realized it was what I wanted to do. I dropped accountancy and went back to my A-levels to study Photography, English and Film Studies.
I WANTED TO BE A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER. I was obsessed with W Eugene Smith, a photojournalist for Life Magazine. I wasn’t particularly good at it, however I was good at being interested in people. I am very inquisitive and this is a massive part of being a portrait photographer – so I embraced it. My dad told me that you should only pursue things you enjoy and are good at, so here I am.
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN CALLED RANKIN by my parents, my family and friends. It’s a family tradition to be called by your second name. My last name is Waddell, which doesn’t sound that good. I liked the way David Bailey was just Bailey and Irving Penn was just Penn – so Rankin seemed smart!! It has served me well over the years.
The Reign of Rankin in Publishing. Wow – reign is a small word with big meaning. I would never use that word. To be honest I am not in charge of all of the magazines, I own them, but Hunger is the one I’m solely in charge of. Magazines are about the people who contribute to them. If you have talented authors and you let them do what they want, you’ll get great content and the work will be memorable - it’s as simple as that.
YOU NEVER GET BORED because you are constantly being introduced to new technology, new products, new artists, new people… The fast pace of the industry is what keeps it so interesting. I don’t think you can really adjust; you just have to go with it. I like that information is so readily available these days and always changing, it makes it more exciting. The digital revolution has changed everything and it has certainly democratized the creative industries – anyone can promote their work and access content.
MORE IS A RETROSPECTIVE. The book has all my favorite photographs from the last 25 years. I guess it’s like a greatest hits album. It is very therapeutic doing something like this as it makes you look at what you’ve done and who you are - I’ve definitely reassessed my work going forward! William Boyd wrote the foreword, for which I am very thankful. He is so knowledgeable about art and photography.
I EDIT WITH ONE OTHER PERSON, my editor Liza, as she knows the work very well. It’s weird selecting images to include in a book as I imbue them with personalities and feel like the ones I leave out I’m somehow abandoning. Also the subjects play a large part – some subjects act like twats, so I leave them out! Sometimes I feel like I’m too close to it all and I can’t judge properly. However I am quite a strict editor and have done it in the magazines for years – so I just try to be tough on myself. My usual methodology is to go back and revise and revise and revise. Never discounting anything immediately and always trying to spend time living with the choices. It’s just about what feels right.
MY TV PRESENTING PROJECTS. When the BBC approached me to present the first documentary, I jumped at the chance. It has just grown from there. I am always happy to delve into a particular genre or period of photography and spend some time researching it. It is a strange experience presenting and I wouldn’t say I was a natural that side of the camera! But I’ve learned over the years to just enjoy the work and my enthusiasm is real. It’s like meeting your heroes and asking them stuff that fascinates you.
MY TRIP TO AFRICA WITH OXFAM. My favorite moment was when we did a private view in the square of the camp just outside Goma. We’d always intended to go there and not just take pictures of people but give them a print at the end – our way of giving something back for their time and energy. We flew in a printer with us to do it. We did a private view where we hung all the pictures up on string around this meeting point – it was very basic. Literally hundreds of people turned up who hadn’t heard about the portraits and wanted their picture taken. It was mayhem and my only solution was to try and do a panoramic shot. I asked the Oxfam team to try to get them to make a line around the square. People were going crazy and I just started photographing them in sections one after the other. The eventual image is nuts – as it starts with, say, seven people, and builds to twenty in each section, with the kids just moving along as I moved and people fighting to get to the front. When you see the final panorama there are people in the beginning who are also in the end. Then just as we were leaving a guy came up to me that I’d photographed and said he’d use the photo on his coffin when he died. That honestly blew my mind. It was such a compliment. The best private view I’ve ever or will ever attend!
I’M JUST HAPPY to still be doing what I do and enjoying it. It’s a privilege to work with the people I get to work with and that still really excites me