Rankin, Self Portrait

‘It’s never been my aim to photograph people just because they are famous or cool,’ says Rankin, reclining on a white leather sofa in his north London studio. ‘I’ll never be part of the fashion pack – I’m not accepted by them.’

You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given that Dazed & Confused, the cult style magazine which he co-founded, now features the likes of Beyoncé and Marc Jacobs. No matter, 46-year-old Rankin still thinks of himself as the anti-establishment punk who launched Dazed 21 years ago declaring, ‘This is not a conspiracy to force opinion into the subconscious of stylish young people.’

Comparing himself to his idol and friend, the artist Damien Hirst, he says: ‘Look at Damien, he’s just done a show at the Tate Modern gallery. He’s gone on record saying he’d never do a show there. But he’s never going to be part of the establishment. Neither am I. It’s not in our genes.’

The comparison with Hirst is apt. Both gained fame during the heady days of ’90s ‘Cool Britannia’, when Britart and Britpop blew up worldwide, and both made their names through self-promotion. Hirst caught the eye of the art world when he organised his own show, Freeze, while still a student, and Rankin likewise started Dazed while still at college, promoting it at London nightclubs.

In the early issues of Dazed, Rankin and co-founder Jefferson Hack put their friends on the cover. Today, Rankin shoots the A-list. But, from his early portrait of a po-faced Jarvis Cocker lying plank-like with his legs up in the air, to a cheeky Daniel Craig pulling a turtleneck over his chin, Rankin still refuses to traffic in bland smiles.

With his fashion shots, too, Rankin declares war on the insipid. His photographs rarely focus on the clothes – in fact, his models often don’t wear very much at all, brazenly baring their nipples or pulling down their underwear mid snap (too risqué for some – a few photographs had to be removed from his retrospective in Shanghai). Gradually, his style titillated the mainstream media and soon he was receiving commissions from magazines including VogueElleEsquire and GQ.

Rankin went on to garner widespread attention for his role in the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which saw billboards plastered with pictures of lingerie-clad ‘real’ women with ‘real’ bulges. (Critics pointed out that the ads were used to sell cellulite reduction cream.) Last year, in a project for Oxfam, Rankin extended the idea of the everyman model, portraying refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a glamorous light, instead of focusing on their suffering.

After his magazine and commercial successes, Rankin began showing in galleries. He stuffed female nudes into shopping trolleys, asked models to play dead, and created human animal hybrids, but his most ambitious artwork to date, which again seems to have its roots in the Dove campaign, has been Rankin Live.

For the series, the photographer invited 1,500 members of the public into London’s Old Truman Brewery over a period of 20 days. With the help of make-up artists, hair stylists, good lighting and his familiar white backgrounds, he snapped each of them in as little as 15 minutes, before projecting the image on the wall and saving it to his website. ‘It was really powerful stuff,’ he recalls. ‘Some people were crying, saying, “I’ve never felt good in front of a camera. You’ve made me feel good about myself.”’

During Rankin Live, the photographer would go through the images with each sitter and they would pick out the best ones together. ‘Whether people are famous or not, nearly everyone hates having their photo taken,’ he says. ‘Most feel like they’re being put under a microscope. But by making people laugh, not being too serious and collaborating with them, I get them to relax. The great thing about digital photography is you can show the person what you are shooting and find out how they feel about it.’

It’s this ability to put people at ease which allows Rankin to capture such interesting photos, whether it’s getting Heidi Klum to cover herself in chocolate, or, as in his next project, photographing the terminally ill with dignity and humour. This rapport with his subjects is why, if he had to label himself, Rankin says he would say ‘portrait photographer’. After seeing the expressions he elicits from his subjects, we’d have to agree.

First appeared in Time Out Shanghai on June 29, 2012