The iconic photographer on his insecurities, his sense of humour and a hint at what he might do next
Last week ‘Unfashionable’ hit bookshelves and coffee tables with a thud - an impressive and fun-filled retrospective of the influential photographer Rankin’s extraordinary 30 career spent playing around in fashion and pop culture.
The aesthetics and attitudes of the ‘90s and ‘00s owe a significant amount to Rankin’s influence. It continues to be seen everywhere, from fashion editorials to cinematography, graphic design, and music videos and the book is a good reminder. Edited by the photographer himself, this is the first retrospective of Rankin’s full career in fashion photography, featuring work dating back to his early provocative portraiture in the late '80s, through his founding with Jefferson Hack of Dazed & Confused and AnOther Magazine, to his work on his most recent editorial fashion platform - Hunger.
Presented in reverse chronology, with a nod to a continuing spirit of contradiction, Unfashionable features a diverse range of fashion work, with contributions from Rankin and several of his influences, peers, subjects, and admirers breaking up the images (including Jefferson Hack, Katie Grand, Kate Moss and make-up artist Andrew Gallimore).
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Rankin to hear about how he approached the task and how it’s affected him.
LBB> The book is full of people you've worked with, many of them (but not all of them) singing your praises. How did you feel about the process of curating those quotes?
Rankin> It’s funny. We wanted it to be about people that I work with, not about critics or essays. There was a point where I said: ‘A lot of people have been quite nice about me. Do you think we should just mix in some of the ones that have been a bit more honest?’ So there was a moment of me thinking I don’t want it to sound like too much of a love fest.
Obviously working in this industry isn’t always the most pleasant experience. There are a lot of arguments, fighting, frustration and passion - where it all comes from. I definitely didn’t want it to be about that because that would be awful.
I always try and work with people that are honest. And I try to be honest with them. I always say that the best comedy is in honesty. It’s not about making stuff up.
I thought curating the quotes was quite an interesting experience. Some people were very candid.
It was just nice to hear from people from over the years as well. It goes back so long and it’s been such an amazing thing to put a book like this together. I’ve never done it with all the fashion stuff like this because I don’t think I’m really that confident about the fashion work. It’s good fun.
LBB> What did you ask people?
Rankin> We did a questionnaire. I didn’t speak to anyone about what they said because I wanted everybody to be honest. It was quite provocative. Like, ‘tell us if he ever upset you, made you cry?’ For example, I once made a celebrity cry by asking to change some mascara. That’s the thing about shoots, especially fashion shoots, they can get very emotional. That was the type of stuff we were after, just so we could draw out stuff from people that wasn’t all just compliments.
I’m not the kind of person that’s about blowing smoke... I’m about getting people to collaborate and be open. That’s my approach to everything I do. But it’s good fun to hear when people hated me from the minute I opened my mouth, I can totally understand that feeling.
LBB> I really loved all the little stories in there and how they break up the different shoots. Bits like your chat with Kate Moss seem really human and warm.
Rankin> Doing books is always really weird because they’re quite personal, autobiographical in a way. And this one especially. It’s not really about fashion. It’s about my approach to photography. It’s probably my most personal approach to photography - my ideas, my thoughts on it, my critique of it, my humour about it, my unease with it - all of those sorts of things. It was more personal for me to put it together and I feel a bit more insecure about putting it out. With the portraiture or my commercial work I’m more confident that I’m doing a good job. With this I don’t feel like I’m part of that industry. I’m on the periphery of it. I love it. I wish I could be an amazing fashion photographer but my head doesn’t let me do that because it’s always questioning if it’s the right thing to put out. I’m seduced by it, but I’m more putting a mirror up to it, taking the piss out of it, laughing at myself.
The picture at the end [Me Me Me] is me really taking the mickey out of myself in a very studenty way.
Me Me Me, Rankin, 1988
Doing these editorials is so much about the team and collaborations, more so than anything else because you have work together on it in a different way to advertising or films. And a lot of my ideas are a bit weird, so you have to have a team that really believes. And most of the time you’re all working on it for free, so you’re working for passion. Because I’m not traditional in the way that I approach it, I have to get people that really love my ideas to get behind it. That’s why I wanted the quotes. It’s so much more about them than just me.
I had this experience when I made my first proper film. It’s about collaboration and heads of department. It might be your vision but the reality is that it’s all the people that make that vision. I just think it’s important for them to have a voice.
Some of them are the ones who came up with an idea. Katie Grand, for example [who wrote the forward to Unfashionable], I wouldn’t really be a fashion photographer if I hadn’t met her. She’s had this incredible career. She gave me confidence in certain areas.
And I wouldn’t really be there if it wasn’t for Jefferson [Hack] or Kate [Moss]. The opportunity to shoot someone like Kate was amazing because she’s not traditional in any way, shape or form. That really helped shape the way I approach things. Working every day in this business you learn stuff all the time. You kind of want to impart that knowledge.
Nancy Boy, AnOther Magazine, Issue 1, 1994
LBB> How did you go about selecting the most important shoots to include in the book?
Rankin> I don’t feel like I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I feel like I’ve just got started, really. You look back at 30 years and there’s a kind of gravestone potential for it - a tome of stone that sits above the death of your career. It was quite interesting putting it in reverse order because it came very instinctively to me that that’s the way we should do it. I could feel and see the thread of the ideas that were going through the work and some of the ideas at the beginning of the book I’m doing at the end of the book, which was really interesting. I’m still photographing things that fascinate me - that I’m interested in putting into fashion media.
I thought it was good when we did it like that because it works in reverse order. It means that people go from the now, which means there’s potential for more in a way, the end, which was my beginning. It just felt like the right way to do it.
Rizzoli [the publisher] has a very strict policy of making sure people had signed off. And I don’t think I knew what a release form was until about ‘97, or maybe even later! We had to go back and find people to get approval. So that dictated it to some extent.
Also, for me the fashion part of it isn’t the important part. It’s the stories. I wanted to have the diversity of what we’d tried to achieve with the shoots as well as the diversity of who we’d shot and why we’d shot people. There are a few gems that aren’t in there but I’m sure I’ll bring them out.
LBB> You're obviously still going strong. You’ve probably still got some fashion shoots in you! Why was 30 years the right time for this retrospective?
Rankin> Maybe not after this! I didn’t really think about it being 30 years. It was my in-house editor, who said it was 30 years - why don’t we hang it on that. I didn’t even really set out to do a book. We set out to archive the work and look at that part of the archive. And then once we’d looked at that we thought there might be a book here. I felt confident for the first time - I’ve only done one small fashion book.
During my early years of being a photographer I was so seduced by fashion and really excited about the possibility of becoming a fashion photographer. I was very green with envy of the people that were successful in it. Now I can laugh at myself a bit and why I was like that. And also be really glad that I’m not that much of a dickhead as I was back then. I’m definitely still a dickhead. I do wake up every morning, look at myself in the mirror and go: ‘you’ve really got to stop being such a dick.’
LBB> It’s probably healthy for everyone to say that, to be honest!
Rankin> Yeah, but I actually do it! Which makes me a double dickhead!
You can tell that I like comedy. A lot of the stuff I say is just taking the mickey out of life and myself.
I have this weird, critical sense of humour about stuff and I think that’s partly being British and partly being brought up in that era of Monty Python and The Goodies, Not the Nine O’Clock News. They’ve really shaped me. There’s so much of that British comedic critique in it.
Obsessive Behaviour, Dazed & Confused, Issue 25, 1996
LBB> Totally. And a lot of the work in the book is doing just that. But out of all the stuff in there, is there one shoot that was most important for you to include?
Rankin> I guess the one with the old lady at the beginning (which is at the end). She was the person who set me on my path. Her name was Dot and she was a life model at Barnfield College in Luton, where I was studying photography. I photographed her because I wanted to do a fashion shoot. I saw her walking around the college, asked who she was and found out she was the life model. I just thought she looked amazing. She started me challenging myself in terms of who I would shoot and how. She was a defining moment for me in this area of my work. She set me on a path.
The photographs become their own entities and a reason I do interviews about a lot of the work is because I want them to have a life. There’s no point being someone who takes photographs or makes films unless people see it. You have to divorce your ego from the work. I love that my favourites are different when I look at stuff again. It’s a bit like being in a band. You get bored of that album because you talk about it all the time and a year later you go back to it and like it loads more. It would be undermining if I told you one image or shoot was the most important.
Dot, Rankin, 1988
LBB> What do you hope people will take from the book, whether they have it in their home or pour over it when they see it on someone's coffee table? Do you hope people will have a laugh with it?
Rankin> I hope so. I’ve been serious about issues like getting more diversity or breaking down beauty norms, but I’m political with a very small p and I’ve learnt not to step outside of what I know about. I love taking photographs of everybody - not just very beautiful people. Very beautiful people are as insecure as normal people and the camera is a microscope and it does reveal stuff about you that you might not want it to, physically or mentally.
I sound really philosophical but it’s not meant to. That’s the way I see the world. I can’t stop myself doing that. I want things. I want the world to move on. I want things to be better.
LBB> Of course. But you’re really good at balancing that with having a good time too.
Rankin> I try to because if you can’t have a laugh it’s really sad. Who wants to take it too seriously? And that’s why I’m not an artist. It’s essentially why I’m not in the Serpentine or White Cube - they wouldn’t have me for one, but for two it was too serious, especially when I started. It was so narrow and a world speaking to itself. I want to speak to millions of people not hundreds.
Eye Eye Abbey Clancy, Hunger, Issue 12, 2017
LBB> Has the process of putting the book together affected how you think about your work? Do you think it's altered how you will work moving forward?
Rankin> Yeah, definitely. I think that I’m ready to do a new project. I don’t know what that is yet but there’s definitely stuff that’s bubbling under. It’s given me a bit of confidence in having a voice in that area.
Good work has to be a combination of your head and your heart and if you can get that balance right, with honesty, you can do something really successful. That’s what I continue to try. I can be very arrogant about it but I’m probably my biggest critic as well as my biggest supporter. So I don’t go into things easily. I have to have a reason, not necessarily commercially but personally.
LBB> So has putting Unfashionable together book-ended something so you’re ready to begin something new?
Rankin> I think so because we’re at the crux point of social media. We’re at the point where people are realising it’s not just fun and games, it’s really very dangerous. And what I loved about it when it came along - the democratisation of photography - has now become very dangerous.
I came into the media at the beginning of the hedonism and self-absorption at the beginning of the ‘90s and I'm still here with the self-absorption of the selfie. I’ve seen a lot in that time. I’ve seen Photoshop rise and become unnatural and weird and be criticised by the media. And now Photoshop’s on your phone. That’s fascinating.
This new technology is going to change a lot of things. We’re addicted to this stuff and that’s not healthy. I can see that because I’ve got a foot pre digital technology and one post. It’s almost equal in fact.
This book is quite naive at the beginning (end). And you see me learn and become more sophisticated and become more about the instantaneousness of imagery. I feel like now I’m ready to do something else.
F**k Facetune, Impression Magazine, Issue 4, 2018
Unfashionable: 30 Years of Fashion Photography by Rankin is published by Rizzoli priced at £50.00 and available from all good book stores.