He has photographed everyone from the Queen to Kate Moss and after 30 years at the cutting edge of popular culture, Rankin tells beyond how he fell back in love with fashion.
words | Sarah Freeman
Just 10 years before he was spray painting Kate Moss for the front cover of Dazed and Confused, Rankin was sitting in a lecture hall at Brighton University studying to be an accountant.
Back then, he was known as John Rankin Waddell and it was a nice, sensible qualification for someone who had grown up in a lower-middle class family. However, at 21 with his finals not far off, he picked up a camera and ditched the degree for a more creative dream.
In that moment the financial world lost a mediocre bookkeeper, but the world of fashion gained something much more special – a photographer who would be responsible for some of the most iconic images of the last 30 years.
Having just edited his own retrospective, which has the somewhat ironic title Unfashionable, Rankin (he’s only ever known now by his middle name) has had cause to look back to where it all began.
“I wasn’t really surrounded by much imagery growing up,” says the 52 year old, who was born in Glasgow before moving to Thirsk in North Yorkshire as a 10 year old.
“My only connection to imagery was through films. My dad would often take me to the cinema. I found myself really seduced by the imagery.”
Having swapped careers, it was at the London College of Printing where he met Jefferson Hack. Together they went on to found Dazed and Confused, a magazine which was a mouthpiece for the Cool Britannia set and which liked to do things a little differently from the more established glossies.
“Jefferson and I were both excited and inspired by similar things. I think we were lucky, being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude,”
says Rankin of those early days at the magazine. “When we started Dazed & Confused there was a massive recession in Britain. Thatcher’s policies promoted the black economy, encouraging small, underground businesses. That Do-It-Yourself spirit coupled with a few sponsorships helped us get a leg up.”
Back then, Rankin drove a beat-up old Ford Escort that was in the garage more than it was on the road and the pair lived week to week on the money they made from promoting night clubs.
However, as the magazine’s reputation spread, the offices became a hangout for supermodels, the stars of Britpop and YBAs. While Rankin has never had much time for the excesses of celebrity, he admits it was a pretty intoxicating time.
“It was exciting because I was at the heart of a scene with people who were all very similar in their approach to life,” he says. “We all came from similar backgrounds. We were very hungry, very excited by the potential of success.
“At the same time, we were all quite young, we were having a brilliant time partying so I can’t remember a lot of it! Work was good because it kept me on the straight and narrow.”
Rankin soon became known for a very particular leftfield style of photography and those who have been in front of his lens often remember him as a perfectionist.
“When I’m photographing subjects, whether they are models, celebrities or regular people I always talk incessantly to the person in front of the lens,” he says. “I do it mostly to get a reaction. Portraiture for me is all about making a connection with my subject, building up a rapport, which the viewer also feels.”
In 2002 he was asked by the National Portrait Gallery to photograph the Queen for her Golden Jubilee and while he seemed an unlikely choice by then he had fallen out of love with the fashion world.
“It was too elitist,” he admits. “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.”
Today he says he is technically better than he has ever been and he is still striving for the next photograph to be the best he’s ever taken.
“Photographs are parcels of time that you send out to people, which they hopefully enjoy and connect with. I love the idea of capturing a moment in time. I think that’s why anyone wants to be an artist in the first place, to communicate ideas to people.”