We were thrilled to have internationally acclaimed portrait and fashion photographer – not to mention filmmaker and Dazed & Confused co-founder – Rankin join the jury for this volume of 200 Best Ad Photographers worldwide. As you might imagine, Michael Weinzettl had a whole lot of questions to put to him.
I heard you were given your first camera as a birthday present when you turned 21. How did you express yourself before that?
Growing up, I had no way to express myself. Art wasn’t really on the agenda in our house; my family’s background wasn’t very creative, they were working-class-made-good. It’s something I found myself, through friends, girlfriends, and generally just being very inquisitive.
I was someone that lived in my imagination, so I was very frustrated. I had no idea how to express myself and wasn’t particularly good at anything at school apart from Maths, which is why I initially studied accountancy. I was searching for a way to communicate, but was just like every other spotty teenager, writing bad poetry and thinking of starting a band. Funnily enough, we did do one rehearsal session of my “mod” band “The Reflection.” I sounded like a tone-deaf cat trying to screech out songs by The Jam.
Would you say that this gift changed your life?
Photography changed my life. I was a dreamer, but with nothing to dream about or any way to focus any ideas or thoughts I had (apart from the dodgy love poems). Studying photography, especially the social and conceptual side of it, really captured my imagination. Also, the pure magic of photography, that has never left me; capturing an image of the world or a person on a piece of plastic. How nuts is that!
In an article published in the Guardian about you and your sister, Susanne Waddell, publisher of Dazed and AnOther, she says that, as a teenager, you “could be really mean, really wild.” What form did that take?
I was a prankster and also very naughty. I think she bore some of the brunt of that! Her favourite story to tell friends is me trying to bring a frozen chicken back to life with a car battery and some jumper cables. Take it from 10-year-old me: you can really scare a six-year-old with anticipation, hand movements, and a well-timed scream!
What would you say were your earliest influences in terms of visual arts?
Growing up, my only connection to imagery was through films. My dad would often take me to the cinema and I loved watching BBC2 art films or classics, before I knew what that meant. On a Saturday afternoon or late into the evening, when my parents had gone to bed, I found myself being really seduced by this type of imagery on the TV. Consequently, I related to what I would see out of the car window. I remember driving around with my parents when I was quite small, looking out of the window and being very aware that it was the shape of a film screen when you went to the cinema.
When I found photography, and became a wannabe photographer, I wanted to do photojournalism. I was initially very obsessed with W. Eugene Smith. I saw a show of his at the Barbican and it blew my mind. From him I got very into all of the Life guys and from there went on to Don McCullin. When initially looking at McCullin’s work, I realized I was in no way ever going to crack documentary. His work outshone everything I’d ever seen, and even now that work is just so poetic, sensitive, and emotive, I would never even assume to think I could get anywhere near it. I guess I also just loved people so much, so portraiture was such a natural progression. Bailey, Penn, and Avedon always made me feel something that I try to capture in my work, even today.
Can you tell us a bit about co-founding Dazed & Confused, one of the most influential style magazines of the 1990s? How did that come about? What was the idea behind it?
When we started Dazed & Confused, Britain was in the middle of a recession. Thatcher’s policies promoted the black economy, encouraging underground businesses and a do-it-yourself attitude. People were angry, but that was exciting, there was an aggressive energy in the air. With few jobs going around, people – including me, I suppose – had very little to lose. I was hungry to get my work and ideas out there and the only way to do that was to make it happen.
Jefferson Hack and I met at the London College of Printing, now the London College of Communication. It was the advent of desktop publishing and, luckily, we were at a college whose focus was on designing, writing, and taking photographs for print. We didn’t know any other way of doing magazines because we started at the same time, so it was a happy coincidence that actually made everything a lot cheaper.
We were both excited by similar things, like the clash between high and low culture, the dynamic between pop culture and artistic expression. These ideas fascinated me then and still do now. A topic like that, with questions on that scale, doesn’t grow old. But at the heart of it we wanted to make something with a new approach to creativity, like Malcolm McLaren’s DIY approach to art. You’re not one thing, you can be many, you can be a creative, which is what I’ve tried to embrace throughout my work. There’s a recent book by Rizzoli about the history of the magazine, called Making It Up As We Go Along – and that’s really what we did. We rewrote things, did them our own way – whether this was due to necessity, conscious actions, or both! We wanted to get our message out there, and we didn’t let anything get in our way.
What about the other publications you founded?
When you make a magazine, I truly believe you should make it for yourself. If you try to make it for someone else or, say, a demographic, it will always feel fake and commercial. So one of the things we promised ourselves with Dazed is that we wouldn’t hold on to it, creatively. Once we’d grown out of it, we wouldn’t be those sad middle-aged editors trying to clutch on to our youth through owning a magazine. We always intended for it to be edited and created by its readers. That decision created an opportunity for both of us to move on to creating something new, more for us and people our own age. So we went on to create AnOther Magazine and Another Man, then I published Rank magazine, which was a pun on my name, then I got more serious with Hunger.
When did your interest in filmmaking arise, and when did you become a filmmaker as well as a photographer? Was the transition quite natural?
I was always captivated by film. It was where it all started for me, and when picking up a camera for the first time aged 20 that was the only way I felt I could get near it. Today, film school or making films seems very accessible and possible, which is great. Back then it felt like another world, something secret that you had to have a pass for and know somebody to get into. I was from the Home Counties and knew nobody.
After I’d been taking pictures for about ten years (when I was about 30), I was given the opportunity to do a music video. I always assumed that the leap between photography and film would just be a progression and quite natural. How wrong I was! That music video was the beginning of a long road and me having to learn a whole new language from the beginning again – honestly. I only think I got my head round it when I was 40 and that was by making films for ten years.
You can look back on a huge and impressive oeuvre that has been celebrated worldwide. You were involved in the BBC’s “Seven Photographs that Changed Fashion,” for which you reconstructed seven provocative images by the most influential fashion photographers of the 20th century. How does fashion photography differ from other photography?
It depends what kind of fashion photography you’re referring to. With homogenous day-to-day fashion photography, it’s all just about selling clothes. Most of it is derivative and there isn’t really any art to it. The whole thing about me presenting “Seven Photographs that Changed Fashion” was that I was looking at the really top photographers, the really important images, the photographers that created art in fashion. What I learnt doing the documentary was that the greatest fashion photography is the work that holds up a reflection or mirror to society. Like most art, it’s making a statement about life, culture, society, then on top of that – if it’s really good – it touches you emotively as well! I think this is true of any creative work, photography or otherwise.
Initially, you became well-known for your portrait photography and you’ve shot hundreds – if not thousands – of celebrities (bands, artists, supermodels, politicians, even the Queen) over the course of your career. How would you describe your approach to, and your style of, portrait photography back then, and in what way has that changed over the years?
Wow, big question. I guess the best way to describe my approach simply is that I try to be honest and photograph what I see. I trust my instincts and collaborate with my subjects and the teams involved in the shoot, whether that is editorial, advertising, or personal. I don’t see that big a difference.
Can you tell us about some pivotal moments in your career as both a photographer and filmmaker?
Photographing the Queen was a big moment. I felt like I’d really got to a point where I was recognized as a portrait photographer, doing Rankin Live, really felt like I had a body of work and approach that was worth people coming to look at. Then with film, making a feature film was a big deal; it wasn’t particular good, but I really learnt so much doing it. Then, I think, starting my own production company, and there have been a few shorts I’ve produced and a couple of commercials that I’m really proud of; some people I’ve helped develop at Dazed, then later on my own.
In what way has commercial photography changed over the course of your career? How much has the rise of digital photography and CGI impacted your work?
The industry has completely changed in so many ways but what you can’t forget is that, in the end, it’s all about telling great stories. It’s just the way we do it now is entirely different. But I think one of the main things is the move from analog into the digital age, which for me suited my way of working very well, as I’m very collaborative and I’m not scared of other people’s opinions. Photography is such a young medium you have to embrace its developments, and acknowledge that it’s still finding itself, carving out its place in the world. It would be shortsighted as a photographer in the present not to be looking to the future. I’m always excited to see what’s around the corner. In practical terms, digital means that the old format of three images and a 30-second film isn’t enough anymore. Clients want more content for smaller budgets, without losing any quality. They want Instastories, GIFs, Cinemagraphs, Animations, BTS, testimonials AND the traditional stills and film. But, obviously, the content still has to work as a solid brand, a neat idea; you have to be able to sum it up in an elevator pitch. That’s what makes great commercial work these days.
Our answer to this desire for more was the Super Shoot. In just one single space, we can have a number of sets from films to stills, interviews to still life, and loads more. It’s pretty awesome and it gives me room to get creative AND give the client what they want. Plus, I saw this shift coming ten years ago, and I’ve marketed myself as the full digital package to embrace this. Luckily, I love shooting film almost as much as I love taking photographs. So, it was an easy change for me. I love what I do. Whether it’s making magazines, films, websites, books, studios, advertising, charity, art or photographs … they all go hand in hand for me. But I will always truly love photography the most, as it really saved me. Plus, now I work on big productions, the idea of doing something on my own, which you can do with photography, really appeals to me. I guess I’m quite romantic about it!
What are some of your favorited projects of your career, perhaps the ones you’re proudest of, or that were the most important to you?
Too many to mention. I’ve met some amazing people, have some funny stories, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m also a fanboy, so working with other photographers and directors, and helping other people in their careers is something I’ve always got a kick out of. In the end, I just love making or helping make things that excite me.
What are some of the projects you’re working on currently?
Wow – so many. I’m doing a new nudes book, which is very much about me getting older and being a little obsessed with the celebration of life through death. I have been working on a fashion anthology which Rizzoli are publishing next year and is definitely the most involved book I’ve ever created. I’ve been focusing on representing new younger photographers and directors, as I feel like I have a lot to pass on. I’ve been developing something called the Super Shoot and, lastly, I’ve been trying very hard to build a superstudio which I would love to reveal in about a year and half and then, finally, I’m developing a feature documentary on the selfie generation, which is called “At Arm’s Length.”
What makes a brilliant photo?
One that you remember, that stays with you and makes you feel or think something. There aren’t many of them, especially in this Insta world!
Who and what inspires you nowadays?
Everything. I’m still very hungry and inquisitive.
Why are you creative?
Because if I wasn’t I’d probably be doing “other” things to interest and excite me – and that could go very wrong on lots of levels.