Behind the Lens with Rankin, the Bad Boy of Celebrity Photography
“I don’t think I’m even on Anna Wintour’s radar,” Rankin tells me over a Zoom call, hampered by only a slight audio delay. It’s a little difficult to believe that the elusive Vogue editor could be unaware of him, however, as over the last 30 years the British photographer has cemented himself as one of the world’s most celebrated names in entertainment photography, putting his lens in front of the likes of Madonna, Björk, Hugh Grant, and even the Queen herself.
The reign of Rankin began in 1991, when he co-founded the British youth culture magazine Dazed & Confused with Jefferson Hack, a friend from college. The pair spent most of the nineties establishing Dazed as an agenda-setting purveyor of all things cool. Early cover stars included a teenage, Kids-era Chloë Sevigny, an armpit hair-bearing Milla Jovovich, an emerging star of the art world Damien Hirst, and, obviously, Kate Moss.
Through his work at Dazed, he naturally began to catch the eye of record label executives and creative directors across the globe. He built on his experience at the magazine and expanded his career by opening his own studio where, for over thirty years, he’s continued to photograph some of the world’s most influential (and controversial) stars. Rankin’s style is distinct; it often sees him capturing a behemoth of music, film or even royalty in a notably stark setting, allowing the viewer to focus on a glint in the subject’s eye or, perhaps, a knowing grin that says, yes, you may have heard the rumors, but actually, they’re in on the joke.
“Perception is a massive problem in what all portrait photographers do,” he tells me. “I try not to judge people on what I’ve read about them. You need to really get under their skin and capture the part of their personality that makes them iconic. You kind of have to fall in love with your subject a little bit.” It’s possibly this love for the person on the other side of the lens that’s afforded him the opportunity to photograph some of the world’s most beloved icons.
Fast forward to 2020 and it’s clear that things show no signs of slowing down for Rankin. After leaving the Dazed team in 2009, he founded Hunger, a style and culture publication that aims to satisfy creative cravings. When he’s not shooting for Hunger, he’s preparing for an upcoming museum show (details of which are still to be announced) or finessing Play, (Rizzoli) another coffee table book in his repertoire that will focus specifically on his music photography. Ahead of the book’s release, we caught up with Rankin to talk about the stories behind some of his most enduring images, from an intimate moment between Jude Law and Ronald McDonald to a cover shoot where Lindsay Lohan arrived 12 hours late.
Dazed & Confused, 1994
“This was literally my first ever shoot for a record label. The teddy bear in the shot is Katie Grand’s [editor of LOVE magazine], who I was going out with at the time. Björk was brilliant. She’s one of the most era-defining musicians because aesthetically she’s so unique and original, and she’s very in control of her image in the same way Azealia and Madonna are.
What I loved about her was that she just let me do my thing. I have to be honest; there was a moment in the shoot where I was trying to do something that was a bit derivative of another photographer, and she gave me the confidence to just not do it. She was like, ‘You don’t need that shot, stick to what you’re doing.’ She kind of set me up in a way, because very few people have ever surpassed her collaborative approach. She was flying at this point. I’m not sure her personal life was flying, but creatively she was at a high. It’s one of my favorite shoots ever.”
Broke With Expensive Taste cover shoot, 2014
“I love so much of what Azealia does creatively. I’m just so into her as a human being. Obviously, there’s stuff that she says that’s quite inflammatory sometimes, but the thing about her is that she just says it as she sees it. She sometimes makes mistakes with it, but she’s okay with that. I don’t agree with everything she says, and I think it gets her in trouble, but I have a lot of respect for people who speak their mind.
She’s quite unique because she has this confidence in her sexuality and her body, probably more than most people I’ve photographed. This image kind of embodies who she is, which is this very opinionated young woman who doesn’t have any fear and gets angry at people very quickly if she feels they are stepping into her territory—which, again, I think is fair. She’s got a voice; she’s not afraid to use it and she’s not afraid to offend people, which is rare in this day and age. If Azealia called me up tomorrow with an idea for a project, I’d be like, ‘Yeah definitely.’”
Q magazine, 1998
“This was a really exciting one. I remember I was in Paris and I needed to get a motorbike taxi to the airport to fly to L.A. to shoot it. Madonna was on time. She came in and told me, ‘I chose you to photograph me because you make the people in your photos look like they’re having a laugh,’ which made me nervous because I felt like I had to be a stand-up comedian. I was more nervous meeting her than I was meeting the Queen. I had heard lots of things about her being quite tough, but I think it’s a testament to her that it’s her collaborators—stylists, make-up artists, producers—who are always her biggest allies.”
Blender magazine, 2003
“At this point I wanted to photograph Britney just because of who she was. I thought she was a very lovely girl and really good at being photographed. She really understood what I was going for. The day was great, but I felt like she was a little bit in her own bubble, though not of her own making. The people around her were very protective of her, so I didn’t get to know her. I think in my job sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives, and if I can’t get through that exterior, then maybe there’s something going on I shouldn’t know about. All I can say is that she was very quiet, and she was very protected. The photo, I think, just sums her up. I wanted to make her a little bit more rock and roll, but still with a bubblegum element.”
“He and I didn’t necessarily click creatively. I don’t think this is the best Eminem picture, but I think it’s a pretty good Eminem picture. I really admire him; he’s a brilliant artist and he’s very good in front of the camera. He’s also really handsome—especially then. He’s such a good-looking guy.
He definitely didn’t have an attitude on set; I actually found him quite charming. I don’t think he was having a very good day that day, but he wasn’t rude or grumpy. He understood we all have a job to do, but if you know much about him, then you know he’s not really into that part of being famous. Some celebrities do—like Kylie [Minogue] used to love it, and Madonna enjoys part of it too. I don’t think he was necessarily excited to be doing a photoshoot, but he was still much more polite than I’ve had some people be. I just remember thinking, ‘What an insightful young man.’ He said some things that were very deep and meaningful, which is kind of what you hope and expect from someone like that.”
GQ Germany, 2001
“Hugh has a very wicked sense of humor which I played to, sitting him next to the mannequin. He’s very aware of people’s perceptions of him, and he’s not scared of speaking out. What I loved about this picture is that there’s such a knowing sense of humor, like we’re being naughty. He knew what we were doing with the mannequin, and he enjoyed it. What was funny about this shoot is at the end of the day he told me he was just about to begin a new part [in 2002’s About A Boy] and was off to get his hair cut for the film by the same person who cuts mine. I was like, ‘Fuck, why didn’t you get your haircut at the beginning of the day and I could have been the first to have the shots of your new look!’ He’s just funny. I adored him.”
Dazed & Confused, 1995
“I knew Jude from really early on, about 1994. He was a friend of both my ex and my girlfriend at the time, and I knew Sadie [Frost, Law’s ex-wife] quite well socially. We became quite good friends in the ’90s; we had kids the same age and we used to hang out quite a bit.
This was one of the first shoots I shot of a famous person, but he really wasn’t as famous then. I was just hanging out with him in New York because he was doing a theater production out there, and I said, ‘Why don’t we do some pictures?’ We just ran around New York with my girlfriend. We were outside a McDonald’s, and they used to have these almost pre-selfie era photo booths where you could get a photo with Ronald McDonald, so I suggested we get one to be funny because we were in America.
The thing I’ve thought about Jude since I met him is that he’s just got such an inquisitive and positive energy. He always looks on the bright side of things. I think he and David Bowie are really similar characters. They’re both really enthusiastic, incredibly interested in what you’re doing as a photographer, and super charming. They’re very similar in the way they pose, actually; they’re giving you so much in the way they pose. It’s very performative.”
Dazed & Confused, 1998
“Kate is Kate because she has this really innate sense of who she is, whilst also being able to give you exactly what you want. I’m not sure she would even agree with me, but she just knows her angles. When you photograph her it’s the most delightful experience, because she gives you so much.
What I’ve always loved about Kate is that it’s just like hanging out with a mate. It was very easy. She didn’t wear her beauty or her talent heavily. She is just really cool. Like how people thought Bowie was cool, Kate is just cool. She’s also got the most incredible laugh you’ve ever heard; it comes straight from her belly and it’s sort of disarming. She’s got such a wicked sense of humor and she’s just really fun to be around.”
Kylie Minogue album cover, 1994
“This is a funny one. I went and photographed it with Katie Grand [of LOVE magazine] in L.A. when Kylie was shooting a film called Street Fighter. Her record label paid for us to fly out and shoot with her for Dazed, so we decided to create a ‘Kylie Bible’ inlay which would come with the magazine. We shot for about 6-7 hours outside the film studio in L.A. with really beautiful daylight. It was the first time I met her and she was delightful, very open to collaboration. She seemed to love the process; she did everything we wanted. I’m pretty sure it was Katie that pushed to change up her image a little bit to make her a bit tougher and more androgynous.
The record company liked the photographs so much that they asked to keep this one image back from being in the Kylie Bible to use for her album cover. I think the album was quite different for her. It was more of an indie record, and we were an indie magazine at the time, so it made sense.
The White Stripes
Blender Magazine, 2003
“This was shot in New York. I’m a real fanboy of Jack White—a bit too much of a fanboy probably when I first met him, which I think makes it a harder job. He just comes with this really positive attitude. He wants to create a great image. He really believes in it; the image and music go together for him.
This was my second shoot with them, so they trusted me a little bit. Jack and Meg are very delightful and charming people. Meg’s a bit quiet, but she seemed to really respect the process. They were very much like, ‘We do red, white and black.’ At this point they were quite big, so the magazines all bought into their color scheme. There was no debate about it.”
“This shoot got a lot of press because she famously showed up 12 hours late. They had another photographer booked in the early morning; they called me in the evening and asked me to step in because he couldn’t wait any longer. I was like, ‘Lindsay Lohan? 100%!’ I thought she was such a beautiful young woman and such an interesting character. She showed up at about 7pm and she was just so charming, really funny, and she really connected with me. She looks you in the eye and is interested when she talks to you. People assume Lindsay is away with the fairies, but she was really in the moment. She seemed to really enjoy having her photo taken. It was like photographing Gisele.
I looked through the camera after the first shot, which was probably taken at 9pm after hair and make-up, and I remember turning to Marissa Burke [former art director of ELLE] and saying ‘I’ve got goosebumps. This woman’s an absolute professional at this. She’s a supermodel.’ I was super happy with the pictures because they felt a bit different for her. I think I captured her rock and roll energy. I think that’s the only image you can go for once you’ve shown up 12 hours late!”
Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, 2001
“This shoot day was exceptional because it was at Buckingham Palace. I got a very short amount of time with her, about five minutes. I’d done my research and the main thing for me was I really wanted to get a shot of her smiling, so my focus was on that. When she walked into the throne room this wave of empowerment came with her. Wow, what a woman. As a human being, she’s just so impressive and she has a wicked sense of humor. I really wanted to capture her laughing. She ended up laughing because a piece of my equipment fell down. I was shouting at my assistant to fix it, which made her laugh even more and I managed to get a photo of it.
We shot this for her Golden Jubilee, but the photo was actually rejected. They obviously liked it though because two months later they released it as one of the previously unseen photos. I think it was perhaps a little bit too nationalistic to be the official picture. And also, maybe a little bit too much a reminder of the Jamie Reid [the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen] design.”
The Spice Girls
The Big Issue, 1996
“The five of them are like no five people I’ve ever met in my life; their characters are so big and so much fun. I shot this pro bono for The Big Issue. I was really excited to meet them because their debut single was massive and their personalities were massive. People talk about them being manufactured, but it didn’t feel manufactured. I had this idea of doing a shot from behind with each of them looking over their shoulders. As they were standing there, I realized how you could see exactly who each of them was even from behind. I know this is one of the images of them that [Spice Girls manager] Simon Fuller really likes; I think he’s got a print of it.
What I really love is that so many young women, and young men, that have come in to collaborate with me over the last ten years have been so influenced by this band. They often say they had one of the pictures from this photoshoot on their wall. It’s so nice to know my work was there. A lot of what’s happened with equality in the last few years comes from the girls in this band inspiring kids and young teenagers to go for it.”