Rankin Gives a Fuck

John Rankin Wadell, better known as the fashion and portrait photographer Rankin, knows a thing or two about pushing his array of A-list subjects into a new territory beyond themselves. It’s a stylistic thread that runs throughout the British photographer’s work, which sees truth and fantasy seamlessly coincide, and leaves a tinge of irony lingering deep beneath the lively expressions of these famous faces.

Reflective, perhaps, of his own charmed sense of camaraderie, Rankin’s latest tome, F*ck Y*u Rankin, brings together a range of new and archival photos, taken over a 10-year period, of some of his most famous subjects giving him the finger. There are images of Robert Downey Jr., the Rolling Stones, and Rankin’s own model wife, Tuuli, and an introduction about the cultural origins of the gesture written by the photographer’s friend Irvine Welsh.

Welsh and Rankin recently reunited at Rankin’s Annroy Gallery, when Welsh was on a trip to London from his current hometown Chicago, to talk about the homogeny of language, dispossessed people winning cultural wars, and the intimacy of F*ck Y*u Rankin. —Davina Catt

IRVINE WELSH: The interesting thing when writing this was the way the “fuck you” (gesture) is known universally but no one quite knows how or why.

RANKIN: Yes, it’s confusing. According to historians, it has been around since Ancient Roman times, when the English were fighting the French. The bowman used two fingers to pull back the bow—in England at the time, if you were over 13 years old, you had to train for over three hours a day as the long bows were difficult to use but the most efficient fighting machine at the time. The English used them to great effect, so if the French caught any of the archers, they would cut off those two fingers as a penalty.

WELSH: Yeah, but it’s Hollywood, isn’t it, that has seen the one finger gesture replace two…

RANKIN: Yeah, I think it’s also what you make it. I think photography has given it this cult status, don’t you?

WELSH: Yes, photography but also cinema. Everyone gives someone a finger in films. It has become so universal now in America, even my [American] mother-in-law, who is Mormon and doesn’t swear or drink, will give someone the finger in the car if aggravated. It’s also about the intent you put behind it—you can go “fuck you” in an aggressive way or it can now be a form of endearment, like the word “cunt” too. In Scotland it kind of means everything, but in America it has a specific meaning—it unites everyone from urban accountants to gangster rappers. My wife tells me to stop using it in America as it has a different meaning, but I am trying to keep using it to make it more generic, which is not working out too well. [laughs] It sounds so strange coming from the voices of my friends in Chicago!

RANKIN: I remember speaking to my son’s friends when he was about 15 years old—they all spoke like they were urban kids—and I would just look at them like, “What is coming out your mouth?” Coming from these posh North London voices still palpable underneath.

WELSH: The cultural war of words has actually been won by the most dispossessed people in the Western world, the urban American blacks. I wrote an essay about Iceberg Slim, who wrote the novel Pimp—I really recommend it. I found this novel years ago when I was passing a SoHo bookshop. Slim was a pimp in Chicago who got involved with the Black panthers et al. He became an iconic figure and every sort of pimp character from Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch [on] is based on him. Even Ice-T and Ice Cube took their names from him. Iceberg Slim is an unknown writer but culturally he’s the most influential one since Shakespeare for his impact—I mean he single-handedly defined and gave voice to the black street culture, which has now been taken over by Hollywood. You get white actors like Michael Douglas going “Fuck you, motherfucker” pretending to be black, and you see it here with kids in the UK and all over America.

Rebellion is always going to fascinate as it’s always packaged in a very safe way. We are all part of it. It’s very hard to transgress; we have the furniture of transgression without the imagery and iconography to actually do it.

RANKIN: That goes back to why the book is an interesting exercise for me to capture images where it can mean so many different things, yet it still has that feeling you are on the edge. I admire the “furniture;” I’ve [included] a thank-you to the people that agreed to be in it,  because some said no thinking it would be bad for their image. Little did they know it would be good for their image to transgress! One of my favorites is of the Rolling Stones—they were the first to say yes to the project—and I thought, how then can anyone say no? What’s funny, though, is there are lots of photographs of the people [who said no] doing it elsewhere, so it is actually about control, which is another fascinating [phenomenon]: how much celebrity attempts to be in control. The transgression has to be controlled too.

WELSH: There is such intimacy to the photographs, though. Everyone’s take on it is so different.

RANKIN: A lot were done as a natural responses. Like the Richard Ashcroft one, he was saying “fuck you” to me. Or with Keira [Knightley], I was being cheeky and you can see in her eye, it was her reply! Everyone was trying to come up with clever, imaginative ways to look different in it. I’ve photographed most of these subjects before though. I suppose it’s like when you are revisiting characters.

WELSH: A book usually comes from an idea of a character—could be someone I’ve met on a tube or just seen on a bus who’ve done something strange and I’ve picked up on it. It can be very visual. Then I start doing the “what if” thing, constantly finding out who this person is—what music do they listen to, where do they live. I even build up a playlist of what music I think they would listen to and play it to myself. I spend a lot of time with them bring them to life as much as I can.

RANKIN: Yes, exactly. When you are taking these types of photos it’s really about trying to get under the skin of it.