Rankin admits he was nervous working with the Queen
But in 2001, when asked to photograph the Queen at Buckingham Palace in advance of her Golden Jubilee, he admits he was quaking with nerves. “I was s******* myself,” he recalls. “She had a real sense of humour, a glint in her eye; a really powerful human being.”
He was given just five minutes to photograph his monarch.
“We had a bit of a chat. She made some jokes. I can’t remember them because I was so freaked out over meeting her. I remember her walking in and feeling that aura wash over me. I’d never met anyone who had that.”
The resulting photograph is a brilliant bright-eyed, smiling image of the Queen, set against a Union Jack backdrop, which was eventually displayed at Windsor Castle and the National Portrait Gallery.
His portrait of Tony Blair wasn’t quite so successful. Taken on the eve of the Iraq war, it shows a prime minister clearly exhausted, haggard and under stress. “I took a really rotten photograph,” he complains now. “It was a really quick shoot. It was inappropriate of me to do that and I was criticised for it.”
Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, on the other hand, came across as happy and smiling. “He was really charming, funny, engaged, the opposite of what I expected,” Rankin remembers. “People say he’s really dour. Not the guy I met.”
Rankin has photographed people from the Queen to actors and Prime Ministers
Rankin – everyone calls him by his middle name – is sitting on a vast blue sofa in his north London agency, Rankin Creative. It’s from here that he directs his business empire, heading up projects in photography, advertising, publishing and film production.
He is known for his more unconventional portraits. There are the models with faces distorted by Sellotape or rubber bands or nails, for example.
He has also photographed people with terminal illnesses or war wounds.
There was Kate Moss covered in spray paint and fellow model Gisele Bundchen in her underwear; American actor Jared Leto attacking the camera with a baseball bat, or David Bowie baring his teeth. There have been hundreds of famous pop and film stars in various unorthodox poses.
Rankin believes it’s his willingness to collaborate closely with his subjects that allows him access to some of the world’s most famous people. “I don’t tell them what to do,” he says.
“Even before digital photography, I would show people Polaroid photos. ‘How do you feel about it?’ I would ask them. I don’t choose pictures I know the person doesn’t like. If people trust you, they push themselves to go further.”
Some in the industry have gone so far as to call Rankin “Britain’s greatest living photographer”, although he squirms at the idea.
“I’m definitely not,” he says, insisting that fashion and portrait photographer David Bailey and war photographer Don McCullin should be ranked far above him.
“They are the two living photographers who are absolute icons,” he adds. “I’m nowhere near that. I wish I was.”
Brought up in Scotland, Yorkshire and Hertfordshire, before settling in London, Rankin studied accountancy but was far more interested in getting behind the camera. He attended two photography courses, dropping out of both, before setting up the style magazine Dazed & Confused.
In 1995 he married Kate Hardie, the actress daughter of TV presenter Bill Oddie.
Together they had a son Lyle (now 26) before divorcing. In 2009 he married model Tuuli Shipster. The couple live together in north London with four pet dogs, not far from his creative agency. Despite his background, he speaks with a southern accent.
On moving from Glasgow to Yorkshire, he had a Scottish accent. When he later moved from Yorkshire to Hertfordshire he had a Yorkshire accent. After each relocation, he was ridiculed so much by school peers that he quickly adopted the accent of his new surroundings.
Rankin is known for unconventional portraits
Nowadays Rankin calls himself a “cultural provocateur” and a “media rebel”, explaining how he has always been drawn towards taboo subjects.
“I think it comes from being born in Glasgow to a Glaswegian father and mother. When I was a kid my parents taught me it’s okay to be contrarian.
“Even though my father and I disagreed on just about everything – he was working-class right-wing and I’m middle class socialist – he always taught me to question things and to form my own opinions.”
It’s an attribute that explains why Rankin recently launched an exhibition, aiming to question censorship on social media platforms.
Called The Unseen, and running until next week at East London’s Quantus Gallery, it features hundreds of photos by members of the public that have been removed – often without explanation – from social media such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.
The images – a selection of which appear below – include innocent images of models wearing tight underwear or leather clothing. Some are pictures of crossdressers or plus-size models. One shows a man wearing Arabian-style headgear. Others include a child breastfeeding, a plump woman squeezing her tummy and a woman with a disability.
Rankin explains how many social media platforms are now so vast that, when it comes to checking content, it is not humans who do the checking but computer algorithms.
“What should be censored is paedophilia, upskirting or nudity,” he says. “I’ve got no problem with that kind of censorship. But [in this exhibition] it’s people who are posting things about race, body size, disability – innocent stuff.”
“It doesn’t make any sense because it’s algorithms judging the content. If you’re going to police something, you need people doing it.” He wants the platforms to explain to users why they are removing content. “It’s their beast. They created it and they make a load of money out of it,” he says.
“They should employ more people and take responsibility. Most of it just requires common sense.” In addition to taking photographs,
Rankin directs films, adverts and music videos – including a famously lewd one for American singer Miley Cyrus.
The social media accounts linked to his business enjoy hundreds of thousands of followers, so he’s understandably outspoken when it comes to this type of media. He uses social media for at least 45 minutes a day, “mainly Instagram and a bit of TikTok.”
What particularly concerns him is the way these platforms cause such polarised opinions – leading in a large part to the rise of cancel culture, where people are ostracised, sacked and censored for certain opinions.
“I think cancel culture is exacerbated by social media,” he says. “Not because we, as a society, are more puritanical but because there is no discussion or debate on social media platforms. It’s either black or it’s white. Opinions become more and more extreme and further apart.”
Rankin and Jill Furmanovsky
RANKIN doesn’t blame social media users for this polarisation, rather the technology itself. “If you create a ‘like’ button, you’re creating a ‘hate’ button at the same time,” he explains. “You can’t have love without hate. It’s Yin and Yang. As soon as you have a like button, you have people saying: ‘How dare you like that!’.”
When new technologies take over societies, they often cause social problems, he says. He compares this digital revolution we’re living through to the industrial revolution in the 1700s, or the invention of the printing press three centuries before that.
“Social media is still so new and so difficult to navigate,” he adds. “We’re all just toddlers in this world.”
He also worries that online platforms are making us all incredibly narcissistic, especially with the filters which allow us to manipulate and beautify photos.
“We’re obsessed with manufacturing this ideal image,” he says. “I think that’s a really unhealthy thing, especially for kids. Any 12-year-old can use the filters to change every single thing about their image. What does that do to your head? It’s messing with your self-perception and identity.”
But he admits photography has always been an exercise in manipulating the truth.
“Photographs are lies, essentially,” he says.
“With photos, you can paint with light, or make someone look thinner with a lens change.That ability has been around for ever and now, with social media filters, it’s in everyone’s hands.”
The interview concluded, Rankin then poses for a few portraits himself. He admits to “hating” it when the camera lens is turned on him and stalls for a few minutes to shave a bit of stubble hair from his chin.
Finally, he reveals which celebrities he would still love to photograph. He’s very keen to shoot the Queen a second time, now that she has reached her Platinum Jubilee. And the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy intrigues him. But there are two key characters who stand out above the rest: Barack Obama andVladimir Putin.
“They would be great subjects,” he says. “Either the good or the bad.”
The exhibition runs until next week at Quantus Gallery. See quantusgallery.com