‘Photography’s now the most-used medium in the world. It’s not audio, it’s not writing, it’s imagery. We’re all using photography in a way that it’s never been used before and the potential for that to go bad and be manipulated by bad actors is really serious.’
Having been involved in, and to a large extent steered, Britain’s cultural zeitgeist since the 1990s, few are better placed to proclaim where we’re headed than Rankin. After graduating from London College of Printing where he’d studied photography (and rebelled enthusiastically against the overly theoretical and semiotics-driven course leadership), Rankin and his pal Jefferson Hack published the first issue of Dazed & Confused. The ad-hoc DIY approach, necessitated by a recession and Thatcher’s Reaganite rejigging of the economy, brought together a group of people hungry to document and promote the musical and fashion talent they felt deserved it the most (and get them invited to cool parties).
The work piled up and, as demand and popularity grew, so did Dazed’s influence, and they were soon able to lay claim to being the biggest pop culture magazine in the country. With Rankin’s stock rising and rising, he went on to photograph such figures as Jay-Z, Kate Moss, Marilyn Manson, Kylie Minogue, and the Queen. But just as pertinent as his photos to this edition of Six of the Best are his forewarnings on the potential dangers for photography to spiral out of control and manipulate our reality, something that can only be reversed if we pre-empt it.
Highly Flammable, Dazed & Confused, Issue 31, 1997
“This was 1997. There was a lot of hype in fashion around manmade fabric, and so it just occurred to me that if you held a match to it then it would just light up. I’ve never really been a fashion photographer, more of a portrait and conceptual photographer who uses fashion as a vehicle for my ideas. I was always looking at fashion as an outsider, critiquing it and having fun at its expense, in this case setting a model alight wearing those flammable clothes. In the photographic part of my brain I then worked out how to do it.
I’m very seduced by fashion but there’s a part of me that feels empty when I look at it and wants to destroy it
“I found a model who I really love called Natasha Elms and printed out a life size cutout of her, took that out onto the street and set it alight. I’m very seduced by fashion but there’s a part of me that feels empty when I look at it and wants to destroy or mess around with it. There’s a great quote from the Vogue fashion photographer Irving Penn when he says he isn’t selling clothes, he’s selling dreams. The thing for me is that I’ve never really fitted into the fashion world. I’m not model size, I’ve never fitted the clothes and have never felt comfortable in that world.”
Selfie Harm, Visual Diet, 2019
“There’s a history to my work where I take retouching and expose the before and after. I did it in the early noughties on a project called Surgery where I took people who wanted plastic surgery and I gave it to them digitally. I was playing around with social media a few years ago and came across these apps where kids could use these filters to retouch themselves and change any aspect of their face. It’s extraordinary how it’s all so gamified and many of the apps are aimed at kids. You can take the photos then store the retouched versions of yourself. By this time people had really begun to criticise selfie-taking and seeing it for how unhealthy it is.
“So I got teenagers to use the app and change their faces to make them ‘social media ready’. They all changed their faces in very similar ways to make themselves more perfect. Fashion was heavily criticised in the late 90s and early noughties for creating these images of perfection but these have now amplified to the point where any 13-year-old can do it. I’m asking where the responsibility for this phenomenon lies: does it lie with the parents? Does it lie with the developers of the apps? We’re witnessing just the tip of the iceberg with what a child can do here. It nods to what the future might hold – a bleak future if there’s no responsibility.”
Bowie’s Teeth, Changing Faces of David Bowie, Dazed & Confused, Issue 14, 1995
“I always remember David Bowie’s teeth because I’ve got really dodgy teeth and had this memory of his from growing up listening to his music. So when I rocked up I didn’t even think about much else, I just thought: ‘Fuck it, it’ll be really interesting to get him to show those teeth!’ and he told me they weren’t his original teeth – they’re crowns or dentures or whatever they’re called. I think some were real and some were fake. The thing about this picture is that whenever I thought about Bowie, right from the beginning when I was growing up, I always saw him as this really cool, very cold, distant person, on a pedestal. But then the guy that I met was the most enthusiastic, inquisitive, excited guy ever alive! He was the opposite of what I thought he was going to be like.”
Reverence, King Kong, 2019
“Aesthetically, when you have some set pieces, sometimes something just clicks and the make-up artist says: ‘Why doing we do this and then that…’ and the set designer chimes in: ‘I’ve got an idea…’ and before you know it all these things come together and it’s suddenly an image. I could claim it was all pre-determined and retrofit it all to coming from an idea, but actually this line of work is all instinctive, all in your gut. If you know in your gut something works, it generally works. The male model actually messaged me the other day asking for a print of it because he liked it so much. That’s really strange and very few people do that.”
Hair Game, Hunger, Issue 18, 2020
“One of my creatives in my agency came up with this idea, a girl called Julia. We’re always trying to do things outside of the ordinary for these kinds of shoots and this came from the idea of making hair pieces out of all these different materials. Hunger is always trying to push the boundaries of fashion and beauty. As a commercial photographer or an editorial one, a lot of the time you’re collaborating with a big group of people. It’s never really just me on my own, it’s like it’s a ship and I’m the captain: what I say goes but without all the components I’d be shipwrecked.”
Rankin With Family, 1988
“This is one of the only pictures I’ve got of myself, it’s hung up in my house. When I look back at it now it’s all a bit obvious, I’m thinking: ‘Ah look at you with your Susan Sontag book, your Roland Barthes, and your fashion cover,’ but in a way it’s this image that got me into London College of Printing. They were intrigued by it when I went for my interviews. It’s a bit cheesy but I like it. It’s got my girlfriend at the time, my two mates in the background on the car, my dog Sheba, my sister laughing at me, my dad trying not to laugh at me, my mum laughing. I was trying to put in all the things that were going on in my life, all in front of my house in St. Albans. But it’s like David Bailey once said to me: ‘If people don’t like your pictures, just say, ‘you will in ten years’!’”