Rankin: The Art of Collaboration And Disruptive Beauty

The Notebook | 20th November 2019

The infamous image-maker on his collaboration with make-up artist Marco Antonio, disrupting beauty and mastering the art of revealing true identity 

Rankin is one of the most recognisable names in the realm of fashion and portrait photography, and there are few contemporary cultural figures he hasn’t captured in the distinctive eye of his lens–his impressive portfolio spans everyone from the iconic likes of Kate Moss, Madonna and the late-starman David Bowie to HRH The Queen (his unusually candid image of the monarch smiling hangs in The National Portrait Gallery). As the founder of eponymous creative agency RANKIN and Hunger magazine, and co-founder and publisher of Dazed & Confused, he has had a singularly profound impact on the communication of the fashion image over the last 30 years, and is currently producing stills and film from his Kentish Town studio AnnRoy at a rate of staggering productivity. Last month, he launched the new beauty book Marco x Rankin with Mortimer House, a coffee-table title of explosive colour that contains over a decade’s worth of imagery created for high-profile magazines with his co-conspirator in provocative image-making Marco Antonio–an internationally renowned make-up artist with a penchant for transforming models into truly otherworldly creatures. Here, the creator of some of the most innovative and irreverent fashion images of recent years, talks to Maslow’s Notebook about the changing nature of photography in the digital age, disrupting beauty clichés and the art of revealing true identity.

Have you have always been interested in disrupting beauty tropes?
I think I have always been disruptive in all of my photography, from beauty to fashion to portraiture. I’ve never been interested in following trends. Who wants to be expected? I love working with concepts and I’ve never shied away from being provocative. This is how I ended up working with concepts of androgyny and the blurring of male/female beauty norms, for example, long before it was commonplace.

Does Marco Antonio share your desire to be provocative?
One of the best things about working with Marco is how willing he is to push himself and ideas, so when my team or I have an idea for a concept shoot he doesn’t hide away, he’s right there with us to get it right. In the book’s In Conversation section, we talk about whether there are any new ideas and where our inspiration comes from, and, yes, sometimes we start a shoot with the aim of being provocative, but mostly our shoots are quite playful. We’ll have ideas and follow them to their completion–even if that means changing track part way through. Our relationship is one of experimentation, and that’s always the best way to make exciting work.

Would you say you are always exploring identity and masks in your work?
Every photograph I take explores identity and personality. As a portrait photographer, I feel it is my responsibility to really find out who a person is and carry that through in the image. Whilst there may be constructs in the set design of a shot, a great photograph connects the audience with the sitter–the authenticity comes from seeing something real about the model. But, of course, the reveal is something that can be fun to play with. Hiding the person or an aspect of them can be as revealing as pushing and over-emphasising that same element. I’m not sure anyone ever reaches a point when they say they 100 per cent know who they are, but as a good photographer you can help the sitter feel the best version they can be.

How would you describe your creative process on a shoot?
Being a photographer is like being a ship’s captain–you are heading up the project but you can’t physically do everything on your own, you need a team, and to collaborate to make things work right. I would hate to work as a lone wolf. I thrive with a strong team around me and always make sure people’s voices are heard. It’s one of the most important parts of my process, and I bring that group atmosphere to all of the jobs I do.

If you were going to place Marco x Rankin contextually, would you describe the work as having a relationship to Pop Art?
I guess you can say there is a Pop Art influence, but that’s probably because 99 per cent of all contemporary art has a Pop Art influence. Marco has a great sense of colour and the book has a red and blue colour scheme too, which is very Warhol/Lichtenstein-esque. However, in terms of influence, we purposely looked towards surrealists and artists with a playful sense of humour, like Maurizio Cattelan. I look at a lot of art, so find influences everywhere, and I know Marco is the same.

How do you feel looking at all the work collected together?
It’s always weird looking back at work made across a significant time period. The first images in the book were made about half a decade ago, and everyone’s style has evolved and changed since then. The book is in chronological order, a timeline of my editorial work with Marco, so you can really see how we have grown together. There is definitely more confidence in the later images–we’re both used to each other and how we work, and we’re now making some of the best work of our respective careers.

How do you think digital media continues to affect or morph the medium of photography?
This is one of those topics I find myself talking about all the time. I have this double-edged relationship with social media, where I love the idea that photography has been democratised with the iPhone and Instagram, but I am also acutely aware of the fact I am addicted to it. These sites haven’t been made altruistically–they are advertising machines that have tricked us into giving all of our data over to them. With everyone sharing photographs of every moment on their lives online it can feel sometimes like photography doesn’t matter–it makes it too commonplace. But I’m sure that won’t be forever–kids growing up today live and love photography, and that’s going to make a new generation who are confident with a camera, and can play with the medium to do something amazing.

How do you feel about the current trend towards ‘woke’ culture?
The term ‘woke’ is one of those things, like ‘political correctness gone mad’, which people like to throw about without really thinking about it. It’s so easy for people to see it as ‘millennials just like to complain’ but it washes over some of the great things that have come out of people being just a bit more careful. Like I always say, I love to push boundaries and I am an unashamed provocateur, but never without a reason. If you can explain your thought process, creativity shouldn’t be constrained. You don’t have to be ‘woke’ to think about what you’re doing. Basically create what you want, just don’t be a dick about it.

Interview John-Paul Pryor
Image: Rankin.
Marco x Rankin is out now, visit rankin.com to find out more