Rankin | Profile
John Rankin Waddell, known best as Rankin, is a British photographer and director. Boasting a successful career spanning decades, Rankin’s portfolio ranges from fashion and portrait photography to film direction, advertising campaigns and magazine publications. His subject-led and personal approach to photography has made him one of the most iconic photographers to date. We spent an afternoon with him in his London studio and spoke to him about his career so far..
Can you talk to us about your earliest memories of creativity?
My earliest memory of creativity is going to the cinema with my dad. He always used to love film and I was obsessed by the idea of creating this other world, but I never thought I’d ever be able to be part of it. I remember vividly looking outside the window of his car as we were driving and comparing it a cinema screen. I thought it would be amazing to be able to create something through that screen that would really engage and excite people in same way that cinema did.
Then I went to college at Brighton Polytechnic to study accountancy. I was put in halls of residence with a load of art students and within 3 or 4 weeks they were already questioning why I was doing accountancy. I think being questioned really made me rethink my life. So when, in the Easter holidays, I was asked by my friend who had a camera if I wanted to go and take some photos with him, I jumped at the chance. We started around St. Alban’s, where I lived, and he really gave me the confidence to pick up the camera and start taking pictures. This was a massive lightbulb moment for me. I remember looking through the lens, seeing the picture, clicking the shutter and going “that’s it, this is it for me”. We’d get back to the darkroom to process the images. I would look at the negatives and think “this is magic”. The whole process blew me away. That’s where it started for me.
Do you think you see the world differently to other people, in terms of being a creative?
I don’t come from an artistic background, so it was very unusual for me because I didn’t feel like I had any experience or knowledge of it, not even a history from my parents. So, when I went to do photography at college, I felt a bit like a blank canvas. I would just read and read about the theory of taking pictures because I didn’t have any knowledge of photography. I think that because I didn’t have this knowledge, the ideas I had came from a very pure place.
When it came to showing my pictures to people, people would comment on the similarity to other photographers. I remember being 21 years-old and being told that I was copying Herb Ritts, who, at the time, I had no idea who he was. I had taken this naked self-portrait of myself with my bits pushed between my legs; I was a man on top and a woman on the bottom. It was really about the conflict I was experiencing with my identity and I knew it would make an amazing photo. I think I was lucky in the way that not having an education in photography benefited me, because it didn’t hold me back when taking photos, I wasn’t shackled to a history of knowledge about the topic. When it then came to pursuing an education in photography, I was now confident enough to say what I did and didn’t like. It also meant that I was very unafraid of experimenting and trying new things, which I think can be the death of creativity. I watch my son, who grew up around me talking about photography all the time, and I can see him struggle with things that, when I was his age, I found really easy because I’d never experienced it before.
What do you think it is about your personality that has allowed you to form a career out of your passion?
I think it’s an empathy that I have for the subject that means I’ve got this ability to be very different from other photographers. My dad said to me when I was younger, “choose something you love doing because then you’ll never work a day in your life”.
I used to want to be a documentary photographer; I wanted to show the injustice that exists in the world and try to change that. But then one of my friends told me that I had something different from other photographers, I was able to make someone feel incredible in the moment that I was shooting them. I didn’t really know what she meant by that, until a bit later when I was taking some portraits, I realised I was really good at making people feel comfortable and making them feel like they were collaborating with me, rather than me stealing something from them. A lot of photographers see their work as their artistic representation of someone, whereas I wanted to work with the person I was taking the picture of. I have a theory that if you’re an art photographer, you make people look away, but if you’re a photographer like me, you make them look down the camera. I think when you make your subject look away, you lose this connection you have with them.
Do you have any ambitions for the future? Any skills you’d like to learn?
I honestly think that I learn something every day, whether it be about myself and my work, or about the way that people work. You can learn from everyone; from those that are older, or younger, or completely different. I’ve recently started therapy and it’s really helped me change how I see others and realise that they see the world differently to how I see it. It’s made me think that I can now make something a bit bigger. I’d like to make a film at some point that uses the skill set that I’ve learnt in the past few years. I want to try to keep changing the world, I want to continue doing things in this way.
You’ve spoken a lot about your younger self. If you could give advice to that person, knowing everything that you know now and having achieved everything you’ve achieved, what would you say to him?
I’d tell him to not be so arrogant through fear. A lot of the reason as to why I was arrogant when I was younger was because I was not completely confident in some of the things I was doing. I’d want him to be confident without the cocky attitude. I think this goes for a lot of young creatives; being cocky can be a positive thing, but you can turn it into a negative very easily. I’ve put a lot of noses out of joint, and I think that people do still judge me on the person I was 30 years ago.
I would also say, this is for creatives in general, that you change. Everyone changes. You need to embrace this growth and not stick to one way of being. That’s the best thing - that I’ve never been afraid of change, I’ve always embraced it. I think that’s the most positive thing that I can pass one someone else.