When you see photos of famous folk – from music, film and fashion to politics and royalty; often times studio-shot against the coolest of sexy grey vignette backdrops; often times brilliantly lit with a ring flash that forever shows in the dilated pupils; though never as washed-out as to conceal the all-access momentary lines and grimaces of the real person underneath; that effortlessly slick desaturation of (skin) colour in post-production that somehow manages to make the subject appear both inescapably seeped under the glaring ring-light, and yet more electrically alive and gloriously authentic than they would perhaps look anywhere else (with nobody watching), you can be sure of one thing:
You have just entered the hyper visionary world of Rankin. You and every famous face he’s ever shot.
Enter, then, Visually Hungry – a hardcover book of Rankin’s best work over the last 20 years. It’s the definitive Rankin. It’s an orgy of portrait photography with the gloves taken off. Right off.
Though the man himself claims to not have any particular ‘style’ as such (though he claims it to be capturing the ‘honesty’ of a subject), his approach is no less stark, bold, real, upfront, fearless, and, above all else, totally unapologetic; whether he’s shooting Tony Blair or Arnold Schwarzenegger; Kate Moss or The Queen.
So it’s unsurprising, then, that his take on sexual imagery is even less restrained. Woman posing with strap-on dildos; a faceless man holding a tape measure against his penis; a woman suggestively sucking a lolly from Rankin’s own hand as it peeps into shot; a woman having her nipples pinched; another having her tongue pinched – presumably by the same hand(s); oldies French kissing; a woman in One Dress, precariously lying on urban ground surrounded by jeans-wearing men’s legs and boots stood around her.
All the while, there is no compromise in the styling of the images. No matter how full-on, beauty is rarely this confrontational. It is here that I imagine Rankin and Terry Richardson as college room mates; together making molotov cocktail imagery out of porn and fashion photography.
From the outset of Visually Hungry, we have naked fairies and humanoid cats that look something out of a Chris Cunningham music video for Aphex Twin. Archive One chapter takes us through the early years, featuring local town hard men and feral youth shot in natural light. So up close and grittily personal are these home shots, they could almost provide the roar material for a Ken Loach remake of Stand By Me.
And that’s really the stuff of Rankin’s images – they hit you. Square in the eye.
Then moving right on through to one instantly recognizable face after another – from impressive hard lighting and deep shadows to equally flattering shadowless ring-flash mode, each subject appears to have been given full permission to play to the camera, rather than bare any obligation to perform as such. Unlike Annie Leibovitz, Rankin talks incessantly to his subjects during shooting to get them to relax, unwind, unfold, and become unleashed.
The key difference here being that Leibovitz creates far more austere imagery, while Rankin’s lens punches through any such protocol. His photograph of the Queen, in starkest contrast to Leibovitz’s almost trademark style Italian renaissance art shoot, looks like a Royal intrusion; albeit a striking one.
The retouching process also seems to have a loose definition for Rankin. Visually Hungry has a great page of head shots that come complete with red circles and marks as instructions for the retoucher, alongside the retouched images themselves. Some examples of this process appear minimal, while Marilyn Manson’s entire face looks like birthday cake icing. And not without due calibration of the face that’s being retouched.
Talking of confectionary, did I mention the books cover consists of a large love heart shaped arrangement of ‘hundreds and thousands’ you’d put on ice cream when you were five, placed over a nude woman’s vagina, complete with camel toe? That’s Rankin’s style alright: honest.
He’s also a man who likes putting himself in his own pictures from time to time (and in no way subtle, of course). Funny, given he’s a reluctant celebrity. Though far from invisible, he’s a cultural icon of portrait and high fashion photography – and that accolade rightly lies more with his images than it does him.
Many will probably peg him as the photographers Damien Hurst. In a sense, I like to see him as the photographers Banksy. Commercial and commercially irreverent.
Well, at least we know what John Rankin Waddell looks like.