It’s hard not to have preconceptions about people sometimes. You hear rumours and anecdotes, read tales of indiscretions perhaps, and a picture forms in your mind. “It’s a bit like gossip,” says Rankin, the Scots photographer who can list everyone from the Queen and Tony Blair to Madonna and Heidi Klum clothed only in melted chocolate among his subjects. “If you listen to gossip then I’d be a raging, sex mad, arrogant, egotistical weirdo who’s a real bastard to everybody.
“People love to say shit things about people.”
It’s true. He has been called arrogant. And he is rumoured to have slept with a good many of the women he has photographed (though not, as far as I can tell, Her Royal Highness). Married to model Tuuli Shipster, Rankin has a teenage son, Lyle, to his first wife, Kate Hardie. But though he has mellowed somewhat in his 46 years, preconceptions are something he’s familiar with – preconceptions about him, and of those who sit for him. “I just don’t think you should ever judge someone by what you read about them in the media. You need to meet them for yourself,” he says.
“I trust my instincts for people, and if you don’t trust your own opinion you’re never going to take a good portrait. Yes, people can cheat and be really charming and get away with it, but I’ve learned to see those people too. Gordon Brown really inspired me,” he adds, “really, really surprised me when I met him. He’s just so charming and very charismatic and funny. It was like, ‘F***ing hell, you’re amazing.’”
His latest project, though, is not the portrait of a famous person. Nor is it that of a beautiful, naked woman or a glossy advertising campaign (one of his most famous is the Dove ‘real women’ series).
‘Dealing with life and death every day’
This time he’s dealing with death. An examination of how we face up to the inevitable, he has photographed and interviewed those who have been touched by death for an exhibition and BBC documentary to be screened next month.
We speak at 8.30am – the only time he’s available for interviews apparently. I haven’t had breakfast yet; he has been replying to e-mails for two hours. Immediately after he puts the phone down he’ll be going into the Kentish Town studio/gallery that also serves as his home, where he’ll shoot until midnight. Photography is not just a job, it’s a passion. Some might say an obsession.
But why death? Why now? “My parents passing away was a big part of it,” he says. “But also, and I know it sounds really strange, but as a photographer you’re kind of dealing with life and death every day. You’re capturing these moments for people. Even before anyone had died in my life, I was always aware of that very specific part of what you’re doing.
“You’re trying to sum this person up. That could be the image they are remembered by. That’s part of the process as a photographer.”
His mother and father died just three weeks apart in 2005, and at the time he simply couldn’t talk about it; there was no outlet. “I found it really difficult to communicate how I felt about it with other people,” he says. Then, looking through old family photographs as part of the grieving process, he realised they were so much more than just snapshots; they played a vital part in his memories of the people he had lost, and therefore in his life. “In photography we’re so used to living a dream,” he says. “It’s all about selling a dream or selling a product; you forget that photography at its best is amazing for remembering people. It’s a thing you go to when you think about them.
“You think about any iconic person from the past – presidents, people who are important in history – we look at their photographs. That made me think I really need to do something about how I feel about my own mortality and how I feel about my parents passing away. It’s a bit of a taboo in Britain. We’re not open about it.
“I thought my parents were invincible, that they would never die. We rely on medicine, we lean on hospitals and doctors and see people surviving quite serious illnesses. Also, when people do die in this society, it’s all done behind closed doors. When my dad passed away I must have spent 15 minutes with him and then that was it – he was in other people’s hands.”
He admits to having become “a bit self-obsessed” in the aftermath of his parents’ death and, like so many others who are faced with the fact that the last line of defence between them and the grim reaper has just disappeared, acutely aware of his own mortality. “I’m going to die. How am I going to deal with this? It was quite tough and I had really bad dreams; I was thinking about it all the time.”
But the process of speaking to people who are terminally ill or who have lived a very long life put things into perspective. “There’s an acceptance I just wasn’t prepared for,” he says. “When you meet people who are really inspiring, you just think, ‘Shut the f*** up. Stop being so self-centred.’
“The people I met who were nearer to death were all so positive about life. I wanted a bit of that. I wanted to give myself a bit of a slap in the face, to say, ‘Stop being such a grumpy bugger and moaning about everything.’”
‘Best of both worlds’
He was born John Rankin Waddell in Paisley, then the family moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire when he was nine – though he spent many family holidays back in Scotland and still considers himself fiercely Scottish. He may have lost the accent (he sounds out-and-out Cockney) but not the attitude. “My dad used to say that in England they go to public school to be arrogant, in Glasgow you’re born with it,” he laughs. “My parents were very Scottish. Arguments were moments, no-one ever held anything against you.
“I honestly believe I got the best of both worlds because I have that Scottish resilience with a little bit of that soft southerner, you know? I think of myself as Scottish, not English.” But he adds, “I love London, I think it’s one of the most incredible cities in the world.”
He comes back to his homeland “quite a bit” and would love to buy a place, possibly in Nairn. “It’s a healthy place to get away from this media bubble in London, to remind you that you’re not that important.”
He trained to become an accountant, but a fateful meeting with Jefferson Hack led to the pair setting up the seminal style magazine Dazed & Confused, in which he carved out a reputation as the most cutting-edge photographer in the business. But what of that name? Rankin – is it just an affectation?
“I’ve always been Rankin,” he says. “People say it sounds like a made-up name but Dad always used to call me Rankin. No-one has ever called me anything but Rankin. When you get a name like this it’s a gift. People remember it so easily.
“There was a tradition in photography where your byline on a page would be your last name: Irving Penn was Penn, Richard Avedon was Avedon, and I was Rankin. I just thought, ‘It’s such a great name, it’s like branding, I suppose. It’s very exotic but also very Scottish.”
Neither of his parents had a faith – they were “anti all that” – but Rankin says he respects those who do. “I think it makes the process of thinking about your mortality a lot easier. You feel you’re going somewhere and there’s a purpose to it all.”
And, certainly, his close encounters with those who are dying has made him more determined to make the best of a situation rather than the worst. He talks of Lou from Edinburgh. “She has got cancer. She had her leg amputated – below the knee, then above the knee. She has been given, I think, 24 months to live, and she’s just – how do you describe her?” He sighs, searching for a word that will somehow conjure up this incredible, inspirational woman. “She’s just a joy to be around.”
Then there’s a guy called John. “He’s very funny. He says, ‘I have this illness and I’m just going to make the most of it. If I hadn’t been ill then I wouldn’t be doing this.’’’ He has an 18-year-old daughter and he’s frustrated at the thought of leaving her, but he has his head in a place where he is prepared to die.”
Of course, he accepts that the people who have approached him to be involved in the project are likely to be those who have already come to terms with the inevitability of their own death, while others will be less positive and accepting. “I probably haven’t met the people who are angry, and I’m sure, if I was to become ill, I would be really angry. It’s meeting these people that makes you realise you can come to a positive place.
“It has been one of the most amazing things to do,” he adds. “I’ve come away from so many shoots just thinking, ‘Bloody hell, you really are incredible people. Humanity is a good thing.’ It’s incredibly life-affirming.”
• Alive: In the Face of Death opens at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery on 17 May; Rankin: A Culture Show Special is on BBC2, 1 June. Readers can share their stories on alivexrankin.co.uk