Ranking my Rankin

8th October 2019

It’s December 2008. I’m living in London. A photography hobbyist. It’s my passion, but not yet my pursuit. I’m wandering down the Southbank and find myself outside the National Theatre, surrounded by an awe inspiring installation of portraits by Rankin– not he of the soda bread fame, but John Rankin Waddell, British portrait and fashion photographer and director, founder of Dazed and Confused magazine and world renowned for his photography of models including Kate Moss & Heidi Klum, celebrities such as Madonna and David Bowie and his portrait of Elizabeth II.

I found myself staring at the portraits and can genuinely remember uttering the words “I would love to know what he says to people to get these expressions. It would be amazing to be photographed by him”.

Of course, clearly, I am no Kate Moss. I am far from rich or famous. I am notoriously shy of being that side of the camera. This was not an actual possibility. His portraits inspired me to keep going with my photography journey and that was as far as that went.

Fast forward to July of this year, Latitude festival. Rankin is giving a keynote speech…I mistakenly think several times over the weekend. He’ll be photographing festival goers- I presume spotters will be out in the crowds, sourcing glamorous, unique, interesting looking people. I’ve no chance of being picked, but I want to hear what he has to say.

It’s the Sunday morning. I haven’t slept or even washed properly for three nights. I am wearing no makeup. I’m not sure if I’d even moisturised. My outfit is questionable, pulled from my backpack unironed. I’ve tied a headscarf over my greasy hair in a bid to look half human. It’s safe to say I could have been more groomed, but this is festival life. Survival. I’m not here for a fashion show, I’m there for the comedy, the music, the art and the food!

We’re listening to a Mark Kermode podcast live in a beautiful woodland setting. I realise Rankin is scheduled around the corner, so my husband suggests I wander up the hill in to the woodland and catch his talk and we’ll meet back later. Off I trot.

As I enter the clearing I see a massive queue- for a tent maybe I think? “Is this the queue for Rankin?” I ask. “Yes” is the reply. The queue moves on, slightly, slowly. There’s maybe 50 people in it ahead of me. I see a camera flash further on. I peer around a tree. I see a monitor. V-Flats. Crew. I see Rankin. I SEE RANKIN. Taking portraits. Taking portraits of people from the queue. This queue. The queue I am in.

Oh-kaaaaaaaay.

Do I want to be photographed? Do I actually want to be photographed by Rankin? Do I, unwashed, puffy eyed, want to stand in front of a world renowned fashion photographer, in front of a crowd of onlookers? Do I? I don’t. I don’t have the guts. I’m leaving the queue. There’s models here. People brimming with confidence. People the camera loves, who know how to pose, who love to be seen. Not me. I’m awkward. I’m introvert. I’m off.

My husband appears. Stay in the queue he says. You’ll regret it if you leave.

I bury my vanity. This is something I never thought possible and an amazing learning experience, to see, upfront how he works. So I stay. I sign a release form. I only just make the cut. Others are turned away.

I watch him work and it’s fascinating. As a family and newborn portrait photographer myself , working from my little studio or on location here in Cheshire, I work alone. I style my own shoots, I set up my own sets, I light it, photograph it, direct it, edit it, deliver it. I put a lot of pressure on my self. I think every single shot I take should be perfect., or how can I possible call myself a professional? If my subject blinks- my fault. The lighting is slightly off and I need to reset a little? Failure. If a prop needs repositioning I’m wasting everyones time. It’s safe to say I suffer from imposter syndrome, despite running a successful business with clients who recommend and revisit me time and time again. I brace myself to see a true professional work, every shot will be mind blowing, guaranteed.

As Rankin works you can see straight away how he puts his subjects at ease and how he quickly decides his game plan. He’s at the level where he has his own team as he works- someone to hold a light, another with a reflector, a third with a wind machine. There’s even an assistant on camera strap duty- deftly placing it over his neck without disturbing his flow. It’s a well oiled machine. It’s poetry.

I watch him photograph two girls together- they are giving serious face. They know their angles. They have clearly done this before. They nail it. The images are displayed on a monitor for all to see live, as they are taken. They are largely stunning. But also, and with no disrespect, some are better than others. The lighting needs tweaking ever so slightly, or the sitters pose can be perfected by a a miniscule of an angle, or long locks are blowing unflatteringly for a moment as the subject blinks. Rankin see’s this, keeps pushing, perfecting, pursuing. It’s a process. A journey to the decisive moment. 

It’s my turn. I’m dying inside. There’s a crowd watching. He introduces himself. I shake hands with my hero. He’s friendly, chatty. He tells me to be strong. For some reason I feel “strong” is folding my arms like a 1950’s super hero. Cheese balls. I look in to the camera as intensely as I can. He works his magic. He tells me to lean towards him. Put my hands in my pockets. He says “Ok! No messing about here”! I don’t know if he was just being nice, but it gives me a little boost. I can feel my jaw tensing up. He tells me to shift my position. Lean my head back. At some point we’re done. I thank him. I don’t gush like I want to. He’s a busy fella. 

There’s more monitors and another assistant who helps me select an image that I’ll receive high res. In fact, I’m so flustered I let the assistant choose! I hate feeling like I’m wasting peoples time. Rankin pops over to ask if I like them…”Yes of course aha ppppplllllllfurp mumble mumble I am in awe” I reply, cooly.

My husband managed to get screen shots of the images on the screen- a little glare from the sun, but you get the idea- there’s so many amazing images, but there’s blinkies and weird expressions with my malfunctioning face- things beyond the photographers control. It all feels a bit surreal.

A few weeks later I’m browsing Instagram and this video pops up in my feed taken by the super talented Andy Greenacre, a freelance creative, working as a visual artist, photographer, educator and radio broadcaster and fellow festival goer who I immediately pester to send me a copy. And he did. How cool.

And the final image? Well here it is. A portrait I never thought possible. A portrait I nearly sabotaged with my own insecurity’s, but which, at the same time, alleviated my own doubts in myself. It’s ok not to be perfect every single shot. It’s ok to experiment, to perfect, to try, to develop, to grow. Always learning, always growing. The trick is knowing when something isn’t working, recognising it and having the decisiveness to reset or tweak slightly. Don’t stand still. That’s professionalism and that is the nature of art.

Massive thanks to Rankin Archive for shooting and providing me with this image and experience. It truly was an enlightening experience, and it probably wouldn’t mean as much to many of you, but it will always stay with me, especially in times of doubt.