Photo by Helen Aver

“It’s very judgmental, the fashion industry,” says Rankin. “It takes itself very seriously, and it’s actually kind of ridiculous.” 

It’s not what you’d expect to hear from a man whose work has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair - particularly not when he’s founded multiple fashion & culture magazines himself, including Hunger. “There’s a duality in it for me,” he explains. “I love how seductive it can be, but I hate how it makes me feel and how it makes other people feel.”

Rankin is from St. Albans, Glasgow. He discovered photography at 19 on a borrowed camera and rocketed to fame soon after with Dazed & Confused, a magazine he co-launched out of a student publication at the London College of Printing. Dazed captured the zeitgeist of ‘90s Britart and Britpop, and its funds came from running club nights that aligned with the magazine’s aesthetic. In conversation three decades later, Rankin is more serious than his old reputation suggests. Today, he is perhaps best known for his portraiture: Robert Downey Jr. clutching a tuba; Hugh Grant, a naked mannequin at his side; the late Queen, pearls glinting, a smile on her lips.

Whilst he says the fashion industry is silly, in the same breath he acknowledges its “incredible ability to move people”. In the early 2000s, he gave up his “quest” to be a famous fashion photographer. “What I do with fashion now is much more fun,” he says. “I try to do stuff that’s a bit more honest around it.” That has meant a series of fashion images that handle fashion like an accessory: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley stands atop a mountain of snowy-white carcasses, hands on hips; or Kit Connor frowns at a dandelion through a pair of Louis Vuitton sunglasses; or, next to a warehouse, a Chanel-clad Winnie Harlow hovers a few inches above the ground.

His techniques are simple - so simple, he says, that people are often frustrated by his instructions. “I just really want the subject to look through the lens. I tell them to think about one audience member.” Why? “Photography isn’t a very communal thing. Your relationship with a photograph in a magazine or newspaper or social media is quite singular, you don’t go to an exhibition with more than one or two other people. So I try to get that.”

Rankin has done a bit of everything, from a Miley Cyrus music video to an ad campaign for a James Bond movie. His photographs are striking, playful and sometimes provocative - but he thinks the thread that ties his work together lies outside of craft and aesthetic, underneath the surface. “I’m like a magpie,” he declares; “I’ve never really wanted to do just one style of photography. The thread’s in the ideas.”

How does owning or running a magazine compare with only taking photographs for one? “It’s like being in the eye of the storm, you see everything going on around you. It really makes you engage with stuff that’s not just your own echo chamber of thoughts and feelings. When you work just as a straight photographer or director, your thought process is more narrow, more linear.” 

In the three decades since he started, he tells me, everything has changed. Social media and the phone camera have democratised access and amplified the power of photography like never before: “Photography is now the air we breathe.” Is that a good thing? “It’s diminishing for the medium because it means people don’t take it as seriously.” Then he corrects himself: “That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, you know, in its whole. I’m not trying to be a Luddite on it. But I think making a great photograph again and again is a skill, and now it’s taken for granted that anyone can do that.”

And the problems go beyond a creative’s indignance. Technology has led to a dangerous cultural and visual shift: “In the nineties, Photoshop was a massive discussion in the media - these perfections we were creating, how people view themselves. Now, any child can do that in an app that’s easy to download on a phone, and it’s made like a game, and we just don’t talk about it. It’s like a revolution in what it means and how it interferes and how it’s affected us as a society.”