In a backroom of a studio in East London, artist Alex May Hughes is having her picture taken by noted photographer and cultural pioneer Rankin. Several black-clad assistants crowd the pair with the necessary equipment – a light, a reflector – moving like shadows on Rankin’s occasional instruction.

“They’re all taught to make it about me and you, so that I don’t have to think,” Rankin will later explain. “When I give directions I’m basically sculpting with light.”

There is a pause. Hughes has agreed to don face paint for the second set of shots: the same gold leaf as she uses in her art.

“We’re going to cover her face with gold leaf!” cries Rankin with the satisfaction of a man who knew that gold leaf would eventually be making an appearance and is rather glad to have finally got round to it.

The photographer has partnered with Bombay Sapphire for Stir Creativity; a campaign to “inspire creative inspiration around the world.” Fifteen artists have set up residency at Canvas Studios in Shoreditch, and Rankin has spent the afternoon taking individual portraits, often inspired by the exhibitions of each artist. Hence the gold leaf, which takes 20 minutes to apply and encircles May Hughes’s face like a halo.

“You look like a lion,” Rankin tells her.

(OK, it also resembles a mane.)

Watching the greats do their thing is always a heady experience – hence why fortunes are dropped on Centre Court or front-row seats at the National – but I don’t have the chance to study Rankin, or search for the secrets of his work. The makeup chair awaits.
I’m up next…

Rankin the man

A brief and inadequate list of people whom Rankin has photographed: Moss, Bowie, Delevingne, Clooney, Blair, Gorbachev, Jagger, Jackson, Her Majesty the Queen, Bono, Madonna, and Danny Dyer. This is an artist spanning cultures and generations, the court photographer of Cool Britannia who stuck around long after the party finished, and has now become something of an icon in his own right. (Like many of his subjects, Rankin goes by a single moniker.) 

If you are offered the opportunity to be photographed by Rankin, you take it – even if being photographed is a step away from finding yourself in a maths lesson sans trousers on the scale of personal mortification.

Some people naturally take a good picture; I tend to be captured mid-sneeze. Even in those rare photos in which my eyes manage to remain fully open, the camera has a nasty knack of revealing the double chin or rogue pimple that previously escaped the mirror. Hey, it’s hardly a rare affliction – although I can’t pretend the fact my younger sister made five-figure sums in her late teens as a professional model doesn’t smart a little.

Anyway. The prospect of modelling for a man who has shot some of the most photogenic faces in history hardly flooded my soul with joy. I doubted I’d make Rankin quit his profession on the spot, but it felt conceivable he might smash a camera.

Nonsense, of course: you don’t become the biggest portrait photographer in the business without really, really liking the process of taking people’s pictures. I’m the final subject of a day that started at 2am in Budapest. He’s been working for hours yet shows no sign of fatigue.

I know social media was designed to be completely addictive. And to me that’s a crime

“You have an interesting face, a really interesting face,” he enthuses as he clicks away. (Despite what my boss says, I’m marking “interesting” down as a compliment.) “Lean in toward me. That’s great, that’s great. Narrow your eyes a bit. That’s great!"

It’s a potent thing, his enthusiasm. It overrides any self-consciousness: if Rankin is so into taking my picture then it would seem genuinely rude if I didn’t get into it myself. And while I can’t help but feel a little Zoolander – narrowed eyes? Lord! – I also feel a little James Bond.

Between takes, we discuss a book he recently read on the evils of social media. I can’t quite tell if the conversation is intended to put me at ease, or whether he’s actually just a naturally gregarious person.

“That’s me just connecting cos I know you’re a journalist and that’s what I’m interested in,” he says as we sit down for our interview. “I’ve been publishing magazines for nearly 30 years. Fuck me.” 

Oh yes: Rankin co-founded the seminal Dazed & Confused (now Dazed) in 1991, as well later – and no less achingly cool – titles Rank and Hunger. Would he enter into magazine publishing today? “No!” he says emphatically. “God no! Wouldn’t go near it.”

Could a magazine like Dazed & Confused attain commensurate influence and status in the current media climate? “Yes, but in a completely different format. It would be an Instazine, and then it would be controlled by Instagram, and that would be very dangerous.”

As you may have noticed, Rankin’s view of social media veers from ambivalent to outright hostile. A working class kid from Glasgow – he attended Brighton Polytechnic and only discovered photography aged 19 – Rankin is an instinctive champion of artistic inclusivity. Thanks to the smartphone, everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket; thanks to Instagram, everyone has a platform on which to showcase their work.

Yet inclusivity doesn’t automatically begat creativity, any more than handing someone a camera sires a good photographer. “I don’t like the selfie because it’s homogeneous, and anything that’s homogeneous is very negative. Self-portraiture was very about self-expression, and selfies absolutely make it the opposite of that, which is very depressing.”

It isn’t all bad. He loves the renewed interest in photography, how millions of people have learnt to engage critically with the medium – even if such engagement only extends to finding the best angle for their brunch. He loves to see a young artist gain an online following, or post a picture which goes viral and launches their career.

Now photography has no fear for me. Everything could go wrong and I’ll just work it out

What Rankin hates – hates – is the addictiveness of social media, and the danger it poses to mental health. Twitter and its trolls. Facebook and its targeted content. Instagram accounts that show seemingly flawless people living seemingly flawless lives. The smartphone you just can’t put down.

“I know it was designed to be completely addictive,” he says. “And to me that’s a crime.”

He prefers to promote artists through campaigns such as Stir Creativity; transform an empty space into somewhere magical, bring art onto the streets. “This is a thing that Dazed would have done in the nineties,” he remarks with a touch of nostalgia.

For Rankin, the key to modern marketing is integrity; set aside the bullshit, and focus on causes that you believe in. “When you’ve got a fizzy drink, trying to say that it’s got a heart – we all know it’s shit. Consumers today are not a consumer, they’re an audience,” says the man who has never lacked for one.

Rankin the photographer

Although he found fame in the 1990s, Rankin cites the Rankin Live project of 2009 as his artistic graduation. Over six weeks he shot 1,000 portraits of selected members of the public, each photograph exhibited on the walls of the Old Truman Brewery within 15 minutes of the shutter clicking. Dazed described Rankin Live as “the notion of instant gratification is being pushed to radical new extremes.”

“I compare it to learning an instrument,” says Rankin of the project. “You learn an instrument and you play it every day, 12 hours a day with different people. By the end of it I could literally take a picture with a light bulb and a dark room.”

Has he completed the 10,000 hours of practice supposedly required to master any skill? “Oh, loads more than that. Now photography has no fear for me. Everything could go wrong and I’ll just work it out.”

This is the Rankin Paradox (there are several). He is an artist primarily associated with the cult of celebrity: due to his subjects, the themes of his photography, his stable of publications – especially Dazed – and of course the decade that made him – Cool Britannia and all that. Yet his success is founded on a prodigious work ethic that remains undimmed after nearly three decades at the top. It’s a simple truth but one worth repeating: Rankin just loves taking people’s pictures.

Even amid the debauchery of the 1990s, work always took precedence. No matter how heavy the party, how late the night ran on, Rankin and his Dazed & Confused co-founder Jefferson Hack always arrived at the office. “We were like, ‘we’re off home now cos we gotta go to work tomorrow.’ We were building something, even though at the time we didn’t really know we were building it… We were quite weird actually, when I think back. We just got excited by work.”

Last year, 18-year-old Brooklyn Beckham was widely ridiculed after the publication of his debut photography book What I See. Critics claimed the book was only published due to the name on its cover rather than the quality of the work inside. In fairness, even David and Victoria would probably concede this point.

Jay-Z didn’t know me from Adam. I took a few pictures and he went, ‘that guy knows what he’s doing'

“He was being utilized, in a marketing way, by a big brand, with a clever spin on it,” says Rankin, “and that gave him a platform, and I’m not against platforms, but he can’t take a photograph to save his life.”

(What’s great about the above sentence, hard to convey in print, is how it begins very haltingly, very carefully, lots of pauses, before accelerating at the first “platform” with a tangible sense of ‘oh fuck it’.)

“He’s not a good photographer, I would never say he’s a good photographer, but people can become good. It’s being great – being great is different.”

What is great? “Great is when you take pictures that people really remember and they touch people. The great are the great. Through the last century there’s probably a handful of like 20 photographers. If you saw a Don McCullin picture – this guy was taking documentary pictures during the wars that were almost like Caravaggio paintings. That’s not luck, it’s skill and being able to see something in a moment and capture it.

He reels off a list of names – Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Juergen Teller, Martin Parr – and the specific qualities of each. “I wouldn’t put myself in that group,” he replies to my inevitable question, “but I keep trying to be, I keep trying to be part of it.”

Greatness lies not in taking the picture but “what thought and what process and what talent goes into it. It’s not luck. I don’t take pictures, that’s not luck me doing that. I’ve taught myself how to do that. I can connect with people, I know how to talk to them, I know how to get them intimate. It’s a skill.”

He remembers photographing Jay-Z for Clash magazine in 2009. “He didn’t know me from Adam. I took a few pictures and he went over to the computer and he went, ‘that guy knows what he’s doing.’”

Creativity in fashion is on one level exploding and on one level being absolutely copied and ripped off

Kate Moss has been equally effusive: “Any time Rankin takes a picture he knows what he wants, and there is really no chance of being anyone but who you are, even if you try. You can trust him. I trust him.”

Is it easier to photograph famous people when you are yourself famous? “It’s not the fame at all, it’s more than confidence.” He doesn’t see himself as a celebrity, even though his name transcends modern photography in the same way his friend and contemporary Damien Hirst transcends modern art.

While not quite an alter ego, Rankin the photographer is a heightened version of John Rankin Waddell the man. “I’m probably me as a photographer [a] ten, and then at home I’m probably four or five. I do think of it as extremes; there’s a performance element to it. I embrace that, and I enjoy that. There’s definitely part of me that’s a performer.”

He’s happy to send up the ‘Rankin’ persona, prancing around in a black leather jacket and sunglasses for a 2017 mockumentary La Chaise Ironique. “We’re going to do a special shoot based on a chair,” he solemnly tells the camera. “Cos chairs are really in at the moment.”

He believes the fashion industry is undergoing a seismic transformation: “Creativity in fashion is on one level exploding and on one level being absolutely copied and ripped off. Even from three years ago it’s completely different. Everything was seasonal before, nothing is seasonal now, and everything can be made really quickly.”

Some trends will prove fads. The influencer will go the way of the blogger – “it’ll pass” – while print media will ultimately endure. (Phew.) “It’s just shifting, it’s just a shift.”

Rankin the raconteur

All good, meaty stuff but let’s be honest – you want a bit of gossip as well. Which of his subjects had the worst attitude? That would be former footballing hardman Vinnie Jones.

“I was trying to explain my ideas, and he went, ‘can we just get on with it?’ I wish I’d gone, ‘yeah, let’s do it’, and then done one click: ‘OK, got it!’ I didn’t have the balls then but if it happened now that’s what I’d do.”

On the other end of the scale, actors tend to be the most high maintenance. “Actors are the worst because actors actually play characters, so when they’re being themselves they fucking hate it. They want you to direct them.”

In past interviews he’s cited Kate Moss as his favourite celebrity subject – “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever shot, apart from my wife of course” – and the Queen as the only person to leave him starstruck. It is significant, I think, that while Rankin isn’t seduced by celebrity, he is remarkably uncynical about it – indeed the brief encounters with the great and good remain a major appeal of the job.

“You just meet these people for a moment and it’s fucking amazing. So often they don’t disappoint you. You’re like, ‘yes! You’re exactly who I hoped you would be!’”

I ask if anyone particularly stands out. “Gordon Brown was amazing. Absolutely amazing.” Really? “He was incredible. So characterful, such a brilliant personality, so funny. He was the exact opposite [of what you’d imagine]. That’s when I don’t trust the media – you lot had it in for him.”

'Social media is the future.’ It can’t be: because if this is the future we’re fucked

(In fairness, I can’t be the only person who’d have big Gordon back in a heartbeat. Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, eh?)

Rankin is far too creatively restless to bother with looking back. What does the future hold? I expect a list of projects to be reeled off but it’s the only question that truly stumps him. “Oh God. Shit. Don’t know, really. I’ve been thinking a lot about doing more personal projects, but I love making things happen so…”

Mental wellbeing is a major concern, which leads him back onto social media and its insidious pull. “I’m really worried by the amount of mental health problems young kids are going to have. A lot of people criticised my generation for retouching and perfect images – you can now do it on an app!

“Why are we not talking about this? Why are we not talking about the fact you can make a music video, you can make yourself look like a superstar, you can make yourself skinnier, you can make yourself browner, you can make your eye colour change, you can make yourself glow, you can totally retouch your face – at the press of a button.

“No one’s talking about it; everyone just accepts, ‘this is just the way it is. Social media is the future.’ It can’t be: because if this is the future we’re fucked.”

It’s a splendid diatribe; an impassioned call-to-arms from a man and an artist who hasn’t given up on the world just yet – digital be damned. He mightn’t know his next move but I can’t wait to watch him make it.

For more info, see Rankin