The Big Interview: Rankin

Alive: In The Face of Death, the new high profile show from Rankin, feels something of a departure for the renowned photographer…

Cliche though it may be, it’s true what they say about death and taxes. That said, depending on whether you run certain multinational corporations or not, perhaps we can all agree that only the former really counts nowadays. In spite of this, it remains the ultimate taboo in British society, one that portrait and fashion photographer Rankin‘s current show at the Walker Art Gallery, Alive: In The Face of Death, seeks to get to grips with.

For him, “it all began six years ago, when my parents passed away,” and for this exhibition, he has used photography as a tool to explore the feelings death illicits; he admits that in the case of the loss of his parents, “I wasn’t really ready to deal with that … I started this project to look my fears in the eye; I’m scared of dying.”

We suggest that grasping this very particular nettle seems to have had the desired effect, that the exhibition – featuring more than 70 images of people, many of whom are living with terminal illness – strikes a positive note, those photographed looking anything but ‘victims’. What will the response be like, does he think? “It’s funny,” he muses, “I defy anyone to criticise this show: the minute you do, you criticise the people in it.” He continues, “Up until now I was thinking ‘fuckinhell, I’m not sure about this one’, whether people will like it or not. But walking round, I think ‘you can slate me, but you can’t slate the people.’”

“They’re really positive people, and I think that’s why they wanted to be part of the show”

Who should come to this show, we wonder, and depending on specific situations, should anyone avoid it? He’s unequivocal: “If you were going through something, it might be emotional to come and see it, but I think it would be really useful … Prepare yourself.” But, he says, “at the same time – I don’t know if it’s me – they’re really positive people, and I think that’s why they wanted to be part of the show.”

We talk more about some of the individuals he photographed, their impact on him and what they taught him. It helped put death, and the way we deal with it, into perspective, he says. “I’ve come to think and feel you talk about ‘fighting cancer’ and some people get really angry, that [somehow] people who have passed away haven’t fought it.

“It doesn’t mean that. They may have fought the hardest and lost – the odds are too overwhelming, [it's] not that they failed, it means they lost. It’s not a judgement.

“The weird thing about death, it’s a personal thing. Once you’re dead you’re dead – it’s the people who are left behind, and that’s what this show is about, thinking and talking about it. Talking about things normalises them. It makes you less fearful.”

Given his proximity to the realities of ‘Alive’ and the issues at hand, had this changed his process in terms of the relationship with his subjects? Has he become more attached to the people who sit for him than normal? “Yes. To the point I feel really nervous about what the next couple of years has in store – I’m really connected to these people … I’ve made a lot more time than I’d normally make.” Then, turning over in his mind what this means: “They’re not friends, it’s different – a strange feeling. I’m nervous” (days after we spoke, Louise Page, who was photographed and attended the preview, died on Sunday 19 May, aged 42).

Then he catches himself: “[but] they don’t worry about it, they’re amazing. They’re in pain and have gone through difficult things. I’m sitting there moaning.” 

“If you don’t feel something straight away, if you have to work it out, then it’s not strong”

Has the experience of working on this exhibition (and the end product) shifted perceptions around his career? After all we note, his name may as well be ‘Rankin: Celebrity Photographer’, rather than just plain Rankin. No um-ing and ah-ing this time: “Not at all really.” He qualifies, “I guess I have a little bit of a jealousy for, y’know, these guys that did cross over into becoming fine artists, but that’s not really what I liked about their work. I like the fact that they’re photographers … for me, if you don’t feel something straight away, if you have to work it out, then it’s not strong. That’s just me. If you have to think about one photograph for six months, you’re probably gonna make a good image!”

What about external perceptions? “I didn’t do this to be reassessed, I did it because I was interested in it. In the end, my work will be interesting to a lot of people – I’m not just doing it to take pretty pictures – sometimes they are, but I’ve put thought into it.”

The exhibition fits more broadly into the city-wide International Festival of Photography, LOOK/13; the theme of which is summed up in the question ‘who do you think you are?’; in this context, we can’t resist asking what happens when he turns the camera on himself.

“It makes you think about who you are and what you are and what you represent, and I think that that is like a mirror – photography is so …you can really see the flaws in yourself, and I don’t mean the physical, it’s emotional. With self portraiture – it is so revealing – it acts as a tool to pick yourself apart. It can be so revealing about what you think of yourself; my body of work is a form of a diary without me being in it. When I take a photo of myself, I don’t think of it as me any more, more a part of me. You can only take a part of someone, which is what I try and do. I don’t assume I’m going to embody all of that person, I just want an element and for it to have an honesty to it.”

ALIVE: In The Face of Death continues at the Walker Art Gallery until 15 September and is the subject of a Culture Show documentary to be broadcast in June 2013

Images courtesy Laura Johnson 

Posted on 29/05/2013 by thedoublenegative