Rankin talks fantasy, Damien Hirst and getting older - Hot CrossesWelcome to 'Hot Crosses' a new series presented by Hyundai Veloster where we talk to killer collaborators, slashies, and other people who manage to be many things at once.
Rankin is one of the most successful photographers and publishers in the world. His work spans across celebrity portraiture, fashion and fine art, and through co-founding Dazed and Confused, AnOther Magazine and AnOther Man, he has helped define and legitimise the style and voice of multiple creative generations.
Though he’s constantly busy, these last few months have been particularly crazy for the British icon, with the launch of a new magazine The Hunger, the 20th Anniversary of Dazed and Confused, and (the major topic of our conversation) the exhibition and publication of a collaborative project with Damien Hirst.
A truly hot cross, Hirst and Rankin came together to create Myths, Monsters and Legends, a series of portraits created using prosthetics and post-production, of creatures from classical mythology.
In Myths, Monsters and Legends, an intoxicating, tar skinned Medusa is realised in intricate detail, a fur covered manticore snarls in the forest, and Hirst himself is re-envisioned as the three headed Cerberus, guardian of the underworld. It is not always the easiest project to look at, but as Rankin himself observes, it is miles away from shooting celebrities.
What have the reactions to the Myths, Monsters and Legends been so far?
It was great people seemed to like it a lot, really.
Have you had any particularly strong ones, some of the images are extremely confronting?
Maybe people haven’t been honest with me about it, but no, not really. The shows (at Rankin's LA and London art galleries) have gone really well.
How did you and Hirst come up with the idea, and what attracted you to the tales you selected?
I’ve known Damien for years and I’ve done photos of him several times. Two years ago he came to me for a project he was doing with the model Dani (Smith, the star of much of Myths, Monsters and Legends) who he was using for his work. He wanted to do a shoot with her and myself and from that shoot I thought it would be interesting to do something bigger. We originally created the Medusa and diamond skull works, and I really became interested in what his show was about, this concept of myth. So I suggested some more ideas and he was really excited by them.
How did Dani feel being made to look the way she did? Was it strange for her to go from being so beautiful?
She found it really difficult. On occasion there were moments where she was like "But I’m really beautiful! What are you doing to me?" But in the end she was a good sport. She's someone who gets into character and every shot has this frightening energy.
Can you explain a little about what you mean when you say there can be a beauty in ugliness?
I’m always looking for what’s beneath the surface of beauty. I'm constantly shooting very beautiful people, but I find the imperfections and darkness a lot more interesting. I want to find layers of what makes a subject tick, and what makes them up as humans when I shoot. We get caught up in this ideal of beauty as something that is flawless, that has no distinction.
To be obsessed with imperfection is far more interesting to me, and with this show I just went off with that idea on a really crazy tangent. I think to a lot of people think the portraits are quite ugly.
Do you have a favourite, or one that you find the most interesting?
What I loved about the Myth project is that thousands of years ago, people thought these beings were reality. They were stories told to children, and they felt very real. They were tangible. Now we're still obsessed with horror, but no one tells those myths anymore.
A lot of these creatures are still very scary. The medusa is a really scary concept and I love the idea that you look straight into her eyes when you look at the picture.
Monsters are quaint in some ways, but they’re pretty powerful too.
What draws you to otherworldly themes?
I like horror, I like fantasy. I’m not someone who likes really solid drama. I just find legends are fantastically realised through stories. They’ve been developed into these near religious things, that process of story telling is so fascinating, you’re drawn in. I just wanted to be there in the space next to one of these creatures.
Was this project about contrasting those old fears with modern horror?
It wasn’t something that I thought of, although I like the idea that they’re almost forgotten, they’re not something we deal with in daily life. I wanted to turn my lens to something that hadn’t been looked at recently.
I love folk legends of photography, like the Cottingley Fairies and big foot, I like that everyone thought they were real. That was only 100 years ago, this idea that photography can capture fantasy and somehow make it feel real is so interesting to me.
Horror films do this too, we love to sit on our seat and be scared, to watch the unimaginable, but you never see the alien in Alien, you only see bits. And I wanted to do portraits of things people hadn’t really seen before. CGI and prosthetics still aren’t very realistic in motion, and I loved the idea of making them more so. Photographs are very revealing, to look at something up close, in great detail is very exciting.
Working with celebrities and models everyday can get repetitive, it is good to remind yourself of other subjects in the world, to be able to realise imagination in photographs is not something I get to do every day, so it was a labour of love. These images are not the sort of things you’d hang on your wall , but I don’t really care.
I wouldn’t want them on my wall! I don’t want to have nightmares!
In a way, you and Damien Hirst are living legends. Were you playing with that?
It didn’t occur to us. I've talked in the past about being remembered and creating work that lives on in people's imaginations and their understanding of history, but we create to live. We don't create to live beyond the grave.
I don’t buy into my own myth, I'm more interested in the myth of the work itself. I get so much out of that, that's how I learn about humanity.
I often get criticised for promoting my work to much, but if I don’t do that I’d be letting the work down. When I create work I want it to have a life. When you make something you want it to touch people to make them feel.
It’s a lucky situation to be in, to be creating pieces that can survive. But that's all in the work, not me. It's that which goes out into the world and touches people. Connecting with humans is much more interesting than who I am and what my myth is. If there's any interest in me as a person, it's because I think we’re all fascinated with each other and buy into each other's myths.
All art is about communicating and wanting to be heard and recognised as human.
These past few months have been pretty hectic, even for you.
I didn’t intend for Hunger, Dazed and this all to come on top of each other at the same time. We have an expression in England 'to spunk your load,' I pretty much spunked my load.
Tell me more about Hunger?
I think it’s about being open, I hate the idea of clique, what Hunger is about is older people, I wanted it to not be an agist thing.
One of the things we did with Dazed for their birthday was to nominate new people, that’s very Dazed thing to do, but with The Hunger I have a 93 year old old writer, and a 100 year old surrealist, who just died this year, being featured. The life photographers I featured are all from the 60s.
I wanted that magazine to be an appreciation for old work, not just new work.
Agism is a terrible affliction culturally and socially and aesthetically. That’s something that has only come to me as I get older, it's the fear of being 70 and forgotten.
With Dazed entering its twentieth year, you've really created a voice that has just as much legitimacy as the mainstream powerhouses like Vogue and Harpers...
I don’t think Dazed will ever be part of the mainstream… It's about being a platform that connects the dots between large events. It's exhibitions, parties, events, it’s a way of life. I’m not as much a part of that, anymore. You can’t be part of the antiestablishment at my stage. You can run and own it to give it a louder voice, but you can't be it anymore.
My dad, when I was young, said "Never change from the outside," we changed from the inside. We wanted to be part of an alternative voice within the parameters of something. We just did a cover about the student loans system, it’s important that you give issues like that a voice. With Dazed I have so many things I’m proud to be part of, even if I’m not integral part of it.
That being said, I really feel like it’s good to keep a bit of antiestablishment in your voice.
Myths, Monsters and Legends is available now through Amazon.
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