Photographic detritus

Rankin sells his old polaroids

“These are unique,” says Rankin. “Truly unique.” The celebrity photographer, glossy magazine publisher and now movie director – real name John Rankin Waddell, but nobody calls him that – is flicking through a pile of old Polaroids.

The faces contained within the white borders look predictably gorgeous, but surprisingly galvanised. They include many of the most famous people in the world: Rankin’s shot supermodels, musicians and actors, as well as Tony Blair and the Queen. But he flicks casually through, pausing to examine them only briefly.

Some are crumpled, others are written on or scratched. Taken altogether, they comprise a thumb-printed record of his work to date. From December, they’ll be on show at The Gallery on Charing Cross Road, London. They’re one-off, unique and affordable. Or so the PR bumf has it – the actual price is £500, regardless of who is in the picture. Each one will be framed and accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

“These are unique,” Rankin says again, as if in a mild trance, still flicking. “Most of them have never seen by anyone except me and the person in the picture.” At the start of a portrait session, and before every new set-up, photographers take a Polaroid to check the light and the composition of the shots. Hitherto, Polaroids have been regarded as the detritus of photography. Only somebody like Rankin – whose commercial nous, self-promotional genius and slickly arresting work invites comparison with Damien Hirst – would have the cheek to sell this old tat. (The money isn’t going to charity, either, but to Rankin.)

“I’ve got thousands of them. It’s very hard to edit them down. They’re like memories. And you can’t replicate them.” He flaps on his palm a Polaroid that happens to show the Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody. “This is something that no one else will ever have.”

Not every photographer dares to show their Polaroids to the people they’re shooting. It’s risky, because most people who come into the studio hate being photographed. “I would say that 90 per cent of the people I photograph don’t like it. When you show the Polaroid, they see what they look like. And they don’t like it. Nobody thinks they look great. Really good-looking, really famous people become obsessed by the tiniest things, like hair, or bags under the eyes, or a tiny bit of chin.”

This may possibly explain why The Sunday Times was refused permission to reproduce some of the Polaroids. Representatives of Robbie Williams and Keira Knightley evidently felt the pictures did not flatter their clients.

We all carry round a mental image of ourselves, Rankin says, and it’s usually formed in our early 20s. “We think, ‘I look great!’ And when people see the Polaroid and it doesn’t match the ideal – well, a lot of photographers don’t want to introduce those feelings into the shoot. But I show them the Polaroid because I want to collaborate. If you include them in the process, you get something more honest. The best people will look at it and say, OK. They trust you, and they let go.”

Not everybody lets go. Some wrestle for control. Two women he’s photographed recently insisted on lighting themselves. He won’t name them, but one’s a political activist, the other a fashion designer.

A typical shoot might take seven or eight hours. There’s two hours for hair and make up, for women, and then you have lunch. “So that’s three hours gone before you start.” Sometimes, for whatever reason, it has to be done more quickly. If Rankin’s given notice that time will be short, that’s fine. “But people used to say, ‘You’ve got two minutes!’” It doesn’t happen any more, he says. What would he do if it did? “If someone came and said something like that, I would take just one frame and say, ‘That’s it.’

When he was younger, an actress indicated that she was ready to be photographed by whistling across the room at him. Again, he won’t say who she was, but explains that she was strictly D-list. “Really famous people are the most professional and courteous. The people who have just become famous, or they’re famous on a really lower level, they’re the difficult ones.”

People tend to open up when they’re being photographed. “It’s quite informal. There is no tape recorder, I’m not writing anything down,” he says. “They’re not going to be quoted. So you have some great conversations. People talk about their sex lives, and relationships, and depression. And I’ve been known to be completely inappropriate on shoots, to talk about rimming – things like that.”

“I don’t get intimidated. I don’t treat this as a magical key to enter the world of celebrity. I’m not interested. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with it, as we all do. I don’t really like things like Heat, but on one level we create the glossy lie and they create the other one – which isn’t real either.

The oldest child of a businessman and a housewife from Glasgow, Rankin moved south when he was nine. He has a younger sister, who works with him. Both parents died early this year, within three weeks of each other. “I like talking about them, and how they were. It makes me look at myself, and what I want out of life. Maybe spend more time not being totally immersed in work and business. His parents encouraged him, he adds, gave him “massive amounts of confidence”.

But he seems to have been remarkably unworldly. Looking back, I find it almost laugh-out-loud odd that this fashionable photographer enrolled after school to become a chartered accountant. “I did really well in the first term,” he recalls. But he was lucky enough to be accommodated with arts students. “I realised their lives were much more exciting than mine.” He changed his mind and enrolled instead at the London College of Printing to study photography.

It was there that he met Jefferson Hack, with whom he went on to found Dazed & Confused magazine. Great success at a young age went to his head, he now admits. “I was terrible in the past. Arrogant and horrible to people. Anyone who gets successful gets stupid.” He married the actress Kate Hardie, then divorced. They had a son, Lyle, now 10.

It’s hard to overstate how hip Rankin became. One of the few people known widely by a single name – think Pele or Madonna – he was at one point invited to appear on Absolutely Fabulous. Rightly expecting to be satirised, he turned it down. So they cast an actor to play a photographer called Rimmer. “He drank Chablis, just like me.”

Rankin’s accent is not the least bit Glaswegian. It’s Estuarine. There’s perhaps the slightest, teeniest hint of camp in his intonation: not the leering, all-too-heterosexual camp of Jonathan Ross but something a little more feminine. As for his appearance: he’s described himself in the past as “short and fat”. I wouldn’t say that, but he’s certainly not the sleek dandy I had expected. He is mid-sized and, true, not thin. He wears a black Lacoste polo shirt, faded black jeans and black shoes. He has not shaved in some while. In conversation, he tugs his mid-length hair and rolls it about on the top of his head, like extruded Play-Doh.

It’s hard to tell if this routine indicates discomfort or boredom. Possibly both. He does it while talking, at one point, about politics. I’d mentioned his portrait of Tony Blair, taken just after the Iraq was started. The portrait caused controversy: some believed Rankin deliberately sought to make the prime minister look haggard. He denies it. In fact, he says he’s a strong supporter of Labour. “The war was a mistake, but you can’t judge a prime minister on just one of his decisions. I think overall they’ve done a lot in the last ten years.”

Moving on rapidly, he says he’s political with a “very small ‘P’”. He does the odd bit for charity: he took some pictures for Richard Curtis before Live 8. “But I’m not Bono. I wish I had the courage of those convictions, but I don’t.” I drop the subject, and the rolling and twisting of hair soon ends.

We’re sitting on a long sofa in the ramshackle but stylish headquarters of his publishing empire. Young, good-looking assistants politely interrupt at intervals to ask his advice, or just whether he needs anything. Nearby is the white-painted corner when Rankin shoots his portraits. Two vast Apple computers stand on a table: when he shoots on digital, the images come up immediately on these screen, he says. To show me, he flicks through a selection, taken the previous week, of Justin Timberlake.

“I like shooting here. There’s a good atmosphere, with a lot of kids. You don’t want to intimidate people when you take photographs. I try to make it as fun as possible. If you make a fool of yourself, and open up to them, and show that you can be silly, they feel comfortable. When you take photographs it’s a bit like dancing, or performing. People can feel a bit uncomfortable when I ask them to do something with their hands, so I have to show them how it might works, and that it won’t look unnatural.”

The Polaroid exhibition is by no means the only Rankin event in the offing. In fact, he’s doing six consecutive exhibitions in the same gallery. The press materials, hardly designed to downplay significance, say the exhibitions will celebrate the “diversity, style and sheer exuberance” of “an unparalleled canon of photography”.

The first show, entitled Tuulitastic, opens in November. It celebrates his work with the model Tuuli. “I have never before been so inspired by one person to photograph them again and again,” he says. Might that kind of favouritism cause resentment among other models? He looks puzzled. “I don’t think so. Kate Moss isn’t…” he abandons the sentence, unfinished. “Tuuli is also my girlfriend.”

Subsequent exhibitions will explore beauty, people’s eyes, erotica and self-portraits. He’s done lots of those, usually in some kind of disguise, or with a diverting assortment of props. “Self-portraits are a great way to explore yourself – and kind of protect yourself as well.”

It’s typical of Rankin to spin out his work so resourcefully. He’s previously published a book of celebrity portraits that failed to meet the brief he’d been given. Which isn’t to say they weren’t good, of course.

He could afford to give up work tomorrow. “Yeah, I probably don’t need to work any more. But I have never thought about that. I want to achieve more.”

In January, his first movie comes out. The Lives of the Saints is a darkly comic morality tale set in Tottenham. He put £300,000 of his own money into it. Another large chunk came from an Italian jeans company for which he acts as creative director. The characters in the film all wear the company’s clothes.

Casually, as I’m about to leave, I mention the comparison to Hirst – the slick, ingenious approach to work, the commercial success and fashionable renown. Rankin visibly brightens, and rummages among the Polaroids to show me one of a man whose head is entirely covered in bacon rashers: Hirst.

“I think that Damien and I are very similar,” Rankin says. “Of all the people I’ve photographed, he’s one of the favourites. He wants to go the extra mile. He’s fun and exciting to be around. He is predictable in that he is unpredictable. Fucking brilliant.” All of which, one imagines, Rankin might hope would be said about him too. But then, who wouldn’t?