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How Rankin Became One of the Strongest Voices in Fashion Photography and Publishing

Despite the fact that the "Dazed & Confused" and "Hunger" founder doesn't think of himself as a fashion photographer.
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Photo: Courtesy of Rankin

Photo: Courtesy of Rankin

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success

John Rankin Waddell is not only one of the best-known and sought-after portrait photographers around— he's shot everyone from Kate Moss to Miley Cyrus to Madonna to the Queen of England — but he's also made a name for himself in publishing by launching groundbreaking magazines Dazed & Confused, AnOther, AnOther Man, and, most recently, Hunger, in 2011.

While Rankin is widely known for making celebrities look amazing (and truly themselves) in photographs, he's just as keen to capture "real women" or up-and-coming models and creatives regardless of their perceived "selling power" for the front of his magazines. Hunger is his current outlet for this: In the latest issue (currently on newsstands), singer Dua Lipa, actress Anya Taylor-Joy and model Winnie Harlow — ages 20, 21 and 22, respectively — grace the covers. But just last month, he teamed up with former collaborator Katie Grand to shoot Instagirl Gigi Hadid for the 25th anniversary issue of Dazed & Confused (with which he is no longer involved in the day-to-day). In addition to that and Hunger 11, Rankin has just released two new books (he's published over 30 throughout his career): "Hunger the Book" and "NSFW," a collection of nudes.

Despite being one of fashion's most prolific figures, Rankin says, "I never really feel like I am in fashion." We recently spoke with the photographer about how this outsider perspective has served him, how he got started, the impact of social media on his publishing projects, not caring about making money and his dedication to supporting new talent in an industry that often favors the same few photographers. Read on for highlights from our interview with someone who we can safely say is one of the most genuinely passionate personalities working in fashion today.

Winnie Harlow on Hunger Issue 11. Photo: Rankin

Winnie Harlow on Hunger Issue 11. Photo: Rankin

When did your interest in fashion and photography begin?

I don't want to say I'm being disregarding of it, but I never really feel like I am in fashion. My interest in taking photographs started when I was about 17. I went out with a girl who was studying fashion, and then I became interested in the imagery before I became aware of the photographers. When I went to college, I studied accountancy. I was always friendly with all of the art students. My girlfriend was an art student — she wanted to be a fashion designer. 

That first year of college made me realize that I was doing the wrong thing. I had to go back and live with my parents again. In doing that, it was good, because I questioned why I was doing what I was doing. I ended up going back, and the one thing that I always thought I would maybe be able to do was take photos. 

When I first started, I wanted to be a documentary photographer. I was really socially aware, and wanted to change the world and all that sort of stuff. I just wasn't very good at it. Then from there on in, it was really obvious, from my first shoots that I did, that the documentary was not my forte and that portraiture was. The fashion thing, it was always something that I was seduced by the imagery. I just knew very little about fashion. 

I ended up always going out with girls that were in fashion. I learned by osmosis, a bit about the industry. Then when I set up a magazine, we used fashion as a way of communicating our ideas and playing with the medium and enjoying, again, the seduction, but being provocative or analytical. I've always felt like an outsider. Only because I know people that are insiders, and they know so much more about it than me.

I always feel a bit weird when people call me a 'fashion photographer.' I'm like, 'I'm not really a fashion photographer. I take pictures of fashion, but I'm really a portrait photographer.' Is that a bit negative? Sorry.

No it's interesting. When you're shooting someone, do you think about how the clothes look or just how the person looks?

I do think about [the clothes] now. I can't not think about it, because I've done so many of those shoots where I've had to think about it. That's why I like doing a lot of nudes — it's a similar aesthetic, but you don't have to think about the clothes.

It's funny, because I own four fashion magazines. I really hate people that are negative about the industry. I think it's an amazing industry with so many positives about it. I've really learnt to appreciate the art of fashion and design more than the commerce of it. I'm part of it, but I always feel a little bit like a fraud when I talk about it, because I can't tell you about... Pierre Cardin's first collection.

"#NSFW" book cover.

"#NSFW" book cover.

Going back a little bit, what were your first jobs in photography, and how did you get them? You mentioned you did a lot of look books.

I was very lucky, because one of my first shoots was a press session for Björk. For her record label, One Little Indian. Once I'd got that, it was very quick for me to get other work as a portrait photographer. Back then, the music industry had a lot of money. Another of my very first shoots was Kylie Minogue's album cover. I did that in '93 and '94. Then I did the Spice Girls in '96. I remember that was the biggest wage that I'd ever earned from a shoot.

[At Dazed & Confused,] we got some great gigs really early on. That was where my career started. I remember, with Björk, I was shooting her, and I was doing my own thing, and I was so nervous about the shoot that I was doing rip-offs of a couple of other photographers.

In a way, she made me realize you've got to believe your own voice, because she really moved away from the stuff that was derivative into the stuff that was more about me. That was a really amazing thing. To have someone so successful at that time give you the confidence to do something that was very much your own, as opposed to copying someone else, which was almost like a safety blanket for me.

Also, the team around me — my contemporaries at Dazed & Confused, like Jefferson [Hack] and Katie Grand and Katy England — even though there were a lot of arguments and fights, they all gave us the confidence to do what we thought was the right thing to do, and not copy other people. I was very, very lucky.

Was it challenging getting that off the ground? How did you all know how to start a magazine?

[Jefferson and I] were both studying at [London College of Printing]. We created the Student Union magazine for a year. It was amazing timing that the Mac Plus had been out about three years when we got involved in the Student Union magazine. It was a shortcut; the recession meant that there was no work. It was either we did something ourselves or go in at the bottom of the industry, and it was very hard to break into because it was very much a closed shop. Once we decided, we got on with it.

We did things like sponsorship and stuff that, at the time, people were like, 'What is sponsorship?' People didn't, really, understand the expression. It's funny to say that now, when you've got so much content created for brands, as their own platforms. Back then, it was straight advertising. Our approach was to get money from big brands to create stuff for them, and, at the same time, make sure we did a good job.

People thought we were a bit of a joke at first. Then 25 years later, it's not much a joke.

Kate Moss on Dazed & Confused in 1996. Photo: Rankin

Kate Moss on Dazed & Confused in 1996. Photo: Rankin

When did people start taking it seriously?

People like Björk took it seriously. That was very encouraging for us very early on. We went into brands and sold this idea of this magazine. Then people started knocking on our door. It was really amazing how many people [came to] that office and wanted to work with us. We saw a lot of people that have become incredibly successful. 

Would you go back and do anything differently, knowing what you know now?

We were very young and very arrogant… I definitely regret a lot of things that I did and said back then. If I was pressed [to name something I would have changed], it would definitely be to be a little bit more humble and less of a twat.

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What made you want to go off and launch other magazines? What do you like about that process?

The thing with Dazed is it was always a youth culture magazine. Then by the end of the '90s, we weren't [youth]. I was 34 and Jefferson was 29. We were getting to that point where we definitely knew that our time as the leaders of that magazine was up. Jefferson and I had made a really conscious decision very early on that we wouldn't do that.

At the same time, we realized that there was potential, especially for Jefferson, to launch another title that would be more suited to an older audience, and a much broader audience. Dazed is for 14-to-25-year-olds. After that, you [age out]. I find it funny shooting for them now, because I feel like I'm too old to be shooting for the magazine.

A few people have mixed it up and said [Dazed & Confused] was about self-promotion for us, but it was never about that. It was always about creating a community, speaking to lots of different people on different levels. We used the word 'platform' long before it became a buzzword, for people to be able to create work that nobody else would let them create. I think that we were very, very successful in doing that on so many levels and with so many different talents. We gave literally hundreds of people — and still continue to give hundreds of people — their first opportunities in magazines. I'm more proud of that than anything that we've ever done.

Gigi Hadid styled by Katie Grand for Dazed's 25th anniversary. Photo: Rankin

Gigi Hadid styled by Katie Grand for Dazed's 25th anniversary. Photo: Rankin

How do you balance art and commerce with Hunger? Do you think about what will sell on newsstands?

I think that you have to really trust your editors. We always try to see in both camps. Sales is obviously important. Making sure your advertisers are happy is very important, but I think Hunger isn't as commercially successful as other titles in that category or sector. But I think that we've got a new approach to the business, which is ... I, personally, take more of a 360-degree approach, and, to me, it's more exciting to be creating content that doesn't live just in the pages of a magazine, but lives on social and on the website and on other people's websites and on people's phones.

I think that the print magazine is still something that endures when it feels like it's worth buying, and we do it as a book, almost, because we feel like if you're going to spend five, six pounds then it's only fair that people are getting value for money in what they're buying. But we don't sell the pages or think about the cover directly around the number of magazines we sell; we're much more about the 360-degree, the halo effect of what you get when you work with us. I think that that's much more modern than other, more established, large selling titles. It's very hard for them to change. It's very hard for a big fashion magazine to have online content. It costs a lot of money for them to create films. It doesn't cost us a lot of money to create films because we've set ourselves up in a different way. We have full production capability to make anything you want us to make, from a feature film to a five second Insta-video or webisode.

That's the future. The future isn't pages in a mix brand story.

Can you tell me about the process of collaborating with stylists on shoots?

Most of my relationships with fashion editors at the beginning were [high in] conflict. That probably came from a lot of me not knowing what I was talking about, but being very big-headed. Now, it's much more one of respect. I made a couple of films in the early 2000s, and that made me appreciate collaboration in a completely new way. I think that with becoming more collaborative and more open to experimentation, my work has improved so much.

In modeling, editorial and even photography we've seen social media play a role in getting people jobs. What's your opinion on that?

It's a funny one, again. I think that negativity comes from a place that's [rooted in] fear and jealousy — and a tiny bit of ignorance. They're kids getting away with it. That's how I'm sure they're seeing it. I've got a voice, and I'm sticking to my voice. It's much purer, in a lot of ways, in the sense that it's filtered by themselves and not by the media. I think that in itself can be healthy.

People keep asking me about Brooklyn Beckham. It's not him that I'd have a problem with. I think that he's just grabbing what he can and doing what he wants to do. If I was him, I'd probably be doing the same.

I think that [social media] empowers them in a way that models and actors have never been empowered to this level before. There will definitely be casualties. There's no doubt about it.

I've shot loads of YouTube, loads of social media stars. A lot of them are really down to earth. That's what's funny. I think that's what connects them with their followers. They are very down to earth and their language is very plain. Of course, the dumbing down of journalism is frightening.

People also talk about how we see Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid on all of the mainstream magazine covers, how it's creating this homogeneity.

Don't you think that's a bit 'flavor of the month?' At the moment, it's fashionable to put them on. One minute, they're putting them on pedestals, the next they're knocking them down. That's what the industry does, especially in the U.K.

Wanting to make a magazine social media-friendly means that you place them on a pedestal. Katie [Grand] gets it. Her tone in Love magazine is really smart, because it's quite ironic about it at the same time. If you don't like it, don't put them on a cover of a magazine.

Chloe Sevigny for Dazed & Confused May 1996. Photo: Rankin

Chloe Sevigny for Dazed & Confused May 1996. Photo: Rankin

What do you feel makes a good cover star or a good subject for a cover? What do you look for in someone?

I look for that feeling of excitement that I got when I first met Chloë Sevigny. When I first saw "Kids" in '93 or something, I saw it at a preview screening. I immediately called Jefferson and said, 'I've just seen the best film I've ever seen. I've seen this great actress in it, and we should put her on the cover.' We did. 

One of my pet hates is, 'They've got this number of followers.' Who gives a fuck how many followers they've got? It shouldn't be about that. It should be about your instinct about someone. I think that the best editors follow that instinct. Cara Delevingne. When Katie Grand started putting her on the cover of Love — I think she was even in Pop — when she started using her, she had an instinct about her. Look where she is now. Corinne Day, when she first shot Kate Moss, had an instinct about her. 

It's a lot more exciting to work with people who are new and upcoming than it is to work with people who are established. When they're established, they come with a whole set of agendas and rules. When they're new, they come with excitement and promise.

I don't do this to make money, I do this because I love it. I love what I do, and I get up everyday, and I enjoy it. I don't get bored of it. I'm still excited by it. I'm not going into [sales] meetings, going, 'I want you to spend 30,000 pounds on me because I'm going to give you this and that.' I'm like, 'I want you to spend 30,000 pounds on me because I'm going to put my heart and soul into it.' All the people that went through the Dazed & Confused office back then, they do it because they love it. That's what we set up 25 years ago, this doing it for the sake of passion. If it's for the money, what's the point?

What advice would you give to a young photographer who wants to break into the fashion world or the editorial world?

I always say take lots of pictures, believe in yourself, try and work with people that are inspiring to you and that you can learn from, make sure that you have a reason and a rationale for your work, and don't copy people. In today's day and age, make sure you understand digital as much as analog. Make sure you make films now; even if you're not making films, people are going to be making films on your set, so it's good to understand that. Just having belief in yourself and finding a voice is one of the hardest things to do, but that's probably the most important thing to do. If you don't have a voice, you're never going to make it.

What's next for you?

I've always got a lot of things brewing. I've got a couple of books that are coming out next year that I can't really talk about yet that are really exciting. I just love what I do, so I'm really lucky that I still get to do what I do and people still want to work with me. I don't take it for granted anymore. I really appreciate it. It's funny, because I was watching a documentary on a band from the '90s. It's really interesting to see all those bands from the '90s that I photographed and worked with. Now, unfortunately, their careers are at their end. I feel very blessed that my career is still going as well as it is. It's almost better than it's ever been. I'm glad that I'm behind the camera and not in front of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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