Digital Camera World|February 2021
Over 25 years of stylish photography feature in Rankin’s new book Play. Steve Fairclough speaks to him about his approach to music and portraits
Steve Fairclough

Since the quirky pop star Björk posed for him in 1994, Rankin has spent over 25 years shooting the biggest names in music – from 1970s icons Debbie Harry and David Bowie to modern-day artists such as Rita Ora and Akala. Nearly 200 of his classic music portraits feature in his new book Play, which combines his bold portraiture with his behind-the-scenes stories of working with music legends.

2020 was a busy year for Rankin, with major projects dotted throughout the year alongside his usual workload. These have included his series of 12 portraits of key NHS workers to mark its 72nd anniversary, his Sky Arts TV series Rankin’s 2020 and the digital exhibition Lost for Words, which featured famous people photographed alongside background images of those close to them who had died. The idea of Lost for Words was to highlight the need to discuss grief and death openly.

Despite his hectic work schedule, Rankin took time out to talk to Digital Camera about the book Play; his inspirations; his journey through documenting the biggest faces in the music business; his creative approach, his marriage of film and digital work; and some of his more bizarre encounters with music legends.

Are there any photographers you admire who shoot music photography? Who are they, and how did they inspire you or your work?

A lot of the photographers I really looked up to when I was just starting out took incredible images of musicians. It was album covers that were among my first photographic inspirations. Whether it was David Bailey taking pictures of the Rolling Stones or Gered Mankowitz’s images of The Jam, these photographers were taking incredible portraits, and seemed to just get to the essence of the people they photographed. I guess my love of portrait photography has some roots there.

What circumstances led to you first photographing musicians?

My first big session with a musician was with Björk. Her record company reached out to Dazed & Confused, and asked if I wanted to do a press session. It was nerve-wracking since she was already iconic by 1994, and I was right at the beginning of my career.

How does getting commissioned for portraits of musicians normally work?

This all depends on the project. I shoot musicians for press imagery, where their team will reach out and commission me, but sometimes I invite people in to be photographed for editorials for my magazine Hunger.

Tell us more about your creative thought processes for your music portraits…

I’m a big believer in letting people express themselves. Musicians, in their nature, have to be performers, and I’m here to capture that. A photo shoot where the person I’m shooting is uncomfortable or not being themselves will never work – so I talk and get to know the sitter… and we go from there.

Do you have a favourite musician you’ve photographed?

There are quite a few people I’ve photographed where I would jump at the chance of photographing them again. The Rolling Stones are undoubtedly up there. And maybe Bono – he’s got an incredible energy, and can really connect with a photographer.

What are the biggest challenges when you photograph famous musicians?

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