July 3rd, 2015
When you’re talking great photographers, you can’t get better than British portraiture and fashion maestro, Rankin. From his early days at the London College of Printing where he met kindred spirit and soon-to-be-co-founder of style bible Dazed and Confused, Jefferson Hack, to his critically acclaimed portraits of Her Majesty The Queen, he’s been behind the lens with the majority of the iconic figures of the last two decades. Famed for his collaborative collections with great models and make-up artists, his most recent work is showcasing in the windows of Debenhams in London’s Oxford Street in the advertising campaign for the UK relaunch of French MUA-favourite brand, Make Up For Ever (MUFE). Warpaint caught up with him to find out what floats his boat, cosmetically speaking.
WP: You can work with anybody you want to; at your stage in your career, you’ve worked with all the greats – and the up-and-comings for many years. What drew you to MUFE and Dany Sanz?
R: Good question. Well I think that for me, my approach to make-up over the last seven or eight years has been very much driven through working with really great make-up artists, so I’ve worked with Alex Box, Ayami Nishimura, Andrew Gallimore, Caroline Saulnier. I’ve been drawn to those people and have done four really amazing books with them, and it was kind of a natural progression to want to work with MUFE because when you work with really exceptionally talented MUAs what you realise it how the word ARTIST in ‘make-up artist’ is the most important aspect of it. Through doing the books I’ve really learned to enjoy the experience of allowing them to try everything because you just get some incredible results when you go – although I’m this bullish kind of bloke who does portraiture, I really love make-up. I really love photographing it. I always say it’s in between fashion and portraiture; I love doing beauty and I think that MUFE is just the most experimental and creative brand. It was through that development of working with other people, a very natural progression, and very exciting for me to work with them because we’ve been doing ad campaigns together and something like this comes along and you just jump at it. We had lots of discussion about how to do the windows and I said, “You’ve just got to do mouths, nobody ever does mouths and your logo is so well known, you’ve got to utilise that” and that’s how it came about.
WP: How much creative input do you have before the day? You’ve obviously had a good partnership going on here.
R: With make-up it is a collaboration so I can’t take all the credit for the shots because there’s more that goes into it than I suppose people realise – from the model choices, who you are using is really important. Models aren’t just pretty faces, they’re much much more and really undervalued by the public. I think they see them as just being pretty, but it’s more about communicating and giving something. Portraiture and fashion and beauty – having your photograph taken is about giving something to the camera so you’re always collaborating with the person you are photographing. And with make-up they’ve got to sit and be really patient for hours and hours, that takes a really specific type of person.
It’s a team: the MUA is coming with ideas, the creative is coming with ideas and I’m coming with ideas, the hairdresser is always involved – even in shots like this when you can’t see the hair and people probably don’t realise that you have to have a hairdresser on set. You never know what else you’re going to do, so they’re definitely needed! In a regular advertising campaign, we’re always working as a team and the stylist is very much a part of it, and with a project like this the MUA is the really key person for me to be able to suggest things to or come up with ideas, and that’s a fundamental. You can’t just say it’s a Rankin thing, cos my name is on it, it’s never that. We used 10 female models for the shoot – plus one boy – it was quite tough. I’ve cast lips before and it’s difficult because models can have a very beautiful face but this is focussing just on their lips, so you always have to do a test on just the lips and that can change what you think.
WP: How did you manage to condense it down to only the 14 shots that make up the campaign? That must have been a challenge.
R: We shot loads of different looks – about 30 overall – so a lot of it is experimenting, and I love that about MUFE because that’s what it’s all about. To me that idea of embracing that in terms of taking the pictures means you’re just trying stuff out and in the same way that somebody at home might not do a good job, we sometimes don’t do a good job and that’s the experimentation. For example, the Union Jack lips – I was really against it and said that it was really naff in the UK to put a pair of Union Jack lips on somebody, but in the spirit on experimentation we did it and I was shocked and it looks amazing. If the guys from MUFE hadn’t suggested that we try it, we’d never have done it.
With the 14 shots that we chose, we wanted diversity in the models, the way we shot them, and the make-up because that’s what it’s about. And I love them – the Union Jack shot, the black shot that looks almost oxidised – I really love the art of make-up and watching it come together. It makes me want to make sculptures from them because they’re so visceral and exciting, especially working with a brand that has such great products. The colours are so vivid and they jump out at you. The Aqua Pencils are amazing. When we first starting working with this brand, we went over and they said we could take whatever we wanted and I wanted the pencils. When you’re a photographer, a lot of the time you’re asking for the colours to be ramped up, especially the way that I shoot because the light is very bright and it can blow the colours out, but theirs is almost glowing. Dany is experimenting with that stuff all of the time.
WP: What do you look for as a photographer when you’re picking an MUA to work with? What are the key things you need to find?
R: I never like working with people who are horrible to their models. It’s not that they not really talented, but they’re just mean; they push them around and you can see the girls don’t enjoy it. The models are very patient and used to dealing with it and I love it when you see the relationship working well. Earlier today, downstairs Dany introduced me to one of the models saying, “This girl, I’ve worked with her for 15 years, she’s a dancer, she’s very patient, she’s one of my tribe.” In the same way that her team on counter are all MUAs, and that’s what is should be about. So when you’ve got an MUA pushing someone around, it really upsets me. There are a lot of creative people, especially now, so it’s very easy to work with people who are creative but not very nice and I try to work with people who are very nice. It’s about me getting older and not wanting to work that way anymore.
With Andrew Gallimore and Caroline [Saulnier] – she’s French and quite tactile with the girls, moving them around and repositioning them, and she loves working with them. Andrew too is always checking that the girls are OK and I love that. I absolutely love that and I think that’s the way it ought to be. They’re at the top of their game and the best MUAs I’ve worked with. Dany is exactly the same – really lovely, gracious people. It might sound a bit naff to say in an interview, but actually I think it makes them better creatively. It makes them less narrow and more welcoming of ideas. You can say to Andrew, “What about doing it like this?” and he doesn’t say, “No,” he doesn’t throw his toys out of the pram and a lot of people do, especially in the fashion industry. Some people get annoyed when I change things – hairdressers especially, I think I drive them mad – and I’m only trying to help. I’m looking through the lens and I see immediately how things look.
I’m really welcoming on set and get everyone to look at the pictures. I don’t keep it separate, like some people do, I want us all to look, we work together to develop it as a team. I guess I’m the captain of the ship and guiding it, but at the end of the day, it’s about the team – all fashion is about teams. Everything that we do creatively is about teams, all directing is about teams; if you don’t have a good team and if you can’t steer whichever ship it is, you’re never going to go home and feel good about yourself at night.
WP: When you look at that shot does your brain do that leap immediately to what it will look like on the page – you critique it straight away?
R: Absolutely, you’re critiquing constantly, you’re critiquing your critique. It’s quite hard work but it’s really exciting. A lot of really great beauty photographers spend a lot of time lighting and my whole theory is that it’s more important to make the girl – or boy – feel excited to be there and get them to give you something with their eyes. There’s nothing worse than someone statically sat there and not being able to move – they become a statue and their faces freeze. I’m all about moving and getting them to come towards me and changing the light constantly; I don’t think you need more than one light source, and you can use reflectors. It’s more about the person feeling that they’re present, because I hate looking at beauty campaigns where the models look unhappy and have dead eyes – why would you buy something? It’s all changed with YouTube and blogging, I think consumers are bored with it and want more reality. I love that YouTube and vlogging in beauty is so massive, I think it will get less important in fashion and with beauty I don’t think it will; it will get bigger and bigger. People like Lisa Eldridge – she’s a lovely, lovely person and she loves the people she works with. She calls them ‘My Girls’ on her Instagram feed – some massively famous model or actress, ‘My Girl Cate Blanchett’ – but it’s true, she does care about them. And this is why people want to keep working with her – it’s a relationship that builds up over years.
Kate Lee is another example of an MUA who really loves her models and is really creative, and yet she couldn’t get arrested in Britain. And she went to America, started doing Kiera Knightley and suddenly she’s boomed again because she’s a brilliant MUA and really gets on with the girls – and she’s someone I’d would work with in a heartbeat. It’s an element of trust – especially for actresses and well-known models who have developed the look that they present to the world. They need to trust the MUA with their face, to know that they’ll send them out on the red carpet looking the way that they want them to. It’s about empowerment and making people feel comfortable. People ask me what I prefer and I don’t mind; I’m happy with whatever makes them happy. It’s about having fun and enjoying the process – I really think it can all become too serious. That’s the thing about MUFE – it’s all about having fun. The counter staff downstairs all look like they’re having fun. Sometimes boys who wants to be a make-up artist can get grief from others and can go through a lot of bad stuff, and I love that Dany employs people for their creativity and passion – they look like they’re having a lot of fun on that counter. It’s a really good vibe brand.
Everyone’s knowledgeable in the MUFE crew, they’ve all got an opinion – which can make for an interesting shoot!
When I do MUFE shoots, I strive to do the best job I can do – even more so than normal because I really look forward to working with them and push myself to do more interesting stuff – and they encourage that. I have a brief and I have to work to it, it’s not like a blank canvas. But I try to twist and turn it, light it differently, make it more interesting – and they really encourage that, so I love it. It’s my favourite campaign to shoot.
WP: Do you have more collaborations planned?
R: Yes, we have two more shoots planned. I work with a guy called Vincent who’s absolutely charming and really cool and I have a really good relationship with them, I look forward to doing more stuff with them. They come to London, rather than me go to Paris, only because we have a kind of cottage industry in our office – we make films, we shoot, everything’s on set, all the assistants are there, and there’s a team of about 20 people and they’re all on set – so it’s much easier to come from Paris with four or five people than go with 20. It makes it more cost effective and also I know all the models here – we used UK-based models – and I know all the girls here. When you do campaigns you need to know all the models, especially as we often use really well-known girls. But with a campaign like this where it’s just lips and it sooo specific – you have to take the lips as separate from the rest of the face, and sometime the lips look great but just on that face. Other times, you see a girl who might not seem that great, but when you zoom in on the lips, you’re blown away. Where did she get those lips? It’s a really sad fact that I know that.
I’m always analysing people when I see them. Like with you, I love your eyes, you’ve got amazing coloured eyes and I’m thinking how to light you.
I did this thing a couple of years ago called Rankin Live where I photographed 2000 people and the whole thing was to make them walk away feeling great about themselves. So I’m always thinking about what I would do with someone’s hair, how I would light them. I’m quite good for girls because I’m looking at the beauty – that would look good.
WP: What other MUAs are there out there that you’d like to work with or work more with? What draws you to them?
R: Gucci Westman, I’ve worked with her and done a few projects with her and I’d love to do more – she’s always really busy. Val Garland – another one who is always really busy and again I’d love to do more than a few shoots with her. She’s another person who’s absolutely lovely to everybody. She’ll compliment me on my work, and in the fashion industry that can be rather gushing, but never from her. You know she’s telling the truth. She’s a person who, if I could jump into a book with her, I’d do it straight away. There are levels and she’s probably that little bit higher up than me with the scheme of things. I’ve worked with everyone apart from Pat [McGrath] – I’d love to work with her but she’s a bit up there; I don’t know if I’d be a bit nervous to do stuff with her. I think she’s a genius, an absolute genius. Are my answers a bit predictable?
WP: And film? Anyone there?
R: That’s a great question. There’s one I would love to work with – I worked with once on Bond – Naomi Harris, she’s amazing and again a really lovely person. I’d love to work with her.
And Jennifer Lawrence, I’d love to work with her. She has an amazing face, you could do anything with that face. Massively versatile, I have a real crush on her.
WP: If you had more time in your world, what would you do?
R: I’m not really built for futuristic stuff right now. I’d probably be doing stuff more arthouse like Kes – like Joe Wright – I love Atonement and Hanna, that’s probably my favourite of his films. I think he’s got a real eye. I’m not in that world as much as I’d like to be, but you can’t half do it. The publishing thing is what I’m focusing on. If I did do a film, it would be a really low budget one about kids with unknown actors. What interests me at the moment is how people are relating to each other through a phone – kids particularly – it is really unusual and untapped material. You could do a great book with Instagram images. My problem is that I just crop all my own Instagrams to the square. I don’t like having the borders.
We were so inspired by our interview with Rankin that we sought out Andrew Gallimore, looking to get the perspective of a Rankin collaboration from the MUA.
WP: How does the collaborative process work with Rankin?
AG: Rankin and I have a great working relationship and I feel our collaborative process comes from a mutual respect and love all things creative. He will come to me with an idea he wants to shoot (like the skulls) or I’ll say to him “we should do…” He always encourages me to go the extra mile, which is why most of the images in the book are strong, conceptual looks. He basically gives me the encouragement and freedom to do the work I really want to.
WP: What was your vision for the book originally? How did the book come about?
AG: My vision for the book originally was to create something which I myself would want to pick up off the bookshelves and buy. I wanted to love every page, to fill it with strong beauty images so that every page was interesting.
WP: How is the prep for a coffee table book different to the preparation for an editorial shoot? What kind of challenges did you face with this change in medium?
AG: For me the process wasn’t any different to an editorial shoot other than I had more creative control. It wasn’t down to an art director or beauty editor or client – what we did was down to us. I got to shoot ideas I’d been wanting to do for over 5 years! I guess the challenge I faced was to make sure these ideas worked! But like any creative shoot, I had to do my homework and research and prep and practise. I like to set myself challenges, to think to myself “How the hell am I going to do that?”
WP: Which shot in the book is your favourite, and which was the most difficult to achieve?
AG: It’s hard to say really – as I said, I really tried to edit the book so I loved every page for its own reason. I guess my favourite shot is the cover – I love how bright and colourful it is and I love the trompe l’oeil aspect to it. I think the look which was the most difficult to achieve was the Huichol beaded skull, purely from a time aspect. I knew how to do it but also knew that it would take HOURS. I had some short cuts but it still took hours, although it’s had a lot of positive feedback, so was well worth it.
Rankin’s make-up books with Andrew Gallimore, Alex Box, Ayami Nishimura and Caroline Saulnier are available from www.rankin.co.uk.
Andrew Gallimore by Rankin is the fourth installment in Rankin’s beauty book series and features a range of compelling portraiture charting British history through make-up. It publishes in December as a hard-back book and is distributed in the UK by Boutique Mags, priced £40.