British photographer Rankin, known the world over for his iconic celebrity portraits and gorgeous editorial campaigns, continues to make a name for himself even after achieving what most would agree is an indelible career success. Aspiration and reinvention are important in our fast-paced, youth-obsessed pop culture world, but they don’t set him apart in a landscape now saturated with visual content creators. What keeps him in business – in addition to his preternatural talent – is his surprisingly simple and fair approach to portraiture.
Rankin, speaking to me from London, tells me his modus operandi is to treat everyone the same.
“Whether someone is famous or not, it’s about the humanity of the person,” he says. “Not the ego or the celebrity or the fame. I’m trying to reach the person with the picture. And photography can be very intimate. I almost try to break the fourth wall with my work.”
Call it the public secret at the heart of his success, which is on display in a new exhibition of his work at Leica Welt’s new Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar, Germany. Rankin: Time jumps (translation: Leaps in Time), which opened today (May 26), features a curated selection of the photographer’s best images taken over the past three decades, including previously unpublished images from 2023. Celebrities, icons, politicians and personalities are posed for Rankin’s camera and his work is on full display here.
Yet while Rankin has, over the course of an undeniably glittering career, captured the personalities of Queen Elizabeth II, David Bowie, Adele, Heidi Klum, Grace Jones and others, there’s a down-to-earth energy about him.
So why a show in Germany, having previously exhibited at MoMA in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London? Maybe it’s providence. Rankin served as a regular photographer and judge Germany’s next top model with Heidi Klum and has something of a following in the country. Some critics say he’s crazy about reality shows, but he sees them differently.
“When I’m on [the show], I’m trying to be somewhat of a voice of reason,” he explains. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re so tough.’ But I say, ‘No, I was honest.’
That feedback didn’t stop Klum from inviting him back on the show, and Rankin has huge admiration for her, admitting he loves her like a sister. This also did not prevent him from becoming something of a celebrity – at least in Germany and among Germans abroad. He remembers being searched in Times Square.
“People are like, ‘Are you Rankin?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Are you German?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Yeah!’ But I’m nowhere near as famous in Britain as I am in Germany,” he admits.
Fans of Rankin’s clean and recognizable style are often drawn to his colorful, playful compositions or his striking monochrome work – both of which serve to highlight the beauty of his subjects – but it’s really his commitment to his creative impulses that makes each shot worthy of display. His work has remained dynamic, fresh and expressive for three decades.
Rankin found the concept of time jumping so exciting because he is still, he emphasizes, a working photographer.
“I see all these things that mean as much to me now as they did to me when I started photography,” he says. “A lot of photographers, by the time they get to museum status – they’re done with their careers. Whereas I’m willing to engage with the concept of the show in a way that when you come in, you see both something new and how it connects to things that are a little bit older.”
Rankin, who has branched out into film and music videos, admits the longevity of his photography career has taught him a few lessons. He recognizes the need to stay relevant to what is happening now without depending on innovation to drive success.
“There’s always some kid that’s going to come along and be better and hotter in terms of people liking him,” he explains. “I was that kid. You lose it and have to regain your status. To be doing it for 30 years and still enjoying it, being successful and doing great work is a real privilege, but I have to work my ass off.”
For Rankin, this means staying abreast of not only what’s happening in the world of photography, but also in the larger cultural milieu, and always pushing to take on new projects. But then again, despite photographing some of the world’s most famous people, he remains refreshingly down to earth.
“I’m a big fan of dogs and flowers,” he tells me. “I could literally photograph dogs and flowers for the rest of my life and be happy. I really like peonies and poppies – I really like all kinds of dogs.
Rankin: Time jumps on view until September 27 at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar.