How to remain relevant in the Instagram age, by iconic photographer Rankin

We ask the legendary British portrait photographer how he has pushed the envelope on what it means to be an artist in a multimedia world

Rankin is no stranger to fame. As an institution of British photography, he has pressed the shutter on everyone from Kate Moss to David Bowie, David Gandy to the Queen. But, in a modern world, where anyone can ascend to celebrity with the push of a button or start of a live stream, there are new challenges for artists to tackle.

"Rankin is no stranger to fame..."

We met up with the iconic photographer in an interactive artists’ space in Shoreditch. Partnering with Bombay Sapphire and talent from across the creative industries, here Rankin is championing creative self-expression. Rather than taking the same mundane selfie or flat-lay of your lunch, the photographer is keen to help people capture their creative side — even if they think they haven’t got one.

He’s an authority on the subject. Not only does Rankin tease out unique charisma and character from his subjects — I should know, for Rankin shot me before our interview — but he has also personally switched and experimented with different forms and mediums of media throughout his career. So what’s the key? Just how can an artist survive in our new, multimedia world?

Diversify or die

“These days, you have to diversify or you’ll die,” says Rankin bluntly. “If you don’t embrace multimedia and new platforms, you’re going to get stuck.

“I diversified myself,” he continues, “because, at the time, I saw succeeding and moving into other forms of media as a way of proving I was successful. You can’t pretend you’re in some ivory tower, and just stick with one form.

Learn your craft

Born in Scotland into a working-class family, Rankin didn’t grow up around artists. He only found photography after enrolling at university to study accounting.

“I was like this place,” he says, gesturing around the empty artists’ space. “A blank canvas.”

“But, as soon as I discovered photography, I bought the book first. Basic Photography, it was called. I read it cover-to-cover to get things right. Then I started studying photography at the London College of Printing. And it was around then I was handed a magazine that the students had created. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was amazing. That was the moment I suddenly realised you could have ownership over production — and how you were seen.”

There’s always been social media

“Back then, that magazine was our social media,” says Rankin about Dazed & Confused, the publication he and fellow student Jefferson Hack founded in 1992. “It helped us control how we were seen. So that’s why I tell young people today to embrace social media. It’s so they can represent themselves. But there’s a real duality to social media. I hate it, actually. I think it’s evil. Homogenous shit.

“It’s dangerous,” he continues. “I’ve just read an incredible book, actually, called 10 Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Right Now.

"That was the moment I suddenly realised you could have ownership over production — and how you were seen..."

“What I do believe about social media, though, is that over time it will purify. It will refine and strip back and become less about selling ads and more about brands taking on creative, worthy projects, such as this one with Bombay Sapphire, which I think is so what companies should be doing in using creatives and social media. It’s so different. But I think the platforms will change too — I think there’ll be even more social media platforms soon.”

Even if you don’t think you’re creative, you are

“I want everyone to know that they can be creative,” says the photographer. “You don’t just have to be an artist to be creative. You can be a creative chef, a creative builder, anything. Especially in Britain  — where we’re truly the best exporters of creativity in the world today — it’s important that we embrace our talents.

“Because they’re easily wasted,” he adds. “Just look around. Everything’s so structured and simple. IKEA is selling ready-made shelves, made by robots. There’s no passion there.”

Passion is the most important thing

“It really is,” reiterates Rankin. “It’s like when you’re down the pub with your mates, discussing an idea for a film. That’s just talking. There’s so many people who will just talk and won’t, or can’t back it up and do it. But that shouldn’t be the case. Media has opened up. Look at smartphones and Instagram and what they can do. They should be making us more creative.”

But, still, there are those who don’t embrace other platforms, says Rankin. And they’re going to fall foul of progress in the end.

“People who refuse to embrace it have this rose-tinted view of the past, where you focus and are known for one thing. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — you might focus on one platform or medium and become spectacularly successful with it — but it’s more than likely that you’ll get left behind.

“And what a shame. Because, as I say, we’re all creative. We’re all very media-minded. We just need to tap into that.”

Rankin is collaborating with BOMBAY SAPPHIRE on the ‘Stirred by Rankin’ portrait series to capture the creative inspiration of well-known and emerging names from the fields of fashion, music and art, in order to inspire creativity across the nation. To find out more, visit @bombaysapphire

The current issue of Gentleman’s Journal is an Arts & Design special. Subscribe now, and read our cover interview with James Norton here…

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