At this moment, someone is burning alive next to twenty-something-year-old Kate Moss, and Robbie Williams is confined in ceramic. They’re all gathered in one space — mingling. While these statements lack literal truth (surprising, I know), they are immortalised in visual form in London’s bustling fold, also known as 180 Studios. Why? Because amidst the heady rush of the 90s throes, each found themselves in front of one inimitable lens: Rankin’s. Now etched in his narrative, they are boasting and toasting within his retrospective exhibition Back In The Dazed, on until June 23, 2024.
In our conversation with the fiercely iconic Rankin, we speak of the good, the bad, the great and the terrifying — spanning both past and present. As co-founder and Dazed & Confused’s inaugural photographic editor, Rankin’s images beat at the pulse of British culture and style, defining the aesthetic of multiple generations of British youth. While the exhibition spotlights his extensive body of work for Dazed, boasting over 200 editorial shoots from 1991-2001, his lens has blazed trails that stretch far beyond that scope, ultimately framing giants from David Bowie to the Rolling Stones to Queen Elizabeth II.
Kylie Minogue, The Kylie Bible, Dazed & Confused Supplement, 1994 © Rankin
Your exhibition revisits the vibrant culture of the 90s, particularly through the lens of Dazed & Confused. What inspired you to curate this retrospective now, and what do you hope viewers will take away from it?
In the beginning, I thought the show was about revisiting a series of work which I wanted to contextualise, almost for myself. I work with a curator and their team and that means the exhibition is about who I was, but also this wider context of the time period and what my images mean to other people too.
What I’ve realised in looking at my work in the show, is how singular, almost monocular, my vision was back then. It’s kind of exciting personally revisiting who I was and what I was trying to say 30 years ago, because I was trying to push everything. Which is a good place to start any creative endeavour from.
But what I love most about the show is remembering the brilliant collaborations between all of the early Dazed team. That singularity, back then, meant I missed how special some of those collaborations were.
How does it feel to see your past work all gathered together in one space?
It’s funny, because it’s only one part of my past. So it’s kind of confusing, as most of my famous pictures from back then, were not for Dazed. At the same time, it’s overwhelming to feel like we all as a team did something that was or is pretty special.
The best and most interesting part of it, is it feels a bit like listening to a series of albums, where you can only really hear the parts that I played on. That excites me for what else could be done with my work in exhibitions in the future.
Do any of the images we see in the retrospective result from deviating from the initial vision you were given?
That’s like asking a cab driver “did they change the route mid journey”!
Although I know my reputation can be quite dictatorial, I think, even back then I realised that the map should never be dogmatic. Lots of great photographers are defined by their vision and certainty, but my work is much more fluid and dependent on a collaborative exchange with the subject and team.
I like to improvise and especially back then, we had no cash, so that became a part of finding a route through.
As you look back on your body of work, is there a recurring emotion or message that consistently fuels your expression?
I used to say my photography was like trying to find some truth in the lies we fabricate.
But now I look back and I think it’s more that I have an unwavering belief in there being some sort of humanity in the subjects and love for the medium I work in.
Thom Yorke, You do it to yourself, Dazed & Confused, Issue 19, 1996 © Rankin
In the past you’ve mentioned feeling like an outsider within the world of pop culture, despite being deeply entrenched in it. Do you find that this sense of detachment has benefitted your work?
Definitely. I will always feel a bit other, and I’ve come to realise it’s okay and not to beat myself up about feeling or thinking differently. When I started it was definitely a strength and I’ve come to be ok with that itchy feeling when I disagree with people.
I’m a contrarian at heart. It also means I’m not ever trying to fit in, as I know I can’t.
Beyond your contributions to Dazed, you’ve had a diverse career that oscillates between fashion, portraiture, film direction, and publishing. Have you ever found it challenging to balance these different aspects of your career while maintaining a coherent artistic vision?
Wow, yes. Every day.
Ambition and hunger are super important as a young creative but self-motivation must always be tempered with critical analysis of yourself, your medium, your work, and your personal life. It makes your work so much better if you critique it along the way.
Not taking accountability for what you do and produce is like giving yourself a get out of jail free card which won't last forever. A lack of self-awareness is not good for creativity or longevity.
So yes, I struggle with that stuff every day. Plus I long for simplicity in vision — but I’m not sure I’d be entirely satisfied with simple.
How has your relationship with your craft evolved over the years?
It’s always been about me being the pupil and really embracing and enjoying the learning. Plus, I feel pretty good that I can probably bend the forms to match my needs.
I do really respect photography as both an artform and an evolving and expanding medium. I could never be complacent as it just keeps throwing new stuff at me.
You’ve tackled some difficult subjects, such as mortality and human vulnerability, as seen in projects like Alive: In the Face of Death. Your body of work often feels so deeply touched by your ideas, your politics and a resistance to conforming to mainstream pressures. Have you always found it important to inject your ideals in your images?
Very interesting question. I think in conceiving work, you have all of the ideas, politics, resistance to taboos etcetera, but in making it there is actually this sense of childish curiosity, that is very much trying to find something genuine and does that seriously. With sincerity.
Have any moral considerations guided your work through these years?
Jeez. Great question. Yes, but sometimes I slip or feel the pressure to cave.
I cannot say I’m always true to that. Or that I have a constant North Star, which I’m unwavering on. But on balance I do believe my good stuff far outweighs the not quite as good.
U2, Twisting My Lemon Man, Dazed & Confused, Issue 30, 1997 (c)Rankin.jpg
U2, Twisting My Lemon Man, Dazed & Confused, Issue 30, 1997 © Rankin
Photography now dominates our modes of communication, both online and offline, and we find ourselves in a time saturated with images. In my view this raises concerns, as the responsibility once held by professionals now lies with anyone with a phone or camera, some of whom may not truly appreciate the full impact of their images. How do you view this transition and its implications?
I one hundred percent agree — to the extent you could literally use this as a pull quote from me. Phones, social media, image manipulation apps (especially in the hands of literal children), it’s fucking dangerous, scary and we are blundering into the future without any thought or care.
With the proliferation of social media and the democratisation of photography, there’s been a shift in how images are consumed and perceived. Has this changing dynamic of image consumption and perception impacted your approach to photography?
Of course. It has had to. With that proliferation comes random and unconscious (or unconsidered) acts of authored or  intellectual borrowing. If you are the sum of what you consume and your creative output is just a delineation of that, then how can you have original thought. This is something I try to confront and comment on in my work.
Reflecting on your observations across three decades of radical change within youth culture, what do you believe remains constant?
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: “Youth is wasted on the young”.
However, what I really think is that youth is no longer generational, but attitudinal. I know lots of people that just haven’t grown up. If you resist growing as a person, then you really won’t learn anything from past mistakes and that’s when humanity is at its most vulnerable.
Across those ten years, you have photographed over 200 editorial shoots, focusing your lens on luminaries like David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Kate Moss, Queen Elizabeth II. Care to share a moment that has lingered in your memory over the years?
I photographed over 200 editorial shoots for Dazed in the 1990s, but the scope of photography outside of that is much larger. As I was saying, so many of those touchstone images from my career aren’t Dazed — The Rolling Stones, The Queen, but they’re all part of this vast archive I’m so honoured to have been able to produce.
From Dazed though, there are so many shoots which stick in my mind. The best thing about photography is it really is a prod or stimulant for time and memory. One of the best memories is shooting Björk for the first time. I think those pictures still look very modern and feel authentic. The funniest memory I have is how I had no idea what to talk to her about between shots. I was so starstruck.
If you could rewind and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
Take more photos. You love it.
Bobby Gillespie, Hide & Seek, Dazed & Confused, Issue 37, 1997 © Rankin
Debbie Harry, Eyes Wide Shut, Dazed, Issue 20, 1996 © Rankin
Helen Mirren, Mirren Mirren On The Wall, Dazed & Confused, Issue 46,1998 © Rankin
Highly-Flammable,-Dazed-&-Confused,-Issue-31,-1997-(c)Rankin 2.jpg
Highly Flammable, Dazed & Confused, Issue 31, 1997 © Rankin
Kate Moss, What's The First Word That Comes Into Your Head_, Dazed & Confused, Issue 43, 1998 (c)Rankin.jpg
Kate Moss, What's The First Word That Comes Into Your Head_, Dazed & Confused, Issue 43, 1998 © Rankin
Robbie Williams, Obsessive Behaviour, Dazed & Confused, Issue 25, 1996 © Rankin
Aron & Chris, Feel It, Dazed & Confused, Issue 63, 2000 © Rankin
Tilda-Swinton,-The-Cast,-Dazed-&-Confused,-Issue-26,-1996-(c)Rankin 2.jpg
Tilda Swinton, The Cast, Dazed & Confused, Issue 26, 1996 © Rankin