Rankin On Rankin: The Photographer Talks Portraiture, Career Longevity and Becoming a Celebrity Himself

The famed British photographer, known for his high-gloss celebrity portraits, is the subject of a new 30-year retrospective at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar.

Ayami Nishimura by Rankin, 2012. © Rankin Photography

British photographer Rankin, known worldwide for his iconic portraits of celebrities and gorgeous editorial campaigns, continues to push himself even after achieving what most would agree is indelible career success. Drive and reinvention are important in our fast-moving, youth-obsessed pop cultural world, but they aren’t what sets 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 equitable approach to portraiture.

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Rankin has been photographing celebrities for most of his career. © Rankin Photography

Rankin, speaking to me from London, tells me his modus operandi to treat everybody the same way.

“Whether someone is famous or not, it’s about the humanity of a person,” he says. “Not the ego or the celebrity or the fame. I’m trying to reach the person with the photography. And photography can be very intimate. I’m almost trying to break the fourth wall with my work.”

Call it the open secret underlying 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: Zeitsprünge (translation: Leaps in time), which opened today (May 26), features a curated selection of the photographer’s best pictures, taken over the past three decades, including never-before-published photos from 2023. Celebrities, icons, politicians and personalities have posed in front of Rankin’s camera, and his oeuvre is on full display here.

Yet while Rankin has, over the course of what is arguably a brilliant 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 when he’s previously exhibited at New York City’s MoMA and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London? Perhaps it’s providence. Rankin has served as a regular photographer and judge on Germany’s Next Top Model with Heidi Klum and has something of a following in the country. Some critics claim he’s brusk on the reality TV series, but he sees it differently.

Heidi Klum, as photographed by Rankin for Italian GQ in 2003. © Rankin Photography

“When I’m on [the show], I try to be a bit of a voice of reason,” he explains. “People say, ‘Oh you’re so tough.’ But I say, ‘No, I was honest.’”

This feedback hasn’t stopped Klum from inviting him back to the show, and Rankin has tremendous admiration for her, admitting that he loves her like a sister. Nor has it stopped him from becoming something of a celebrity himself—at least in Germany and among Germans abroad. He recalls being approached in Times Square.

“People are like, ‘Are you Rankin?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Are you German?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Yes!’ But I’m nowhere near as famous in Britain as I am in Germany,” he confesses.

Fans of Rankin’s polished and recognizable style are often drawn in by his colorful, playful compositions or his striking monochrome work—both of which serve to enhance the beauty of his subjects—but it’s really his devotion to his creative impulses that make each frame worthy of showcasing. His body of work has stayed dynamic, fresh and expressive over three decades.

Bird Song for Hunger, Issue 11, 2016. © Rankin Photography

Rankin found the time jumping concept so exciting because he’s still, he stresses, a working photographer.

“I can see all of these things that mean as much to me now as they meant to me back when I started photography,” he says. “A lot of photographers when they get to a museum status—they’re kind of done with their careers. Whereas I’m willing to engage with the show’s concept in a way that when you go in, you’re seeing both something new and how it relates to the stuff that’s a bit older.”

Vivienne Westwood photographed by Rankin in 2002. © Rankin Photography

Rankin, who has branched out into film and music video work, acknowledges that the longevity of his photography career has taught him a few lessons. He recognizes the need to stay connected to what’s currently happening without depending on innovation to fuel success.

“There’s always some kid that will come along and be better and hotter in terms of people loving it,” he explains. “I’ve been that kid. You lose it and you have to regain your status. To have been doing it for 30 years and still enjoying it and being successful and doing great work is a real privilege, but I have to work my ass off.”

Ewan McGregor photographed by Rankin in 2003. © Rankin Photography

For Rankin, that means staying on the pulse of not only what’s happening in the photography world but also in the larger cultural environment, and always pushing himself to take on new projects. But again, even though he has photographed some of the most famous people in the world, he stays refreshingly grounded.

“I’m a massive fan of dogs and flowers,” he tells me. “I could literally just photograph dogs and flowers for the rest of my life, and I’d be happy. I really like peonies and poppies—really like any dogs at all.”

Rankin: Zeitsprünge is on view now through September 27 at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar.

Rankin On Rankin: The Photographer Talks Portraiture, Career Longevity and Becoming a Celebrity Himself