A free photography exhibition that celebrates the return of live theatre and musicals to London’s West End after being laid low by Covid-19 lockdowns, ‘Performance by Rankin’ is open until 31 January.
The project celebrates the talent and resilience of the front and back stage crew of London’s theatres and sees Rankin join forces with the Mayor of London’s #LetsDoLondon campaign and the Society of London Theatre (SoLT) as part of its #BackOnStage campaign.
Over five full shooting days, the leading photographer invited 150 individuals from almost 60 of London’s top shows and venues to sit for him in a pop-up studio at the House of Photography – and Digital Camera World sat in on one of the sessions.
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We were kindly given access on the penultimate day of shooting, arriving just before David Harewood – one of the stars of the hit TV series ‘Homeland‘, and currently playing the lead role in Best of Enemies at the Old Vic – walked in to pose for Rankin.
While David Harewood was the most recognisable face during Digital Camera World’s visit, other well-known sitters we spotted on the gallery walls included actors Rory Kinnear and Paul Whitehouse, impresarios Cameron Mackintosh, Sonia Friedman and Andrew Lloyd Webber – and many more.
Shooting up to 30 portraits in one day is a challenge to say the least, but as we‘ll find out later, Rankin is no stranger to working at such high intensity.
The setup for ‘Performance by Rankin’ saw the photographer and his creative team take over the first-floor gallery space for one day a week over five weeks. We spotted Chelsea Nawanga assisting Rankin, as well as Manny – both would be familiar to viewers of BBC4’s The Great British Photography Challenge.
The studio they erected comprised three grey backdrop boards arranged in a U-shape; lighting was provided by a Profoto B10 studio flash and diffused by a Profoto beauty dish softbox.
Being able to view the images on a big screen instantaneously would have been a boon for any sitters who weren’t used to being professionally photographed – for example, theatre backstage crew, admin staff and management.
West End theatre stars are more used to being performative, of course, but Rankin didn't want to photograph them strictly in character from their shows; he wanted them to express how they felt to be back at work after their long lay-offs.
But whoever was sitting for him, Rankin put them at ease beforehand with a quick chat and a brief explanation of the equipment he was using for their portrait.
During and after their shoots, all sitters were invited to choose their ’keeper’ image from the two or three variations that Rankin had shot – this is a departure from the way he normally works, but Rankin wanted his models to be involved in the selection process.
The chosen pictures were printed on Fujifilm photographic paper and mounted on the walls of the gallery, gradually filling up the available space.
On the day of our visit, one remaining wall was waiting to take the next series of pictures; pasted with placeholder printouts from the ‘Performance by Rankin’ book that carried quotes from the models, it would be filled with photo prints by the end of the following day.
It’s where the print of David Harewood and many more would have gone; with the actor and photographer having worked together before, there was a genuine rapport and it didn’t take Rankin long to capture the sort of shots he wanted from David’s enthusiastic poses.
Following a quick check of the images on the screen, David chose his favourite frame… and with that, the day’s shooting was in the can.
It’s a great portrait, with bags of character and playfulness. Is it one of the best from the whole project, though?
No – as viewers of the exhibition will see, the quality of the images across ‘Performance by Rankin’ is consistently excellent.
Another great body of Rankin work, and all for such a good cause, too.
We caught up with Rankin after shooting was completed, and asked him how it all went…
Congratulations on producing such a fantastic set of images. Do you often have 30 sitters a day, and how did you manage to do it all – was it exhausting, being a photographer to so many people in such a short time?
“In 2009 I worked on a project called ‘Rankin Live‘ where I shot up to 50 people a day. That experience prepared me for ‘Performance’.
“It was and is exhausting, but it also sharpens your skill set. You get to know what you want so quickly, because you have to, and the energy just pushes you to perform.
“I wouldn’t like to do it every day, but once in a while is okay, because it does keep me on my toes.”
What does live theatre mean to you, and how hard did you feel its loss during lockdown?
“It’s so invigorating. I thrive on meeting people and spending time face-to-face. If we don’t have real-life experiences I think it diminishes our ability to be inspired or understand people.”
Where does this project rate in your body of work? Was it emotional for you?
“This project has been one of the most positive ones I’ve ever done. It was emotional, as every single person involved has come to it with enthusiasm, humility and a genuine belief in it being something good.
“Doing any project normally involves egos and some form of competitiveness. Everybody left those at the door this time – including me.
“Because of that and because of the subject matter it really is a celebration of things coming back to life. After the last two years, I think we all needed that!”
‘Performance by Rankin‘ is open now until 31 January 2022, at the Fujifilm House of Photography, 8-9 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LH.
Entry is free, but visitors are encouraged to make a donation on site to the Theatre Artists Fund, which provides emergency aid to struggling theatre freelancers, as well as to four London youth homelessness charities selected by the Mayor of London: Depaul , akt , Centrepoint and New Horizons Youth Centre .
The portraits will then be exhibited across multiple venues across central London and on train platforms across the south-east of England. More details will be announced soon.