Since last November, Rankin has been shooting portraits in a pop-up studio on London’s iconic Carnaby Street.
This latest RankinLive event closes on Sunday (January 7), but we’ve been behind the scenes of one of the shoots to see the leading British photographer and cultural provocateur at work.
Here’s what happens at the event: participants get a 15-minute photo session with Rankin – either on their own or with a loved one.
For £500, the sitters see real-time image reviews, get a digital “green tag” file PDF, an authenticated A4 inkjet print of the chosen image delivered to a UK address, and a digital file of the chosen image for personal digital use.
Some walk-in slots are still available, but to be certain of getting a place make a booking here.
RankinLive, 47 Carnaby Street, London W1F 9PT. Opening hours are Monday-Saturday: 10am-7pm; Sunday: 11am-6pm.
Behind the scenes of RankinLive Carnaby Street
For someone who has photographed so many of the world’s best-known people, Rankin feels that his RankinLive events are the most ambitious of his many projects.
The premise is simple: the photographer turns his lens on members of the public, something he has enjoyed doing since 2009. And being based in a pop-up shop in the heart of London’s West End, the latest RankinLive couldn’t really have asked for a better location.
When Digital Camera World pays a visit, on a busy Saturday morning before Christmas, Rankin is really enjoying himself, bonding with his subjects in the brief time they get with each other, while his team bustles around the retail unit with various items of photo equipment to hand.
You can feel the creative energy that’s bouncing off the walls, while puzzled passers-by stop to peer through the windows, wondering what on earth is going on inside.
Sarah Taylor has just had her portrait taken; she’s a fan of Rankin’s portraiture and has travelled from Berkshire in England specially for the occasion. Grabbing some time with Rankin afterwards, I ask him how this particular RankinLive came about.
“We stopped doing it during Covid and brought it back afterwards, with a couple of art shows, the Other Art Fair and the Art Car Boot Fair,” he says.
“But we wanted to do a RankinLive in a store so asked our Instagram followers if they’d be interested. We got so many sign-ups, we thought ‘OK’, and the people who run Carnaby Street offered us this – it’s a great location.”
Up to 250 photo sessions will have taken place by the time the event finishes. And while Rankin won’t be photographing all of the sessions – his assistants will be deputising for him when he’s not around – he is hoping to do as many of them as possible.
As some walk-in time slots for RankinLive Carnaby Street have been available, two of his team are busy drumming up interest from the shoppers outside.
Rankin’s next subject has arrived and he is called away to greet her. Clare Sutcliffe is dressed for the occasion, wearing a leather jacket with distinctive floral prints. After a quick chat, she takes her position in front of the plain white background and Rankin and his team gather around.
Shooting on a Hasselblad medium format with a Phase One digital back, and tethered to Capture One Pro software, the photos are pushed to a computer in real-time. This workflow is de rigueur for pro studio shoots and allows instant image feedback; it is Rankin’s preferred way of shooting portraits.
“Even when I shot King Charles recently, I did the same – he chose the pictures [he liked]. I find that people generally choose the best pictures of themselves, so I don’t really worry about interfering too much.
“Sometimes they want my opinion, which I’m obviously up for giving, but I’m very happy when people choose six pictures and then pick their favourite one.”
For Rankin, photographing his subjects is something he feels – rather than it being technical. Participants are photographed against the same background – only the lighting, handheld and directed by an assistant, with reflectors used to bounce light back onto the subject as required, changes from session to session.
Checking in for the next time slot, a couple has walked into the shop. Rankin opts to photograph them with the man sitting on a stool with his partner embracing him from behind. Afterwards, I ask why he decided to use that particular composition.
“I am quite directional, so when they come in, I’m already looking at them, trying to work out how I’m going to light them, how I’m going to direct them.
“Some people are coming in for memorial moments, or they’re coming to have a photograph taken to remember a particular point in their lives.
“What’s amazing about photography for me, is that it is also about memories, and I think as a professional photographer you tend to forget that – it becomes more of a product.
“For example, the couple I’ve just photographed chose a photo that’s more like a Rankin picture. But three of the other photos I took are the ones that they’ll probably be calling me up in five years’ time to get prints of.”
So you decided on those compositions and how to approach the shoot because of the feeling you had about the couple?
“Yes, I could see they were really into each other, so I was doing similar compositions and shots each time. People criticise photographers for doing that, but I just want them to walk away having a picture that they really like.”
And Rankin is certainly achieving that objective today. Before she leaves, I ask Sarah Taylor how she chose her favourite picture to take away.
“It’s just one that looks the most like how I see myself – obviously, in the best possible way!” she laughs.
“It’s the one that I feel looks the most like me. I’m actually smiling in it as well, which is lovely. Rankin immediately put me in the right positions and got the best photos, and the whole experience has been wonderful.”
Whether photographing the great and good, or members of the public, Rankin approaches them all in the same way. What has really come across today is his deep love of photography and taking pictures.
“I’m never happier than when I’ve got a camera in my hand, so I always feel like I’m privileged to do what I do,” he enthuses.
“And to still be doing it after 30-odd years is really special because a lot of people haven’t got jobs in photography any more because of the advent of camera phones – I never take what I’m doing lightly.
“Also, I’m always trying to get a great picture, so I want people to walk away feeling, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a great picture’. That’s what’s important, so if people feel that, then it’s a really good buzz.”
Rankin’s camera kit for pop-up portraits
“I was born as a photographer on a Mamiya RZ, and the RB67,” says Rankin, “so the Hasselblad is the closest I’ve got to that.”
Phase One IQ3 digital back
“With today’s digital backs, you can go two stops over or under and it doesn’t really matter anymore. It used to really matter.”
Hasselblad HC 3,5/50 II
Equivalent to a 35mm lens in full-frame terms, this H-system lens is billed by Hasselblad as the classic lens for reportage.
Hasselblad HC 2,8/80
The standard lens for the H-system (55mm in full-frame terms), with a large aperture for working in low-light conditions.
Profoto B10 studio flash and OCF beauty dish
Portable 250W head fired via a remote trigger and powered by a mains studio pack, used with a Profoto OCF Beauty Dish White 2’.
Powerhouse computer for creative professional applications, tethered to the Phase One digital back via a Tether Tools cable.
Eizo ColorEdge monitor
One of the best-known names in computer monitor production, ColorEdge screens have a colour calibration system built in.
“I love shooting to Capture One,” says Rankin. “It really suits me and how I work.” The pro solution for tethered image capture.
RankinLive is taking place now at 47 Carnaby Street, London W1F 9PT.
Check out the best lens for portrait photography and browse a range of super-sharp 85mm prime lenses.
Get a portrait done, bag some merch
As well as being able to have your photo taken, a RankinLive event is also an opportunity for fans to pick up prints and other merchandise – all available under the umbrella of Rankin Swag.
“We’ve never really done T-shirts before and we’re doing some now,” says Rankin.
“Obviously, we’ve got some posters and some prints, too. We haven’t gone crazy on the prints here, though, because it’s not really the price point.
“Collectors spend lots and lots of money on them – the prints here at Carnaby Street are all much more affordable, almost like a starter price.”
Read more: the full version of this article appears in the February 2024 issue of Digital Camera magazine, on sale now.
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