September 1 2014

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Rankin: Please Do Touch The Art


Destroy/Rankin is not your usual photo retrospective. The book, which comes out stateside next week, does feature a collection of portraits shot by photographer, filmmaker, and Dazed & Confused co-founder Rankin over the course of his career; so far, so typical. Not so typical? The fact that Rankin handed those portraits back to his subjects, to do with as they pleased. Seventy musicians, including Debbie Harry (pictured), Jarvis Cocker, Kylie Minogue, U2, and Beck, took Rankin up on the offer to tear up, deface, paint over, and otherwise mess with his snaps. (Damien Hirst also did yeoman’s work filling in for late Clash front man Joe Strummer as destroyer.) The mash-up artworks were auctioned off at Phillips de Pury in London in November, with proceeds going to U.K. charity Youth Music, and profits from the Destroy/Rankin book are going the organization’s way, as well. Here, Rankin talks to about his appetite for destruction.

How did you come up with the idea to let artists you’ve shot over the years have at your work?
I was looking over a lot of my old work, and it occurred to me that there wasn’t much interaction between me and the people I’d shot after those shoots were over. Which was a sort of disappointing realization, honestly. I wanted to create more of a space for collaboration. And I thought it would be an unusual interaction to have the artists I’d shot over the years go back and look at these images of themselves and destroy them in some way. I liked the word destroy. Creative destruction. It seemed like a good, punk idea, to invite a bit of chaos.

You chose to focus exclusively on musicians. Was that a result of wanting to work with Youth Music, or was the tie-in coincidental?
Not coincidental; it was all very intertwined. I mean, we live in a world now where people go on reality shows to become pop stars, and I have a hard time with that, because the music I care about and the people who make it, they’re artists. They add something to the world by expressing their own experience of it through song. I wanted to throw a spotlight on those people. And at the same time, you know, I’m not very musical myself, but my son is, and I’ve been watching him learn the guitar, and that made me very aware of the fact that kids need these vehicles to express themselves. Youth Music gives disadvantaged children opportunities to create, and I wanted to support that. So it was all sort of the same train of thought.

You say you’re not very musical yourself. But was it the same instinct—wanting a vehicle for self-expression—that led you to pick up a camera?
Yeah, totally. I hadn’t had much encouragement in that regard, when I was growing up, and when I got to college, where I was meant to study accountancy, I realized I needed some kind of outlet. Couldn’t play an instrument, and I’m a terrible painter. And photography, though expensive, was conveniently small. I could tote a camera around and work on photos in my bedroom. And it’s a very social medium, too, which I liked—you meet a lot of people as a photographer.

People like, say, Jefferson Hack?
Well, Jefferson and I just met in the normal course of things at university.

I presume you bonded over conversations about storming the gates of the media world.
Ha. Look, when we launched Dazed & Confused, it was just a fanzine. There was a burgeoning underground nightclub scene at the time—this was back around 1990—and we got on top of it. Had it not been a recession then, had there been lots and lots of media assistant positions open, we probably would have left Dazed at that. As it was, we didn’t have much else to do. And I always like to say that we got lucky, too, in that Apple Macs and the concept of media sponsorship emerged at the same time. So we could make the magazine cheaply, and through sponsorship, we got just enough money to do that.

I assume you also feel a bit lucky that there was interesting stuff to write about and shoot going on in London around that time. Those were the nascent days of Britpop…
And we used a bunch of those early images in the book. Like the ones of Jarvis Cocker, and Alex James from Blur. But I didn’t want this book to be just old-timers; there are some new artists I shot specifically for this project. Little Boots, Florence from Florence and the Machine.

Do you have any favorite images in the book?
The one I’m killing myself over, because I didn’t buy it at the auction, is the one of Ian Brown. I was a huge Stone Roses fan, for one thing, and beyond that I like the shot and I like what he did with it. It’s extra-annoying, too, that my filmmaking partner is the guy who bought it. Somehow it’d be easier to take if it wasn’t my mate who carried it off. I also have to say, hats off to Debbie Harry, who sent back seven different versions of her portrait.

Were there any artists who contributed who had to be left out? Like, did anyone send work back that you thought kind of sucked?
Everyone who contributed is represented. And some of it sucks. But I won’t say which ones.

So, music fan that you are, you must have pretty strong opinions about what gets played on your set?
I do. But my assistants were all about to go mad, listening to the same old playlists, so now I’ve got a friend of mine who’s a DJ making mixes for me. The xx, some Super Furry Animals, some Rolling Stones….The Undertones are always good to listen to on set. Any quality, high-energy rock that’ll get you going. Or disco. That works, too.

Destroy/Rankin is available at

Photos: Rankin/Courtesy of Gestalten