Music and photography have a long creative connection. There was a time when album covers dictated how we pictured our favorite acts. Fascinated by this time, and the craft of capturing musicians on film, Rankin and WeTransfer Studios have produced The Backstage Sessions.
The three-video series features Gered Mankowitz, Kevin Cummins and David Montgomery who between them shot some of the most iconic rock and roll images ever produced. Here, Rankin tells us about his own favorite music shoots, his love of album artwork and why he wanted to tell these stories…
Rankin knows a thing or two about photographing musicians. The Rolling Stones, U2, David Bowie, Blur, Björk, Oasis – think of the defining artists of the past 50 years and chances are they’ve come in front of his lens. But the act which had the most direct effect on Rankin’s career? The Spice Girls.
“I shot them for The Big Issue because I was fascinated by them. I did it for free, but then their management phoned and said they wanted to buy the pictures. My agent said we should charge them this crazy amount, like a years salary to me at the time. I was like what? This was 1996 – I couldn't believe that I could make that much money. But what we did was put it back in the business, and that's how we funded Dazed & Confused.”
Dazed, the magazine Rankin started with Jefferson Hack, would go onto become a cultural phenomenon and Rankin would become one of the world’s most sought-after photographers – shooting fashion icons and film stars and everyone in between. Throughout that journey, shooting musicians has remained one of his true creative pleasures. “I think I got to see The Rolling Stones just before my 16th birthday at Wembley – I bunked off school – and then 20 years later I'm photographing them.
It felt like I’d arrived. By that point I'd already photographed the Queen, but photographing The Rolling Stones was massive. “Bowie was a gentleman. One of the things that's really interesting with that level of fame, people like him and Bono as well, they are super inquisitive and fascinated by what you think, what your ideas are.
“I got one version of Bowie and I'm sure there are like 50 other Bowies, but it was lovely. He didn't really like my pictures and I was always sad that he didn't like the shoot. But he let me use the photographs and I always respected him for that.”
There have, of course, also been music shoots that didn’t go quite as planned. “There were people who have been off their faces, and one or two people that have been absolutely mental which I can't talk about. “One of my favorite shoots was with Courtney Love. It was the 23rd of December, and we shot through the night till 2am. In the end she said, 'I want to go out on the street' and so she went out wearing a g-string, a pair of heels and a feather boa.
“My girlfriend at the time was waiting for me, and she texted me saying ‘Don't bother coming home.’ She broke up with me, so I blame Courtney Love for that! The pictures have never been published, but they are some of the most amazing rock and roll pictures I've ever seen.”
For Rankin, music photography is not just part of his professional life. It was his way into the art form which made him famous. “I come from a working class family, and literally my introduction to photography was album covers. I wasn't told who to like, I wasn't told who was good or bad.”
And so he jumped at the opportunity to work on this series profiling some of his favorite music photographers. “I've always been a really big believer that as a photographer – or any creative – you have a responsibility to be part of the community and promote other people's work. Plus I'm a real fan boy, so if I've ever had the opportunity to meet my heroes I've always taken it.
“I saw Gered’s work when I was 15 or 16 – that amazing picture on the cover of The Jam’s This Is The Modern World was so important to me. David Montgomery’s picture of The Rolling Stones – of Mick Jagger holding Sticky Fingers upside down – is one of my all-time favorites. I've got it in my living room. And then everything Kevin did with Morrissey, and Ian Curtis – you couldn't not know Kevin's work.”
Nowadays, in a world of streaming services and smartphones, the visuals side of music has become less important. Rankin admits he wanted to remind people of a time when photography was a fundamental part of the music industry, where that creative collaboration was key.
But he also liked the idea of shining a spotlight on three photographers he feels get overlooked. We know their work, but we don't know them.
“Some photographers are really good at staying on people’s radars, and some aren't necessarily as good. That’s not me being critical – they're just a little bit more on the periphery of the consciousness of photography.”
"Doing what I do doesn't come with beds of roses and piles of cash. It comes with hard work, early starts, late finishes and me moaning a lot."
Rankin – who doesn’t appear in the films himself – predicts that some people will misread his motivations for putting this series together.
“I think because I do well out of photography, people are cynical and they love to take a swipe. Doing what I do doesn't come with beds of roses and piles of cash. It comes with hard work, early starts, late finishes and me moaning a lot.
“I’ve always been a business person. I can't help myself, but I've always put my money where my mouth is – so I've made the money and then spent it on projects like this.”