Way back in the summer of 2009 I was working as an intern for Rankin. For those of you who haven’t heard of the mono-named man he is joint owner of many magazines including the cult publication that is Dazed and Confused and also portrait photographer of the great and the good. My internship coincided with Rankin’s exhibition “Rankin Live!”, a huge retrospective of his work coupled with the photographer taking over one thousand portraits of members of the public; the proceeds of which would be going to Oxfam.
It was a big affair, the biggest photography exhibition in the UK that year by miles, and a permanent open studio had been set up for the photographer and his huge team to work at The Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch where the exhibit was taking place. Myself a competent but lowly student, I was ranked somewhere between the smiley but stocky security guards and the buckets used to capture rain water when one of the thirty-three leaks in the roof dripped (if you visited the exhibition in anything but brilliant sunshine you’ll know what I mean).
Despite my position it was a good job. I wasn’t getting paid but everyone Rankin employed was like-minded and skilled, and he, like myself, has a great passion for playing The Rolling Stones very, very loud while at work.
My job varied between assisting in the studio, invigilating the gallery, going out on promotional work and quite often taking members of the public through from reception to hair and make-up prior to their shoot. I should explain that at this time Rankin was also shooting a segment for Esquire magazine out of the open studio to save himself going back to his main studio on the other side of the city. Pleb as I was and arriving post early shift I was unaware of this until I was introduced to Esquire’s stylists; that took place in the afternoon.
Some days I had a walkie-talkie. These were good days, they meant you’d be busy. I don’t know if you’ve ever held a walkie-talkie (and I’m not talking about ones from Toys-R-Us here, I’m talking about the professionally named Motorola CPO40) or even been given free reign over one, but let me assure you it is fantastic. Maybe it was a simple-minded male reaction, maybe it was just me. It lit a small fire somewhere deep inside, somewhere that had once been close to the surface but had been faded by hormones and puberty. All at once I was half five years old and half James Bond, and most of my five-year-old life had been spent pretending to be Bond anyway.
Most of my messages would consist of “The leak in the Heidi Klum room’s back.” but that mattered not, I was a man with a walkie-talkie, fellow only of the fireman, the policeman and those people in fluorescent jackets at country fairs who tell you where to park. Nonetheless it was clearly a rite of passage.
So there I was, sat in the gallery, making sure no-one defaced any prints when my walkie talkie hisses into life.
“Leo, can you come to reception please and show someone through to the studio?”
“Okay, I’m on my way.” I replied with the confidence of a man standing on the shoulders of giants, enthusiastic to begin the day and also to interrupt the monotony of sitting on a rather uncomfortable stool in between a corridor of pictures of movie stars on my right and a room of erotica on my left.
I arrive through the push doors at reception much like a cowboy would in a John Wayne movie and announce to the man before me my now liquid-smooth spiel:
“Hi there my name’s Leo, if you’d like to follow me I’ll take you to the studio.”
It might not have been the most engaging or original but I’d now said it to so many people I’d edited out any bumbling or non-essential words and ended up with a potent, if a little dull, sentence which I knew, unfailingly, would have the subject walking through said swinging doors which I was now holding open invitingly.
It’s a long walk from the stairs on the Brick Lane side of the old brewery to the studio which was on the Spitalfields side. On the way the more interesting conversation would take place. Often as we’d enter the main gallery people would gasp as they looked at gigantic prints of Kate Moss or crane as they passed a portrait of the Queen herself.
The chap I was showing through at this moment craned not. He was a small, mustachioed chap with high cheek bones and a terribly elegant slim-fitting suit. He strode majestically but quickly and wasn’t as talkative as some.
“What did you say your name was?” I asked, knowing he hadn’t. “Matthew.” “And have you been a fan of Rankin’s work for a long time or were you interested in the exhibition?” He told me he’d known Rankin’s work for a long time.
As we went through yet more swinging doors into the studio I introduced him to the woman producing that day’s shoots. She wrote down the names of people as they came in and noted the time they’d gone into hair and make-up in order to arrange their shoot time.
“Hi, I’ve got someone here to be shot, Matthew…” “Williamson, I’m Matthew Williamson.” I smile blandly telling him that I hope the shoot goes well.
Before I can leave the studio to go back to my movie star/erotica stool, a fellow intern, and fashion student, comes up to me grinning excitedly. “Do you know who that was?!” “What?” “It’s Matthew Williamson!”
It was of course THE Matthew Williamson. World famous fashion designer and owner of his own label.
In hindsight asking his name repeatedly and whether he’d been a fan of Rankin for a long time might have annoyed a man more used to people gushing in adoration, but to his credit he never said a word.
I never was one for who’s who in terms of the “it crowd”. I know my photographers, and in the studio I’ll set up any rig or produce any effect asked for, but I’m not hip enough to know all of the faces of those people smiling and holding glasses of champagne at parties in the pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair.
That afternoon I had a chat with a guy who Rankin had spent a good while photographing, he was a year younger than myself and very interested in photography. We talked about Rankin’s work and he was one of the most normal and interesting people we shot.
Later that year a friend showed me a trailer for the film Kick Ass. It turns out the polite and interesting young man I’d been speaking to was now Hollywood leading man Aaron Johnson. In the time since I’d spoken to him he’d also played the lead in Nowhere Boy, and he must really like photography because he’s hitched up and has a child with the film’s director and revolutionary female British photographer Sam Taylor-Wood.
Who knew? As they say.
Without wishing to sound completely incompetent I didn’t fail to recognise everyone. Another morning, almost straight after arriving, I was told to go out to the roof garden as Rankin needed something. Outside in the August sunshine Rankin sat smoking one of his Café Crème cigarillos and chatted casually to a man wearing huge black-framed sunglasses with yellow tinted lenses which wrapped themselves around his closely shaven head. I’d known who he was long before asking the two what I could get them.
So it transpired that I hunted down and returned with a fresh mint tea for Damien Hirst.
The moral of the story is this, great photographers don’t care if they’re shooting royalty or the homeless, if you’re their subject you’re getting their undivided attention. If you want to celebrity worship become a paparazzo, you might make a quick buck but it won’t reward you morally.
I pride myself on not going in for “celebrity worship” but there is one man I am extremely lucky to have been able to meet whom I won’t forget. When I was only seventeen I went to possibly the only public Q&A he’ll ever hold, and the book he gave and signed to me together with my photograph with him are amongst my most prized possessions.
His name is David Bailey.
And if you don’t believe my advice, take his. As he so fleetingly put it when quizzed on dealing with “the famous”:
“I don’t really give a shit.”