Thursday, 20 August 2009

Keeping it Real with Rankin

My taxi bumped along the cobbles of Brick Lane and deposited me outside the little door to the Truman Brewery, above which a big black signed asked, "Fancy a Rank?" I was here to take part in the exhibition 'Rankin Live' by the photographer Rankin, in which he aims to capture "real people" and display them in his exhibition as soon as they had been shot; creating an instant and constantly changing display of interesting portraits.

Rankin has shot everyone from Kate Moss (who he describes as "The most beautiful woman in the world - after my wife, of course") to Queen Elizabeth II, (who personally chose her shot, even though the Palace officials preferred the more straight-laced images). Today it was my turn: I was about to get Ranked!

I climbed the stairs in my favourite ankle boots, full of nerves; announcing myself at the desk, I was taken through a side door and escorted through the gallery housing the exhibition. The gallery is enormous. Expansive white walls, covered with Rankin's lifetime of work - portraits of a naked Kate Moss, a leering Keith Richards, Katie Holmes pulling an ugly face, a naked model covered in hands, the Queen smiling in front of a Union Jack, Jarvis Cocker bending at sharp angles, a man biting a woman's leather-clad buttocks....
Welcome to the world of Rankin.

At the end of the hallway, outside the studio, was a giant screen where images of faces flickered briefly. This was one of the photo shoots happening at that very moment. I was taken into the studio and ushered to a big black sofa behind the make-up and hair area, where girls were having their hair styled with curlers, and their faces powdered and coloured. At the opposite end of the room was the set where Rankin was at work, while his assistants were either racing around or working on the images at a row of Apple macs.
As one Times journalist, having his own shot done, described it, "They rush around, wielding clipboards or stands, or hefting lights and reflecty things. Many of them sit at enormous computer screens. It’s like Battlestar Galactica in here." I saw Rankin teasing one the assistants; making a joke and gyrating against the wind machine. I had heard he was cheeky. Was I ready for this?

After a wait I grabbed a spot in the hair stylist's chair. The young, slightly grumpy-looking stylist, with a tattoo along her spine, ran her hands through my hair. I had done nothing with it as I knew hair and make-up were being done prior to the shoot, so I was hoping for a bit of a miracle. She asked me what I wanted. "Big hair!' I pleaded, picturing some sort of extreme mane of theatrical proportions. She summoned the photography style assistant who came over and ran her hands through my hair as well.
"That's good. The wind machine will get that. I want to leave it as it is. Just straighten her fringe a bit."
(What? Nooo! Don't leave it as it is!)
I attempted to coerce the stylist: "How about if we tease it up a bit at the back at least?"
"No - if I backcomb it it won't move in the wind machine. We want movement."
She ran some straighteners through my hair. "Done."
I was nervous. No big hair then?

When it comes to my hair, it's my mojo, and without any special treatment I suddenly felt my confidence waning. But hey, these are professionals, I would have to trust them! Fighting my growing anxiety, I sat on the second black sofa and started chatting to another girl, named Hayley. She had beautiful curls, adorned with a big flower, but she said she was having a bad hair day.
You? Bad hair day? I thought. Try going out there with no styling done!

We watched a blonde slip of a girl have her shoot done. Her images flashed up on the screen. Pouting and wide-eyed, she looked amazing.
 "Wow" Hayley and I breathed, "Will that be us too?"
Next was make-up. Ruth, a kind Irish make-up stylist in black jeans, put me at ease, and said I had really really lovely skin.
"Really?" I smiled - nobody had ever said that before!
"Oh yeah!" she affirmed, before admitting, "I do have a thing for freckles."
There's something nice about having someone else do your make-up. Ruth accented my cheekbones with loads of blusher, and gently lined my eyes with a smoky charcoal. But she didn't go too dramatic - "I want your natural colouring to show through" she told me.

So back on the sofa, there I was, looking.... well, like a slightly smoother version of me. There was no glamourous transformation, but I decided to take that as a compliment. I finally felt ready to be Ranked. I think. As if sensing my nerves, one of the stylists handed me a beer and sat I back on the sofa, watching Rankin shoot a girl with her top off, hands across her chest.
"Ooh he's getting everyone naked today," said another make-up artist, "hope you ladies are ready!"
Hayley and I looked at each other, not sure whether he was joking or not. Personally, I wasn't against the artistic merit of taking my clothes off - especially as the photos looked amazing (and no nudity is shown in the image!) but despite being offered the option ahead of time, I decided against it. Looking back, I wonder what would it have been like, going topless for Rankin?

There was no time to think about it - Hayley was next and I promised I'd get some photos of her having her shoot done. She sat down in the set and was suddenly surrounded by lights, assistants, and Rankin, plonking down on a chair in front of her, snapped away. They stopped and went over to the macs to look at the shots, and then went back to shoot some more. Hayley's face appeared on the large screen in the gallery with each snap of the camera - she looked amazing. One shot stood out; one where she was laughing, her eyes half closed. No doubt Rankin had said something cheeky to make her giggle! (I found out later that this was the shot they chose).
Suddenly Rankin himself strolled over to the make-up area.
"Who's next?!" he called. The waiting girls all looked at each other.
"Come ooon, who's next?" he repeated.
I was looking at the shots I'd taken of Hayley on my camera, and suddenly realised his assistant was pointing at me. Rankin came towards me and held out both his hands and I took them.
"Who are you, and what do you do?" he asked me. I was bowled over and my brain switched over to some sort of radio-censoring delay system.
"Er - I'm Claire, and I'm a publishing assistant!"
"Right, Claire, come with me."
I remembered I'd brought a prop with me - props were encouraged.
"Hang on - I have a prop!" I scuttled over to my bag, as fast as my ankle-boots would carry me, and procured my tea cup and saucer. (I am a tea addict, and one of my vintage tea cups - an idea suggested by my mother, in fact - seemed perfect. I only hoped nobody would notice any comparison to Lady GaGa, who also carries a china tea cup - although whether she likes tea as much as me is debatable). I ran back to the set with my tea cup and saucer. The crew liked the tea cup.
"Oooh that's great!" said one.
"Bit like Lady GaGa!" said another. (Damn).
"She copied me, I'm sure!" I joked.
I sat on a chair in the set, and Rankin, straddling another chair in front of me, leaned over the back of it and stared at me thoughtfully.
"So." He said.
"Talk to me."
I was nervous. And I knew he could tell.
"Well.... I'm ready for this shoot!"
"You Australian?"
"I'm from New Zealand."
"Your accent is very subtle."
"I've been here four and a half years."
One of his assistants leaned over him, obscuring his face with her chest as she tried to adjust the light.
"Yeah could you push your boobs in my face please?" he teased her.

And suddenly we got to work. Bright lights were shone in my face, a reflector sheet held beneath my chin, and Rankin pointed his massive black camera lens a couple of inches from my face. He instructed me on how to pose. Hold your tea cup up. That's it. Lean forward. Smile. Shoulder back. Tea cup up. Like that. Tea cup down. ("You look like the Queen mother, when you do that!") Shoulder forward. Look deep into my eyes! He then asked me to bite the saucer.
"Just with a little bit of teeth." I obliged. He chuckled and snapped away.
"Alright... let's lose the saucer. Be saucy, without the saucer!"
He laughed at his own joke and I grinned. Then we went over to the macs to view the shots.

I must admit I was surprised how..... plain I looked! I felt my lack of glamour was letting the shots down. My heart sank - surely if anyone was going to make me look amazing, it was Rankin - and I knew he could do it! On top of that my poses were almost too tense... I felt they looked like I was trying too hard. I knew I had to relax, and yet I only felt an increasing pressure to get this right.
"Any you like?" he asked.

Now, when a world-famous photographer takes photos of you and you don't like them, what do you do? I was honest.
"Er, they're really good, but nothing stands out as "the one" just yet." He flicked back to a shot of me biting the saucer. It was ridiculously funny. He giggled.
"You got a kick out of that, didn't you!" I laughed.

Back to the set. Rankin flicked on the Dandy Warhols track "We Used to Be Friends" which is an old favourite of mine. Leaving the tea cup and saucer to the side this time, I took my place on the set. In an attempt to make things more interesting, I pushed my hair back out of my face, hoping Rankin would pick up on using that - and he did.
"Yeah, I like that, push your hair back, but with one hand. Like that."
Chin up and out, lean into me, look down. Serious. MORE serious.
Then: "What do you look like naked?" I laughed heartily at this, but my brain was back on delay-mode, and unable to form any witty retorts.
"Er..... uh.... how exactly is someone supposed to answer that question?"
"What do you look like naked?" he repeated, clearly enjoying himself.
"Well..." I laughed, blushing. He could tell the shock tactics weren't working to relax me, so he sang as he snapped away. "Relax, don't do it, when you wanna go to it! Relax, don't do it, when you wanna cooooome...."

Time to review the next set of shots. Lots of serious expressions and big smiles, but my hair looked odd, and flat. I squinted at the shots, trying to find one, any one, that stood out. But something wasn't working here. I began to worry that Rankin would make me pick from the choices here, yet none of them were quite right. "I'm sorry, I'm just not.... feeling it."
Fortunately Rankin is a decent guy as well as a professional, (and probably used to this), and he stood up and announced to the crew: "She's not feeling it, let's do some more!" He flicked the music over to Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" and we sat down in our places facing each other.
"So." Rankin asked. "What do you want?"

Now that's the question. What DO I want? To look beautiful? To look quirky? To capture my personality? To look real? What was it? I knew I had to give him the answer if he was going to get the shot I'd be happy with.
"I don't know..... I guess... more... wild? More energy!"
He called for more wind machine. One last go.
Chin up, shoulder back, scream at me! Give me a scream!
I did a mock scream as the wind machine blasted my hair everywhere, and I pushed it back out of my face, and laughed. This was fun. Finally, my last shoot over, Rankin and I approached the computer screen for the final set of shots. He flicked through them and though the screaming ones were a little contrived, one popped up that Rankin liked. He stood back.
"That one." It was me, with my hands in my hair, laughing. He had finally got me to relax, and that was the moment he caught. That there was my best photo. "Yes," I agreed. "That's the one."

The decision made, he took my hands in his and asked if I'd enjoyed it.
"Yes!" I admonished, "I really had fun!"
"Good, I'm really pleased" he said, and seemed genuinely glad I'd had a good time. A minute or so later I came back and approached him, as he was autographing a magazine for someone before preparing the next shoot, and asked if he'd mind us having a photo together.
"For me ma," I said, although the truth was, it was for me.
"For who?"
"Me ma."
"Right, come here."
He lead me onto the set, Hayley ready with my camera. Standing next to him with my ankle boots on, I towered over him.
"Hmm. You're a bit tall," he said, and then grabbed a box on the side of the set.
"Awwww, nooooo," I cooed, feeling guilty at making Rankin stand on a box, but giggling all the same.
We cuddled for a pose.
"Really press your breasts against me!" he demanded.
Cheeky sod. Hayley took a photo, but Rankin said,
"Come on, take another!"
You just can't help but like the guy.

Getting my prints back, I felt a little pang of disappointment that I had not been transformed into to some arty uber-amazing version of myself, and that in fact, I just looked like.... me. Imperfections and all. And yet it was a great picture. As my mother says:
"Self image is a very complex thing. We all have photos we hate, yet other people think they are 'fine' or 'great' cause that is actually how they see you all the time. It is the human scourge that we all have a different image of ourselves in our heads to what everyone else sees."

I went in there hoping for a cleverly artistic shot, perhaps with me looking amazing as only one can with hair, make-up and a world-class photographer. But trying so hard to be something amazing only resulted in stiff shots. After all, was I really expecting to be transformed into someone else? The thing about Rankin is he sees something in you that you might not see yourself. And this proves my best side is the one when I let my guard down, and stop trying so hard to be the perfect version of myself I have in my head.

I left the studio and wandered through the now-closed gallery, and with nobody around I strolled through the massive exhibition, getting lost in the maze of walls, each housing various themes of Rankin's work. "Breeding" was one, with photographs of children. There was a section of artistic shots featuring naked figures. And one where different women wore the same dress in each photo. And then some more of Kate Moss. I exited through the fire escape door and stepped out onto the busy, vibrant back streets of East London, clutching my photos tightly, and made my way home.

I still can't believe I've been "Ranked". It really has been an amazing experience. I'm going to frame my Rankin portrait, put it on my wall and let it be a reminder that this is who I am and who I always should be. I hope I never forget to keep it real.


Thursday, 13 August 2009

Big World, Small Problems

When I was a child, my father brought home some books from the library.
Educational books, they were, and the one that stuck with me at the time was the one called "Big and Small". It was about the concept of relativity. And in this case, the example given was size.

"What is big?" asked the book.
"An elephant is big!"  I replied.
"But an elephant is not big, compared to a blue whale," said the book, "Next to a whale, an elephant is small."
I was stunned.
"Something is only big or small, when you compare it to something else."

I thought about this, for years to come, and I still think about this today. It applies to all of us, in almost every part of our lives. It's about relativity. Comparison. Perspective. As a seventh-form student, sitting in Art History class (doodling cartoon versions of famous paintings, which my black-humoured teacher rather enjoyed), I learned more about perspective. Piero della Francesca was a mathematician and artist, whose theoretical study of perspective inspired many artists to come. It was he who once stood back from his work and, proud of his skill of making things look bigger or smaller compared to their surroundings, he remarked to his wife, "Ah, what a sweet thing perspective is."

He is right! And yet very rarely do we allow ourselves a healthy perspective on things. Our lives are full of trivial and mundane situations, which at the time might be a source of great frustration to us.
Someone pushed in front of me in the queue.
There's no milk left.
I've put on half a stone.
I missed my bus.
It's raining - again!

We bitch and moan and look for things to complain about, when really, we have everything we possibly need. We do not have to steal food to survive; live in fear of death for our beliefs; or wonder where we will sleep tonight. Don't forget, there are people who are actually suffering. They are hurting. They have heavy burdens to bear. They wish their biggest problem was a leak in their kitchen pipe and an unreliable plumber. So why do we take so much bitter pleasure in finding problems that don't even exist?

Remember, it's all about comparison. Problems are relative. Your frustration is tiny when you compare it to actual problems. If something truly awful happened, you would wish for the days when you had no such troubles. But don't you see - that's what you have right now! You don't want to find out the hard way; by having an actual problem show up and turn your life upside down. Now that the blue whale is in your living room, do you really think the elephant was all that inconvenient?

 That's what they mean when they say you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Why do we only declare how much someone means to us when speaking at their funeral? People who face death are the ones who say they have learned to make the best of the time they have. Why then, when we are not faced with such a limited deadline, do we not do the same?

Take a new perspective. Because what a sweet thing it is indeed.