In his latest body of work, photographer Rankin is celebrating the talent and resilience of people who work at London's theatres as we emerge from the devastating pandemic. From the star actors and dancers to the writers, directors, dressers and stage doorkeepers, the series of portraits is now available to enjoy in a new book and accompanying exhibition.
Titled Performance, the ambitious project by Rankin, was created in partnership with the Official London Theatre and FujiFilm House of Photography with funding from the Mayor of London. It captures the human face of London's world-leading theatre industry as it recovers from the lockdowns and restrictions of the last two years. It captures a unique portrait of a West End reborn, featuring 150 subjects from nearly 60 of the capital's top productions and venues. Proceeds from Performance will go to the Theatre Artists Fund and London youth homelessness charities.
"Not many people realise that most, including lots of the famous ones, hate to have their photo taken," says Rankin. "They're reluctant to get out under the lights pose. They don't want to be looked at, scrutinised, or judged. A lot of them hate to have an audience and dislike to be the centre of attention. It's always funny to me, though, whilst the people in front of my camera, with their hair and makeup perfect, don't always want to be looked at. They often forget they're looking back at me.
"In that way, everything I do as a photographer is a form of performance. Every move I make is seen. I have to be on, I have to be chatty, and I have to be what you want a photographer to be. Over the last 30 years, I've rehearsed, practised (a lot), and I think I've honed my craft. I've learnt the way to speak, the way to direct, the way to act around all types of people. Ultimately, how to get the shot – but I have to perform to get there."
"When we started this project, I tried to understand why the lack of live theatre over the last year had meant so much to me," Rankin continues. "Why I had felt such a personal loss. Then I realised. Theatre, like photography, is a team sport. It does not happen alone, and it is a home of true collaboration. Theatres closing lined up with when my studio fell quiet, my team taken away. I felt the loss of theatre because it was emblematic of the wider creative world shutting down and the isolation we all felt. It was the loss of the performance we all collaborate in every day.
"Taking pictures for this new project, the joy that every single subject brought to the sessions was like a breath of fresh air, rejuvenating my energy for what I do, as well as giving everyone a chance to perform again, albeit it just for my camera. The joy of being together, working on something collaboratively, was one of the most inspiring things I've ever been part of."
Alongside the portraits, we learn of the subjects' experiences of the pandemic with inspiring tales of hardship, perseverance, patience, innovation, despair and joy. And we don't just hear from the lead performers and directors, either – we meet stage managers, technicians, front of house, people who work in the wardrobe department, puppeteers, and sound designers.
Alice Afflick-Mensah is deputy head of sound at Hamilton and shares: "I studied music technology at uni, but I had no idea what to do. A friend working in it said go and look at the theatre business and do some work experience, and I haven't looked back since. We come in a few hours before the cast to do a full soundcheck. We make sure all the microphones, speakers and other equipment are working. During the show, we control how much of the music and how much of the cast you hear. No one really notices until something goes wrong. And then they realise there's an actual person taking care of the sound. Backstage we are a huge team. We all work to make the show happen."
Another to be featured is Ben Hart, a magic consultant for Magic Goes Wrong at London's Apollo theatre: "The average member of the public would be shocked if they saw what a complicated machine backstage is, and what extreme precision it takes to run a show. I'm sad the audience can't see this beautiful ballet unfolding backstage as well as on stage."
Rankin adds: "Theatre is the beating heart of London's cultural scene. It is what draws people to the West End and allows all of us to escape into another world or narrative for a few hours. As people, we need to entertain and be entertained. It helps us feel things, to connect to laugh, cry and everything in between. So here's to performance. I couldn't be more excited to celebrate its return."
You can purchase the book, Performance at Bookshop.org and support an independent bookshop. Or see the series of portraits in the flesh at the Fujifilm House of Photography in London until 31 January.