Rankin on Her Majesty: ‘The Queen was pretty chill’
The legendary photographer tells the tale behind his now iconic image and why he was more nervous to meet Madonna
Friday 3 June 2022 By Emma McCarthy
It’s been 20 years since Rankin was invited to photograph the Queen for the Golden Jubilee, but he can remember it like it was yesterday. Then again, it’s not like photographing the most famous face in the world is something you forget in a hurry. Or, for that matter, people are likely to let you forget.
From the moment the photographer clicked the shutter on that now iconic image – Her Majesty in front of a giant Union Jack, illuminated by an overexposed flashbulb and sporting a wide, toothy grin rarely captured on our demure, ever-composed head of state – it has been immortalised as one of the most loved in history.
So, what actually happened in the lead up to that moment? Did they discuss the weather? Did Rankin get a chance to snoop around Buckingham Palace? Does she even like the image? Seeing as the Queen was busy with Platinum Jubilee preparations, we turned to the man behind the lens to fill us in.
Tell us, what was it actually like meeting the Queen?
‘It was nerve wracking. From the moment she walked in, I don’t really remember anything she said, it was a bit of a blur. But she was just cracking jokes.
‘I only had a few minutes with her, so I got to work. I knew she had a great sense of humour and that I wanted her to smile. Then part of my camera – the sync lead – fell off and I saw her laughing through the lens. That’s when I knew I had my shot. After that, I started to repeat, “Ma’am, can you smile please, ma’am, can you smile please, ma’am?” a bit like Austin Powers. That made her laugh more. I think I was done in four minutes.
‘I felt really confident. I thought “wow, I’m getting gold”. But when I got the contact sheet back – because I was shooting in film back then – every single picture was really sh*t. Apart from three frames, out of 100. And I realised, that confidence came down to the way she projects herself. It’s powerful.’
Did you have a snoop around?
‘It felt a bit weird being in Buckingham Palace, if I’m honest. It doesn’t feel like a home. It feels like a museum or something. I hate the idea of being a tourist, especially in other people’s lives. So no, I didn’t snoop.’
‘I remember I wanted her to hold a sword, because we were in the throne room where she knights people, but she didn’t want to do that because she said she didn’t like her hands. She’s human, just like everyone else.
‘We can all have our different views on the monarchy, but you can’t not like her. She’s principled. She’s got commitment. She’s everything that the current leadership of our government aren’t at the moment. She’s sacrificed so much to be the person she is. Even if you’re really anti-monarchy, you can’t disrespect the human being that’s there. It’s like disrespecting your granny – you just don’t do it. Since then I’ve been a massive fan of hers. She’s a very, very special person.’
Did Her Majesty like the portrait?
‘On sending it to the palace, they initially didn’t think it was “appropriate” for the Golden Jubilee. But soon after, I received a note saying that Her Majesty liked the stitching on the Union Jack flag behind her. I really believe she can’t say she likes the picture of herself because she’s the Queen, so that’s the closest thing to her saying she actually liked the photograph.’
‘I’m from Scotland, where the attitude is that authority is not really respected – especially in Glasgow – so photographing the Queen is not such a big deal. As a photographer, my job is to pull back the curtain on who the person is and what they represent. I got to photograph the most famous face in the world. But at the time, it just felt like an opportunity to see power up close. I wanted to capture the humanity behind it, and she seemed to understand that. I think that’s what I liked most about her.
‘Twenty years on, it remains one of my most memorable shoots to date. But I’ve never seen it as the pinnacle of my career. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider – people like myself and Jefferson [Hack, cofounder of Dazed Media] were really influenced by punk. I’ve always felt like I never really wanted to be accepted by the establishment. But I didn’t realise what it represents – it becomes a footnote in history. It was the same with Björk. Those people open the door for you to have a front-row seat on culture. That’s a real privilege.’
Was there anyone you were more nervous to shoot?
‘Madonna made me more nervous. I photographed her in 1999, before the Queen, and she was just so famous. And punchy. What people don’t realise is that people like the Queen or the Prime Minister are in the public domain, so they’re not trying to protect their image in the same way. Most celebrities want complete control over the shoot and some photographers really hate it because there’s no ability to push back.
‘The Queen was pretty chill. She embraced my way of wanting to shoot her in a way that most famous people wouldn’t. Madonna is quite a scary individual. She’s powerful, in a similar way to the Queen. Charlize Theron’s got it as well. And Björk. These women share this kind of power – you could have your back to them and know when they enter the room.’
‘There are very few artists who get to work with the Queen, so you can’t help but compare. There’s a David Montgomery photograph that I just think is incredible, where she’s sat in front of a three-bar electric fire. I’m super jealous that I didn’t take that photo. Bailey also shot her after me. He always says he’s much funnier than me and he really got her laughing, so he beat me on that one. But then I took mine first…
‘If I had my time again, I would love to do a volumetric capture of her, which is like a bronze sculpture form of a photograph.’
Are there any other royals you’d like to get in front of the lens?
‘I’ve worked with Prince William. He was incredibly charming. They have to make people feel comfortable, I think that’s a real skill. I’ve met a lot of famous people, and you realise that not everyone is a natural at that. The royals are a different species. I think it’s very different being born into it and we forget that. Most people I photograph want to be famous; they had no choice.’
How will you be celebrating this weekend?
‘I’ll definitely raise a glass to the Queen.’