Recently I visited the Walker Art gallery in Liverpool where the renowned fashion photographer Rankin has an exhibition but unlike his usual work where he captures the faces of the famous and fashionable, this time he examines the position of death and how people who are going through terminal illness deal with their foreboding future. The exhibition also looks at death through the eyes of people who work in the industry such as portraits of undertakers, African mourners who are paid to celebrate the life of the deceased and even a portrait of a tattooist who mixes the ashes of loved ones into ink to be used in a tattoo.
The exhibition is a juxtaposition of the usual work of Rankin but in it there are glimpses of his fashion photography side, he after all was the co-founder of Dazed & Confused in 1992 which is known for combining fashion with culture and art in its photography style.
The entrance corridor leading into the main exhibition space is lined with portraits of blacked out death masks, the masks are in the shape of a skull but instead of taking on a deathly look they are made out of different objects such as flowers, glitter, jewels, coloured spots and face paint. I think they can be seen as Rankin using aspects of fashion photography by intending to make the face mask more jovial by the items used, such as glitter. The eyes in each of the death masks shine through, they bring a focus to the blacked out face and in the eyes you can see the image of Rankin photographing the sitter, I think by keeping the eyes bright and alive it highlights the shared vision of both Rankin and sitter.A theme I noticed in a couple of photographs was butterflies, there was a death mask named ‘if I had wings’ made out of butterflies and another photograph was named ‘vanitas’ which showed butterflies breeding and coming out of a rotting skull. The image of butterflies can be seen as a visual metaphor for life after death, the birth of a new life at the end of an old, as the exhibition is examining the role of death in society this is an aspect of death of people having faith in the afterlife.
The portraits of people who have terminal illness or who have battled illness are striking by their unison, in all of them the eyes are alive and focus on you as you walk along the room. Rankin worked alongside the sitter in portraying them how they wished to be captured by doing this you can catch a glimpse of their different personalities. My favourite was a photograph of Stevie Corry a 21 year old with the disease custinosis her image is in bright colour and shows her laughing and very animated in the face, I think it radiates her youthfulness and passion for life.Another aspect of the exhibition looked at the opposite side of being a celebratory instead of celebrities being idolised and captured in the best possible light Rankin showed famous faces how they would appear in a traditional Victorian death mask, subverting the idea of the death mask. Celebrities included Robert Di Niro, Holly Willoughby, Jarvis Cocker, Abbey Clancey and Daphne Guiness among others, the photographs were displayed on a white wall in rows they looked like a structured collage, the wall had a spooky feel as many of the celebs were alive and normally photographed within a fashion setting.
I really enjoyed the exhibition I liked how you didn’t radiate to the celeb imagery but instead took the time to gaze at each individual photograph, you were interested to learn about the person being captured which you could do as under each image was a label giving a short bio, it gave the photographs an extra personal touch. Even though the subject of the exhibition was death overall I did not feel depressed or concerned walking around the exhibition space instead I felt the passion, personality and joie de vivre of each individual presented, the exhibition was alive with emotion.If you’re visiting Liverpool in the near future I would defiantly recommend you going to visit, it is a free exhibition and runs until 15th September.
Sorry for the bad images, you wern't allowed to take pics but I sneakily did on my phone