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Rankin: 'I just want everyone to look good'

The photographer Rankin blurs the boundaries between art, commerce and pornography. So what is it he's trying to achieve?

If you want to feel young and gorgeous, don't interview Rankin. Ten minutes in the gleaming glass block in north London that doubles as studio, office and world headquarters of Rankin Inc (or some metaphorical equivalent) is enough to make me feel like a wizened maiden aunt. All around me, 21-year-old stick insects with glossy hair and flawless skin have been bouncing about, clutching files, painting walls (or the wall-that-becomes ceiling thing that celeb photographers use for celeb photo shoots) and generally looking like extras in some super-hip ad for some super-sleek gadget that's about to set the world on fire.

So when a shortish, plumpish, middle-aged bloke strolls in and shakes my hand, I feel like cheering. "Would you," he asks, fishing around in a glass bowl, "like a badge?" Together, we hunch over the stew of shiny black metal and peruse the options. "Thanks to Ranks" seems a bit premature; "Rank off" a bit rude. "Rankette" is clearly age-inappropriate and "Rankelite" just wrong. I am not, and will never be, a member of the Rankin elite. In the end, I settle for "Rankin Live". This, here in front of me, is Rankin live, and it's also the name of his new project. Which, of course, is what he wants to talk about.

Upstairs in his glass office, which allows him wraparound views of the 21-year-olds, he taps away at a laptop and summons up a very bendy Jarvis Cocker. Cocker is giving instructions to wannabe celebs on how to shoot themselves (but not with a gun). This is the overflow of Rankin Live, the bit where those who didn't make it to the final 1,000 to be photographed by Rankin himself, can ensure their place in posterity – or at least on his website. We can all, of course, ensure our place in posterity with Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, but this way you're sprinkled with a bit of the stardust of the starriest photographer of his generation. If you can't, as his postcards and billboards put it, be "Ranked" by Rankin, at least you can rub shoulders with the Ranked.

But 1,000 people will be Ranked, which is really quite a lot. "Some photographers," he says, "might take 20 or 50 images a year. I'd probably take 2,000-3,000." The less productive ones, of course, are the ones who describe themselves as artists. He, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't. "I consider myself as working in the arts," he explains. "I do comment on society, within my work, but that's not all I do. I also document society." On the wall behind him is a massive poster of Giselle, emblazoned with the words "Citizen". A comment on society? Maybe not. Do some of his photographs make more of a comment than others?

"Yeah," he says. "David Bailey said something smart when someone asked him what he thought of my work. He said, 'Give it 10 years, and see how good he is.'" Sure, but Rankin's been out-ranking (sorry, but it's contagious) his contemporaries for almost 20 years. Surely it's early enough to tell? "Yeah," he says again, "and some of it's iconic now, so I think it will get more iconic as time goes on. Of course, as a photographer, that's what you're trying to do. That's why I really promote my photographs very strongly."

It's a refreshingly honest answer, and refreshingly true. Some of his photographs – a radiant Queen, a haggard Tony Blair, a wistful Gorbachev, a feline Madonna – are indeed iconic, in the rarely used OED sense of "referring to someone or something regarded as a symbol of a particular idea, quality or period". If you want to be famous, or you want your work to be famous, it certainly helps if your subjects are very famous indeed. But Rankin Live, the exhibition that runs at the Old Truman Brewery throughout August and beyond, is not about famous people. It's accompanied by a retrospective of 600 images which partly is, but the 1,000 new subjects will be "real people". "I hate that expression," he says, "because my parents taught me that you should never put people into different categories." Still, needs must.

The victims, he says, have been chosen by two producers, and the remit was "enthusiasm" because enthusiastic people are "easier to photograph". The final image, he said in an interview once, is the combination of someone's own perception of themself and the photographer's. Does that mean that being photogenic is largely a question of confidence? Rankin nods. "There are times when a model walks in, and I wouldn't say 'that's a model'. But the minute they get in front of the camera, it's like watching magic happen."

Did Blair look different in front of the camera? Rankin runs his hands through his (rather well cut) hair and smiles. "No. He looked very similar. I find a lot of politicians are very hard to photograph, because their eyes don't change. They have very, sort of, specific eyes. Almost like reflective sunglasses. They don't give you any emotion." And what about the Queen? "She's very charismatic," he says, smiling at the memory. "And very funny as well. Very, sort of, witty."

These, however, are people we all know something about. What's it like when you have a blank slate? Rankin, who rarely pauses, pauses. "It's interesting," he says in the end. "You're trying to relax them, and you're looking for an aesthetic of them that you think they'll like. You're looking for them to really give you something, an emotive quality. I just want to make people happy, and I like to please them, so I always try to make them look good. Look," he adds. "Let me show you!"

So up he leaps, this stocky human dynamo, and returns, moments later, with a giant sheet of paper, which turns out to be the contacts for the show. A quick glance at the faces, like bricks in a giant wall, is enough to confirm that they do indeed "look good". They also look – what's the word for it? Oh yes. Young. "That guy's about 35," he says, as if that made up for the 999-odd who aren't. "It's a range... but there is a youthfulness to it, I can't deny."

I tell him it makes me feel about 100. And being here. All of this. "It makes me feel about 100," he replies. "I feel terrible every day, with my wonky teeth and my fat belly." So why does he surround himself with people who make him feel like that? "I don't choose!" he says. "You don't get 45-year-old assistants. It doesn't make you feel particularly good about yourself, but it does, kind of, make me look after myself a bit. And I get a lot of energy back from it. I think two of the things that are funny are that I stopped wearing trainers when I was 35 and then, at 40, girls stopped fancying me."

Somehow, I doubt it. In photographs, he looks a little like the pugnacious Glaswegian he could have been (if he hadn't moved to St Albans as a small child), but in the flesh his face is animated and his blue eyes burn with an intensity that's strangely compelling. Anyway, he "hooked" his beautiful young wife at 39, in the nick of time. She was 20 when he met her and is now 26. He is 42. They got married in June. He has been married before, to the actress Kate Hardie (with whom he has a 12-year-old son) and has had a string of model girlfriends. But Tuuli, the daughter of a Finnish diplomat is, he says, the one he "fell completely in love with". "Of course I love the way she looks," he says, "but she has the most beautiful light within her, that's beautiful to watch. I'll still see her across the room and go 'Wow!'"

Readers (if that's the word) of his book Tuulitastic might have a similar reaction. Not necessarily at the "light within her" but at the fact that she agreed to be photographed not just naked, with shaved pubes, but with tiny sweeties perched on her genitalia, and painted like a Jackson Pollock, and wrapped in a rope. Rankin has said he doesn't "objectify women" but "subjectifies" them. Could he explain the difference?

"When you look at pornography," he says, with a slightly weary air, "the women become objects, whereas what I'm trying to do is make the person in the photograph as important as their body. And obviously, I like tits and arse, because I just do. I like the sex of taking photographs. I would say that a lot of the work I do is taking photography and trying to twist it, and open it up. You've got everything from being critical of celebrity to being critical of the fashion industry." Critical? But where's the criticism? I thought I was looking at homage. Rankin sighs. "Well, I've talked a lot about how fashion is, and how it works with self-esteem, and how it makes you feel about yourself, and how it's fantasy, so I've been critical in that sense. It's seductive. I guess what I'm saying is that I love it, like everybody else does, but let's be honest about, let's say that the seduction has to come with a price."

Okey doke. I think I'm beginning to get the measure of John Rankin Waddell, the son of an accountant who nearly became an accountant himself, but decided to study photography after finding the art students in his hall of residence were much more fun. This was the boy so "cotton-woolled" by his parents that he grew up believing he could do no wrong. This was the boy whose father bought him a house after his first exhibition, and who gave him a loan to start (with Jefferson Hack, ex-boyfriend of Kate Moss) the style bible of the 1990s, Dazed & Confused. This was the boy who became the enfant terrible, the coke-fuelled monster who told the world that while other photographers were "pop", he was "rock n' roll".

But this, too, was the boy who had affairs because he "hated himself", and who now freely admits that he was "a wanker". This is the man who says he's "a good photographer", but "a very average human being", the man who says he "just wants to make people happy", but ends up pissing rather a lot of them off. "I'm not Richard Curtis," he says. "I'm horrible sometimes, and I admit it. I've been so lucky in my life, but I've also dealt myself my own cards. I've taken a belief in myself very seriously. I've taken it as far as I can go. Write whatever," he adds. "I'm not going to cry over a newspaper article. I'm just not going to, because I really believe in my own work."

In a strange way, so do I. Not necessarily because I think it's great art – and I don't think that Rankin thinks it is either – but because I think that this bullish, contradictory, engagingly honest and strangely loveable man is, at core, absolutely true to who he is and what he does. In an age that values beauty more than anything, so does he. Yes, I think you could describe him as "iconic".

Rankin Live opens at the Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London E1, today ( www.rankinlive.com)