Rankin, the British fashion and celebrity photographer (and co-founder of the magazine Dazed & Confused), has an obsession, or something close, with death and masks – and thus occasionally death masks. It’s not obvious until you stretch the career and the work out, and there it is again and again: death and masks and even explicit references to Vanitas paintings, those death-obsessed Dutch still lifes.

These convergent obsessions are clear in 'Less Is More', a new retrospective of work at the Kunsthalle Rostock in Germany. Everyone in these pictures is hiding or avoiding the photographer’s attempt to pin them down and establish a marker along the way to death. Or, sometimes, they're already dead. There are numerous skulls: actual skulls, faces painted like skulls and bodies arranged in skull shapes. There are also death masks of De Niro, Brando, Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson, Sean Connery and, oddly, Jarvis Cocker.

The show, put together with curator Ulrich Ptak, is less an exhaustive trawl than a precision-engineered pick of the photographer’s more conceptual work. (Though, to his credit, Rankin resists any attempt to over-intellectualise the work, calling it 'not necessarily entirely serious but more than just the slip of a finger on a phone'.) Even in this reduced form – with death an ever-present – the show is anything but gloomy. There are lashings of colour, flesh and playful humour. There is also a frieze of seven-metre high nudes; an over-sized comment on the limits of smartphone photography.

We spoke to Rankin before the show opened.

Why is the exhibition called 'Less is More’?
I have this terrible habit of chucking all the different things I work on into shows, books and everything really. So I'll have my portraits, nudes, fashion, beauty and so on and so on, and just shove it all in.

I think it’s probably me over-compensating for something about myself; you know, showing off or trying to make up for not being confident about certain things. With this show the curator, Ulrich, just asked me if we could show less work and choose it a bit more carefully. He also asked if we could use some of the more conceptual work. This editing made me really think about the work a bit more carefully and hence, less feels a bit more.

I’m also very bored with celebrity portraits. I still enjoy taking them, it’s just how much emphasis is placed on how important being famous is. So it was interesting to look for things that were about ideas and not how well-known the subjects were.

Can you talk a little bit about the selection process? What were you looking for before you started? And did that change as you went through?
When I edit now, I start with the recent work, as the older stuff I know too well. Initially, I'm just looking for things that stay with me, that make me feel something. It’s generally a very wide edit.

With this show I also went back to my very, very early work; some of which I haven’t looked at for a while.

Once I have that edit I go back through and try to find things that fit with the theme. In this case it was concepts, ideas or humour. The edit changes a lot and I’m rubbish at sticking to it and always want to add stuff in or change it at the last moment. I even shoot new work, but obviously I care about it and want the experience of the show to be something the viewer walks away with and remembers.

Is this the first time you have looked back at every thing you have done and thought about it as a body of work?
I’ve done it quite a few times, for exhibitions and books – it’s very therapeutic. I’ve said in the past it’s like looking at a diary of your life where you are not visible at all, but entirely present.

Is there anything that surprised you in terms of thinking about how the work has developed?
Nothing has really surprised me, but when I first did it about seven years ago, I was really excited to see a thread running through everything. An approach and a sense of humour about life.

My latest realisation is that my approach is still very populist. What I mean by that is that I’m still trying to make the work accessible and fun. I may be a little less in your face with it (which is probably a good thing), but if I look at some of my contemporaries they have become much more serious, the way they light, the direction of the subjects. They have matured aesthetically, whereas I think I'm still quite brash and go for the jugular with my lighting and direction. I’m not saying I don’t tackle difficult subjects, I just mean not everything I do has to be serious.

The thing for me is I’m still very inquisitive, like a kid. Even when I was younger my Dad said my favourite word was 'why' and that’s still a big part of me. Or maybe I just don’t want to grow up, which I'm still not sure is a good or bad thing!

What are you still learning as a photographer do you think?
For me the best thing about being a photographer is getting to meet lots of people and asking lots of questions. All those things that interest me about life. I think I'll always be learning, right up till when I die!

What are the new works you are presenting?
I’ve shot a few new 3D pieces which are very basic. More like what you’d do at the mall with your mates. I love combining luxury and low culture.

And the special installation?
The special installation could be a complete failure, so I don't want to big it up too much yet. I was just interested in creating an event piece. Something that you can't just swipe past on Instagram.

It’s also a little like a billboard or frieze inside a museum. Which I love the idea of, but let’s not talk too much about it till the whole thing is up and looks amazing!

You came of age professionally when the 'style' magazine was in its pomp. They were great platforms for photography. Do those opportunities or platforms still exist?
They do and they don’t. When I first started, those magazines were the only place you could really express yourself and be seen by like-minded people. The space was at a premium and you knew if you had your work in one of those magazines most of the industry would see it.

Now there are hundreds of outlets and tons of photographers, all fighting to get seen and using the same references they’ve found on the internet. So, yes there are the same opportunities when you’re starting, maybe more. But you have to really stand out and be different to be seen and there are a lot of pretenders out there who are just shadows of who they would like to be.

There seems to be more and more magazines appearing. Is that a good thing? Can they all have good art and photography directors who can actually help photographers develop?
Tough question. I would never want to be negative at all about any other magazines, I know how hard it is to produce one. In a lot of ways I love that so many people want to do it and there are lots of great ones. But there are so many that it is sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees – if you forgive the paper joke!

More and more photographers seem to be 'rebranding' themselves as art photographers, looking for gallery representation, putting together gallery shows. Is this just a matter of rebranding? Is there something fundamentally different in terms of approach with 'art' photography?
You’re asking the wrong photographer, as I am probably one of the most commercial people in the business and would never call myself an artist!

Personally I have no idea why everybody is so fascinated about it, separating their work into different categories and calling some of it art. I guess objectively it’s not just photographers, everybody wants to be an 'artist' these days and a lot of the world is telling them they can, so why not!

Just shooting with a point-and-shoot and a little bit of a quirky view of the world doesn’t make you have a unique voice. In fact quite the opposite, it makes you like everybody else. An Instagram filter doesn’t make you an artist.