At just 34 years old, it may feel peculiar referring to photographer Rory Lewis as an accomplished portrait photographer. Yet, the rate at which he has become one of the world’s most prolific portrait photographers reveals it to be true. His imaginative and thought-provoking portrait style has given him the opportunity to photograph a wide range of well-known names; from political leaders, TV celebrities, to the cast of Game of Thrones and Star Trek.
Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones photographed by Rory Lewis
He has been involved with Calumet Photographic for nearly two years now, teaching a wide variety of Portrait Masterclasses. Taking place throughout the year, these full-day classes provide beginner to intermediate photographers with the skills required to improve their portrait photography techniques.
I managed to book a date in Rory’s busy schedule to sit down for an interview to talk about his phenomenal career as a portrait photographer, his beginnings and inspirations.
Q: Professional portrait photographer is a bit of a leap from the medieval history and literature studies you undertook at university. How did that transition take place?
A: It was a cocktail of Renaissance Portraiture, German Expressionist Cinema and The Work of Gustave Dore. All of which inspired my desire to pick up a camera. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I started to take my photography seriously. After seeing the work of famous portrait photographers such as Yosef Karsh and Cecil Beaton, I decided I wanted to touch history like they did. A camera is a great excuse to meet someone famous, someone who moves history. I’ve worked with former Prime Ministers, Army Generals, Ambassadors and many famous actors and celebrities.
Q: Your portraits have an element of classical style which evoke painted portraits of historical figures such as King Henry VIII. Did you make a conscious choice to persue this style?
A: The Renaissance, in my opinion was the pinnacle of human expression. It was the awakening for artists such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael. Their use of expression and lighting greatly inspires my work.
As a child, I visited The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and was very lucky to view their portrait collection of Hans Holbein the Younger, featuring none other than Henry VIII. It is Holbein’s use of expression and the method in which he captured the mood and lighting that again influences my classical style of portraiture.
Q: Our blog readers are always interested in the camera setups of professional photography. What cameras and gear are you using on your typical portrait shoots?
Steven Berkoff photographed by Rory Lewis
A: After 12 years in the industry, I made the move to Medium Format cameras opting for XF IQ3 50mp. “I prefer to use a wide angle lens for medium format; I use the Phase One Schneider 110mm f2.8 lens for portraiture, the lens fills perfectly for the frame.”
In terms of lighting – portability is key. I recently invested in the Profoto B2 250 Air TTL To-Go Kit and haven’t looked back. Lastolite collapsible backdrops also play a key role, they are easy to setup and carry around the globe.
Q: Have you always been shooting digital or do you also use film?
A: Alas, I have been solely a digital user. Medium format digital produces the time-like quality I need.
Q: At only 34 years of age, you have managed to put together an impressive portfolio of celebrity portraits. How did you manage to get access to the level of celebrity at such an early stage of your career?
A: At the age of 28, I had my pyjama moment. Let me explain… approaching 30 I asked the question, will I be a professional photographer for the rest of my life? If so, I needed to make it into something I enjoyed. At 28 I was being commissioned for all those mundane photo shoots, such as weddings, family portraits, model portfolios. I felt I needed to do something unequivocal to gain those assignments which inspired me.
Sitting in my pyjamas watching Game of Thrones, I came upon an idea. ‘Northerners’. If you watch GOT you will see there is an emphasis on where you come from; North, South etc. Being British, I’m also a Northerner from Liverpool. Following that thought, I decided to capture portraits of famous people from the North and put the photos on an exhibition.
I set about writing letters. Firstly, to the Manchester actor, David Warner. It took some doing to track him down – six letters and three phone calls. In the end, I hand-delivered him a letter at a science fiction convention, where he was signing autographs. To my delight, he accepted.
That was the actual beginning for me as a portrait photographer. David arrived at the London Studio and announced to me that it was his first portrait sitting since he sat for Cecil Beaton in 1967. The sitting before that was for David Bailey. Already, I was walking in the footsteps of legends. The portrait shoot was a wonderful experience. David, a phenomenal actor, assumed wonderful expressions and responded to my direction effortlessly.
Directly after the shoot I contacted the National Portrait Gallery in London, who immediately acquired the portrait. The exhibition went on to be a great success. Resulting in Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and many more sitting for the exhibit.
Sir Ian McKellan photographed by Rory Lewis
The project gained International press and resulted in me gaining contacts from Pepsi and The London Times. I was also invited to teach for National Institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery in London. I was becoming an authority in the area I loved – portraiture.
So from a simple idea sitting in my pyjamas I had actually achieved something.
Q: You’ve described yourself as a Nerdist with a camera. A quick glance at your portrait photography portfolio identifies actors from Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Red Dwarf, Lord of the Rings, Tron and X-Men, to name a few. How much have those geek leanings influenced your theme photography choice. Who has been your biggest ‘get’?
A: Very much so, I have a love of science fiction. Imagination is important in my business and science fiction is the home of all things conceivable. As a child, I loved Star Trek, Kolchak:The Night Stalker, X-Files; and, yes, for my personal projects I always tried to opt for those actors I wanted to meet, a guilty pleasure to be honest.
My favourite sitting has been with Sir Ian McKellen. He is such a wonderful, lovely man. In the same week, I also photographed Sir Patrick Stewart and Craig Charles.
Q: You have photographed many of the United Kingdom’s most prominent politicians. Are they any differences in the approach you take to their sittings vs those of the actors and actresses you have shot?
A: Political portraiture, needs to be approached in a particular way. We call it the history portrait. You have to photograph all the politicians with no opinion. Meaning, love them or hate them, you have to present them in a plain and emotionless way. In using this method, you then leave it to the person viewing the portrait to give their own judgement.
Q: We are in the age when many people have phones full of their own self-portraits. What does a portrait photographer bring to a subject that the “selfie’ does not reach?
A: The portrait photographer adds complexity and the personality of the sitter. Selfies seem very vain and pretentious, many trying to show off. This is nothing new in history. Many wealthy people in the past would have a portrait painted of them with all their finery, their positions and fine clothes around them. We have just taken it to a new level.