Digital Photography Magazine Column (Rory Lewis Photographer)
I had assumed that only sheer luck or destiny would place Sir Patrick Stewart in front of my lens. Somewhat surprisingly though, after 24 years of dreaming about capturing his portrait, it was the sight of a vulgar, pink Hummer that inspired our meeting. The sitting would change my stars from a provincial photographer to an international portraitist working in London & Los Angeles.
Let me take you back to the beginning
How does one arrange a sitting with a screen icon? I began with Sir Patrick’s acting agency in London with little success. My letter was no doubt buried within a mountain of fan mail. Soon after though, I discovered that Sir Patrick was starring in Waiting for Godot at New York’s Cort Theatre on Broadway. Another letter was dispatched.
To my astonishment, a reply came through just a few weeks later. Alas, what I had originally thought to be success was a note from Sir Patrick, declining my invitation. Nevertheless, like the snail setting his sights on the Arc, I composed a compelling reply urging Sir Patrick to reconsider. A few weeks passed by again until, seemingly out of the blue, an email from the man himself appeared in my inbox. Sir Patrick was accepting my offer. His acceptance however, came with one condition – the sitting would have to take place in New York.
With no patron or funding to realise my opus, I realised that I would have to fund this trip on my own if I were to realise my dream of photographing such a prestigious, cultural icon.
The appearance of the pink Hummer
The decision to bite the bullet and head to New York was made whilst shooting a wedding in Liverpool. As I sat in the hotel waiting for the bridal party to arrive, I wondered if I was actually ready to leave my comfort zone. Would I really be able capture the likeness of such a stalwart thespian, as well as show people what I was capable of? Was I really destined for something greater?
With thoughts of Bailey and Beaton in my head, the bride’s pink Hummer pulled into view. Was this what I wanted for the next 50 years? To be a second rate wedding and portrait photographer, capturing nothing but other people’s celebrations and dreams?
I decided enough was enough. A professional photographer is nothing without a compelling portfolio and my passion to create had become an addiction. I booked my plane ticket as soon as the wedding was over.
Camera wise, I felt Hasselblad H3D-39 had to be my camera of choice, along with Hasselblad HC 100mm f2.2 Lens, which is the finest portrait lens available in my humble opinion. It was time to visit my local camera rental store.
The travelling portraitist
The session was arranged for May 5th 2014 and I arrived in New York little more than a day before the shoot. Be it the jetlag from travelling 3,606 miles, or the anticipation of meeting Sir Patrick, I couldn’t sleep the night before. Thankfully, one of my strengths is preparation and I had come to the sitting with ideas and a plan.
Ironically, the inspiration behind my work has never flown from photographers, but from portrait painters. In this instance, the foundations of my sitting with Sir Patrick stemmed from a 16th century portrait of Sir Thomas Moore by Hans Holbein the Younger
Painted in 1527, Sir Thomas More would have been a very compelling and controversial sitter for Holbein. In this three quarter length portrait, the inclusion of a strikingly shallow backdrop intensifies the harshness of Moore’s presence. What makes the portrait even more arresting is Holbein’s use of colour. By incorporating bold areas of green (as a symbol of revelation) and red (signifying power and importance), Holbein was able to perfectly portray his subject’s status as a strong, intellectual figure.
Using Holbein’s painting as a muse, I began to think more about the subject of my own portrait. In recent years I have become accustomed to working with famous faces, but it was my sitting with Sir Patrick that helped to mould my approach and method. Part of this technique is to commit to thorough research. Research is critical when photographing prominent subjects, as more often than not you will find yourself limited to an incredibly short amount of time. After all, these are busy people indeed.
To begin this pre-emptive research, I look to photographers who have captured the subject previously; grappling with the mathematics of the portrait. (Head shape, good side, bad side. That kind of thing.) If the subject is an actor, I’ll take the time to binge watch any movies and TV Series, watching relentlessly for any details or angles that haven’t caught my attention before.
To prepare for my sitting with Sir Patrick, I began by studying his portrait sitting with Nadav Kander, before watching his iconic role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation and looking through a multitude of YouTube clips that captured Sir Patrick’s vast array of stage performances.
Studying his profile, I had repeatedly found that Sir Patrick had primarily been photographed as if still embodied by one of his characters. However, Holbein’s portrait had given me the inspiration to portray Sir Patrick quite simply as himself – the thespian. No greens or reds, but simply a black backdrop, pierced by the harsh lighting that I knew would amplify every detail of Sir Patrick’s intense gaze.
My plans and preparation had all led to this moment at Neo Studios in Manhattan; a little jet lagged, but nevertheless ready for one of the most important sittings of my career. Sir Patrick arrived at the studio and (after taking a deep breath) I introduced myself and began to summarise my ideas behind the portrait. I needn’t have been worried. Years of experience with taking direction made for an incredibly smooth start to the session and Sir Patrick remained engaged throughout.
In my style of simplicity, the portrait is all about the ocular. I focused Sir Patricks gaze across the lens, not into it, and an incredibly receptive Sir Patrick rapidly obliged me with a wonderful series of provocatively poised expressions.
After working for just 10 minutes, I was already happy with the results I was getting. This then provided me with the opportunity, for the last few minutes, to experiment and, most importantly, to enjoy my time with this compelling and absorbing subject. Rather than looking to the familiar heroic roles that Stewart’s name is inherently synonymous with, I directed Sir Patrick to assume the fierce, vengeful expressions of a calculated villain.
What emerged from this part of the session was a complex and vigorous character, embodied by energy and animation; a side of Sir Patrick that I thoroughly enjoyed watching unfold in front of my lens.
Though just a short 20 minutes, my sitting with Sir Patrick has been one of the most rewarding of my career so far. The chance to show what I can do and influence other photographers with my style of portraiture; to work with a level of client that consistently interests and inspires my work; and, above all, to work with a true British icon.