(Full Interview) 4 Sept, 2018
Written by: Louise Carey, Features Editor
Behind the Mask
Capturing exquisite portraits of some of the best actors of our generation, Rory Lewis uses his passionate love for Renaissance art to help handcraft each beautiful image.
How did you first become interested in photography?
I’ve never actually studied photography. Instead, I read History at Kings College London. While I was studying, I decided to take a course in History of Cinema and was introduced to the wonderful cinematography of German Expressionist Cinema. While this may not have necessarily been the most straightforward route into my current vocation, it was my combined love of history and cinema that put me on this path.
What drew you to portraiture in particular?
With a hunger to be creative, and a longing to carve out my own niche of iconic photography, I began to take an interest in the history of political art. The classic Tudor portraits were filled with ruffles, tunics and the stony stare of the period’s aristocrats, and they tickled my fancy like nothing else. Their oily likenesses made me eager to create a similar style of my own. Throughout university photography became my passion. Once I’d finished my degree, I returned home to continue to develop my work. To my surprise, I began to receive commissions. At first it was individuals who wanted portraits, then models who wanted to test shoot. Eventually, businesses looking for images for advertising campaigns started to get in touch. In 2007, my success allowed me to start my own photography studio. However, it was when my work was first acquired by the National Portrait Gallery that I knew something special was happening.
You’ve worked with many celebrities on this project. Who was the first one you worked with?
The well-known English actor David Warner was the first celebrity to sit for me. The last time he’d had his photo taken professionally was actually in 1965 when he was just 24. Ever since then he’d determinedly avoided getting back into the photo studio. To coax him into sitting, I wrote several letters to David’s various representing agencies in both the UK and the USA. Unfortunately, I never received a reply. However, I was determined not to give up. When browsing on social media one day, I discovered that David was attending a Hammer Horror Convention in London. As a last ditch attempt, I wrote another letter to be delivered on the day of the event. Happily, he replied and agreed to sit for a session. I’ve been a fan of his for a number of years, so it was fantastic to get my chance to work together to create some striking portraiture.
THE LITTLE BOY IN ME JUMPED IN GLEE WHEN I SAW GANDALF’S SWORD...
What’s your favourite image you’ve ever taken?
Twice nominated for an Oscar, and a recipient of every major theatrical award in the UK, Ian McKellan is regarded as one of the most acclaimed British theatrical talents of our time. I invited Sir Ian to sit for me when he was performing Waiting for Godot with Sir Patrick Stewart in New York. I was completely flabbergasted when he accepted. I was fortunate enough to travel to his home in London for the shoot. The little boy in me was jumping with glee when I saw Gandalf’s sword hanging on the clothing rack like an umbrella! For the portrait itself, I decided to drawn inspiration from his prominence as a Shakespearian performer.
Did anything influence your work on this project?
While photography is my art form, it’s not where I find my inspiration. Instead, I look to the old masters. Before I began my project, I delved into the works of Caravaggio, Titian and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Renaissance portraiture and the use of chiaroscuro has been very inspiring.
Have you ever had a ‘nightmare’ shoot?
Steven Berkhoff is a well-renowned actor, playwright and director, who continually sets the benchmark for intense performances. Known best for his villainous roles, I was inspired by his stellar interpretation of Hitler in the 1988 ‘War and Remembrance’. Berkoff’s portrait of a psychotic and demonic Hitler is breath-taking, so when I arrived at his London home I was a little apprehensive about what to expect. This psychopathic portrayal lingered in my subconscious, along with rumours that he was difficult to work with. His reputation as the industry’s ‘go-to bad guy’ had put the fear of God in me! Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that my nervousness wasn’t unfounded. The sitting only lasted 10 minutes, as Steven wanted to control the sitting. We found ourselves arguing over the artistic direction of the shoot, and I was unable to explore all the avenues I wanted to. In the end, not really agreeing on anything, I did manage to capture one image that evoked my ideas.
What’s your best story from your project?
I always love to tell my clients about my experience shooting with William Shatner, who I’ve worked with twice over the past few years. The first time we shot together was back in 2015. I was travelling to LA and I’d written to Shatner beforehand to ask whether he would sit for me. It was a bit of a stab in the dark, but he replied and accepted my invitation. Once I’d arrived at his office, Shatner’s PA kindly informed me that I had just 10 minutes to prepare and five minutes to shoot, as he was due to catch a flight. I quickly set up my equipment and was ready and waiting when Shatner entered the studio. In my mind, he’d always been a flamboyant character. But when I introduced myself, I realised that I’d been wrong. Rather than being brash and larger-than- life, Shatner is a very quietly spoken man of few words. Aware of the five minute window I had with him, I asked Shatner for a ‘plain’ expression. This was met with “I don’t do plain”, which wasn’t quite the response I’d hoped for. I quickly explained my reasoning - that as a character actor, the viewer needed a blank canvas on which to hang their own thoughts. No good, no bad, just an opportunity to view and assume. With my explanation, Shatner became more amiable. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and then looked up directly at the lens. Being able to direct an actor that I’d admired for many years was a great opportunity. Photography is about so much more than merely clicking the shutter and getting the lighting right. Successful images are about evoking a feeling, which is an impossible process without properly directing your sitters.
HIS REPUTATION AS THE INDUSTRY’S ‘GO-TO BAD GUY’ HAD PUT THE FEAR OF GOD IN ME...
Are there any differences between photographing actors and politicians?
To me, portraiture can be separated into several categories. As actors are representatives of our culture, I tend to photograph them more theatrically. However, politicians are figures in history. I like to capture them as plain and emotionless so that the public can make their own opinions and interpretations. Then the image has value as a historical source.
What’s your number one tip for portraiture?
It can be a mysterious world being behind the lens, both in film and photography. However, while films have their own dedicated director, as a portrait photographer you’re both a director and a camera- man all rolled into one. It’s my belief that when taking a portrait you need to be a director first and foremost. If you don’t direct your model then it’ll show in the picture itself. My portraits are a mirror image of my thoughts and feelings, reflected back out for the viewer’s interpretation. It takes a good actor who’s able to understand direction, feel what I’m feeling and portray what I’m trying to say to get the best portrait possible. I like to keep my subjects in continuous movement and direction. I teach a great deal of workshops and always encourage my delegates to direct their subjects. I want them to be able to introduce emotions and theatricality into their own portrait shoots.
What was the most difficult part of the project?
Assembling the sitters was a monumental task. It has taken years to arrange shoots to fit into the actors’ busy schedules, let alone then sorting out my own travel. For example, my sitting with Rufus Sewell took almost one year to arrange.
If you could give one piece of advice to budding photographers, what would it be?
Just be a photographer. I receive dozens of emails from young photographers asking if they can assist me. Confidence is crucial, but so many people lack it. Everyone should learn how to sell themselves and how to stand out in an oversaturated market.