Rory Lewis never actually set out to become a photographer. A degree in medieval history and medieval literature from King’s College London doesn’t provide the most straightforward route into his current vocation, in fact it never even crossed his brain that he could put his skills to good use behind the camera. Rory maintains that history and art have always had a profound influence on his direction in life, so much so that he originally aspired to become a lecturer of history – led by a fascination in social change, conflict and political ideology. Perhaps this would explain the profound effect science-fiction would have during his formative years. It is a genre steeped in political discourse and social metaphors hidden behind a veil of robots, space-travel and dystopian overlords, all of which captivated Rory unlike any other genre.
Rory’s love for all things Star Trek, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 2001: A Space Odyssey would unwittingly lead him towards the lure of classical cinema – in particular the German Expressionist pieces Metropolis, Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Dr Caligari. From then on, he was an avid consumer of the art-form, a genre which proved to be, in spirit, the nucleus for the iconic film noir pictures of the early twentieth century.
German Expressionism lit a fire like no other in Rory’s stomach and while other teenage boys were concerning themselves with girls and the battling the frustrations of puberty, he became enthralled with the period’s cinematography, themes and visual effects. It didn’t take long for this passion to manifest itself as a sudden keen interest in photography. However, his love for the historical and political would not be quelled by this new-found interest – and eventually Rory would marry these two areas of study as one overwhelming passion; a passion which bordered on harmless obsession.
With a hunger to be creative and a longing to carve out his own niche of iconic photography, Rory began to take an interest in the history of political art, the foundations of portraiture. Focused on the classic Tudor portraits of old, ruffles, tunics and the stony stare of the period’s aristocrats would tickle his fancy like no other, and it was their oily likenesses that would compel Rory to create a similar style of his own.
While his passion brewed in the pit of his stomach, Rory worked weekends in a local electrical store, which gave him ample opportunity to play around with the latest computer and camera equipment. It was an Aladdin’s Cave full of gadgets and everything he could possibly ask for as a budding photographer – the tools of his craft were literally in the palms of his hands, right there to practice and hone his techniques.
Yet it wasn’t until the spring of 2004 that Rory would embark on a path that would eventually lead him to where he is today. After coming across a particularly striking cover of Digital Photographer, he decided enough was enough. Portraiture was his true calling and so he began to act upon it. It was this lone work of Eolo Perfido that finally gave Rory the push he needed. From that moment, lost in the stacks of his local WH Smith, he would begin to create his own stunning portraits. With one eye behind the lens and the other studying the works of portrait artists like Yousuf Karsh, Eve Arnold and Cecil Beaton, Rory started to assist other photographers, and in doing so, further his craft. It was at this point in his career where he learned the complexities of different light techniques and direction, and used his newfound knowledge to set up his own shoots. Relying on an uncanny gift for making his friends feel guilty enough to model for him, as well as the services of a modelling agency, Rory soon built up an impressive portfolio of amateur work that pleased his models and peers alike.
Finishing university in 2005, Rory returned to the North. Although a graduate position in an office threatened to dampen his passion for portraiture, the creative urge fought through and Rory longed to travel the world and experience new things – which is somewhat difficult when you find yourself behind a desk full-time. Balancing photography with the mundanity of his day job, Rory eventually found himself receiving commissions for his artistic proficiencies, shooting everything from model portfolios to advertising and campaign photography. This was his life for two years until he finally broke free of the confines and pursued his long-time passion as a viable living. In 2007, he burst out his office cubicle and jumped, like Charlie Bucket with a Golden Ticket clasped in his fist, right into his very own studio.
At first, this didn’t give Rory the complete freedom he desired in order to pursue portraiture, and he relied on commissioned work for a number of fashion brands and commercial clients to pay the bills. Alas, life as a professional photographer proved to be a disillusioning one. Rory’s work was becoming more and more commercialized and the endless parade of models – so devoid of experience, age or character – would often lead to dull and uninspiring photoshoots.
How could Rory fix this? He’d found himself jumping into the deep end as a photographer, throwing caution to the wind with the hope of finding a living that would burn as fiercely as his passion for science-fiction and German Expressionism. Instead he was stuck in a rut that made his photography as menial as his desk job. He longed to work with those who inspired him, people who were rich in expression and character.
It wasn’t until 2012 when things truly began to look up for Rory. First, he met his wife Alexandra on a photoshoot in Manchester. Then he, quite literally went all in. It was simply a case of now or never. If he didn’t get out of the fashion game now, he never would – and so Northerners was born. It was a photography project so bold and ambitious that it became almost unthinkable that Rory was to attempt such a feat. He wanted to capture the stars or stage and screen who had broken free from their Northern heritage and made a name for themselves as the pinnacle of their respective fields.
Through an inexorable amount of letter-writing, enough to make your hand cramp just thinking about it, Rory managed to coax the likes of the legendary Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and Brian Cox in front of the all-seeing eye of his trusty camera. One name in particular, Emmy winner David Warner, stands as a testament to the magnificence of Northerners. It is a little known fact that Warner, who also happens to be one of Rory’s personal heroes, hasn’t sat for a professional shoot since the mid-Sixties. Prior to that he had worked with some of the biggest names in portraiture – Cecil Beaton, Lord Snowdon and David Bailey – placing Rory among an elite few, all of whom he considers massive influences on his work. The resulting portrait now resides in the National Portrait Gallery, preserving Rory’s insurmountable talent alongside the very finest. The success of his exhibition saw his work plaster various facets of the national media, from newspapers to television. Was it a case of Rory simply punching well above his weight? Or was it the eventual recognition of a dormant photographer whose skill and creativity far exceeded that which his prior work suggested?
Life after Northerners, saw Rory’s style or portraiture look again to the annals of history for inspiration. Real people became his focus, the essence of humanity became his calling. He never forsook his hard-earned history degree, and it was a dive back into the masterpieces of renaissance portraiture that would guide Rory’s career in its latest phase. Studying the techniques of the artists of the time, he would apply them to his latest projects. On paper, he was Rory Lewis – Photograph Extraordinaire but in his heart he was still the history-loving geek from way back when.
Rory began to look to the future, seeing each portrait as a document; a time capsule that has the potential to hold the personality and soul of the sitter. It is his wild hope that, one day, historians will look to his work for clarification on the figures of our time.