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Photographer Rory Lewis on why his latest exhibition is all about Northerners


When photographer Rory Lewis embarked on a new project to celebrate famous faces and inspirational characters from the north, David Warner was at the top of his list. But the Manchester-born actor who starred in Time Bandits and Titanic proved elusive.

“I wrote letters, got no response, wrote more, rang his agent and in the end found out he was going to be at this sci-fi convention, so I wrote a letter to be handed to him there by courier. I got an email two weeks later to say ok, I’ll sit for you,” recalls Rory who’s from Chester and now separates his time between the UK and Los Angeles.

“It was the first shoot he’d done for 36 years. Before that, the last photographer was Cecil Beaton. It was nerve-wracking and although I had him for an hour, the shoot lasted 11 minutes.

“He said, ‘Don’t direct me’ and just asked what I wanted. I told him I’d like this nefarious character and he just went away put his head in his hand for a moment, came back and we got it in the first shot.”

Photo: Rory Lewis

The image is one of many Rory’s captured since 2012 as part of the project, titled Northerners, and the exhibition can now be viewed at Wex Photo Video near Piccadilly Station.

“People need to realise the north of England is responsible for an immense amount of history and the interesting characters and people who come from the north,” says Rory who didn’t start out with aspirations of career in photography.

Instead he studied history at university with the intention of becoming a lecturer. As time passed, he grew increasingly fascinated by old movies and captivated by the historical portraits he scrutinised as part of his studies. 

“I thought why can’t I do something interesting and theatrical and I just moved into photography,” explains Rory who’s self-taught and would get friends and family to sit for him before he “fell into fashion”. 

“It felt very fickle so I left that as fast as I could and then I started to do headshots. But I really wanted to do something for myself and that’s where the idea of Northerners came from.”

Photo: Rory Lewis

Among the faces adorning the wall is Bill Speakman from Altrincham, the former soldier who passed away last year. 

“He was awarded the Victoria Cross for holding his position in Korea. In the end, he threw empty beer bottles at the enemy, so he’s called the Beer Bottle VC. The photograph was done about two years ago, an incredible hero and chap,” says Rory.

There’s also a striking image of Major General Susan Ridge from Chester, the first woman to reach the rank of general in the British Army. 

“She’s a very inspirational woman who I encountered when I worked for two years with the British Army, photographing all the different regiments and characters and she stood out.”

Photo: Rory Lewis

Karl Pilkington, the Salford native who’s earned a legion of fans for his documentaries and deadpan delivery, is among the mix too.

“He turned up in his decorating clothes and said, ‘Our Suzanne has had me doing this. Is this a real photoshoot?’ And then he basically stood there and did the Karl Pilkington signature pose. Took me about 10 minutes and he was drinking a cup of tea while I was taking his picture.

“He’s very laidback, a proper Manchester lad.” 

With Sir Ian McKellen, who hails from Burnley, the portrait “was all about making him this theatrical person, coming out of the light and assuming this character almost,” says Rory.  

Photo: Rory Lewis

Elsewhere in the exhibit, you’ll find Sir Patrick Stewart (“I flew over to New York at my own expense. People thought I was crazy but it’s probably my most successful portrait”), Ian McShane, Beth Tweddle, Iain Glen and Stephen Graham.

Just a couple of weeks ago, he also took Ant and Dec’s photos, “the first two serious pictures of them in existence”.

“They were nice, ordinary guys and Ant was fine, cool as a cucumber. I did them jointly and separately. We’re under licence so can only use those two pictures and in that angle so Ant on the left and Dec on the right.”

Tony Blair, who was born in Edinburgh and has strong links to the north, also makes an appearance.

Photo: Rory Lewis

“He’s like a rock star. You go into the office and there’s an air of energy about him. David Cameron has it too,” says Rory who’s heavily influenced in his work by artists such as Rembrandt, Holbein and Caravaggio and hosts his own workshops.

“I always say to people you should make photography your own so whatever interests you, art, football, sports, just make it into your own medium. You’ll find a lot of historical aspects to my work, working with Tony Blair and trying to represent the history of that man in a portrait, or the Victoria Cross winner,” he explains. 

“When you look at one of my portraits, you see all the lines, all the marks, all the details on the face because I want people to look back on these images after I’m dead and go this is what Tony Blair really looked like, or this lady, or this man.

“So often images are photoshopped so you’re not seeing all the detail and the real person. When I take a picture, you’re seeing the real person.”

That said, if people book him to do their headshot, “of course I’m going to get rid of this or remove that because that’s what you’re paying me to do, and everyone is welcome to come and have their portrait taken or headshot done.

“But if I became immensely wealthy and could choose what I wanted to do, I would only shoot my own projects, and not accept any commissions. I’d just concentrate on the pure art of it.”

Rory’s 7 top photography tips:

  1. Try and compose your picture. Have a little discussion about it beforehand, don’t just snap away. 

2. Have a conversation with someone, or a coffee, and then take the picture. They’ll be more relaxed.

3. Try not to use too much negative space. If it’s a portrait, get close in on the subject. 

4. Look at art for inspiration and how other photographers present people.

5. Watch the sun. It’s the enemy and can disrupt your pictures so try and use shaded areas.

6. Try and use a decent camera. Don’t always rely on your smart phone, and don’t use too many filters either.

7. If you’re having your photo taken, try and relax. Don’t take it seriously. It’s all play, so try different expressions.

Northerners is open until 1st October at Wex Photo Video, Unit 4, Downing Street Industrial Estate.

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