The Diverse Practice of Rory Carnegie

Sarah Wiseman Gallery
May 11, 2018 12:44PM

Rory Carnegie is an internationally acclaimed photographer based in Oxford. His ever-developing artistic practice ranges from politically-engaged reportage to fashion photography and multi-layered landscapes and animal portraits. His work has most recently been on show in 2018 in a touring exhibition, Invisible People, commissioned by the National Crime Agency.

Carnegie first picked up a camera aged thirteen but never took photography seriously until he travelled South America before studying History at university. His photographs were soon published for the first time, and consequently Rory spent most of his degree working in the darkroom. Having never studied photography formally, he worked as a photographer’s assistant and developed his practice and techniques over the following years.

Rory describes his practice as addressing “how humans and other animals respond to changes in their living and working environment often brought about by factors for which they are not directly responsible”. The themes explored in his work are often political in this sense, and have included topics as broad as the economic destabilisation of the Soviet Bloc, and the impact of out-of-town retail development in the UK. Many of Carnegie’s photographic series, however, are more personal and are inspired both by his local surroundings in Oxford and his travels around the world.

In 2007, the artist published his works in a book ““How the World Came to Oxford: Refugee Stories Past and Present”, featuring photographs and interviews with refugees who have made their home in Oxford after fleeing their home countries. The book celebrates these remarkable people and their experiences, exploring how they have become an important part of who we all are. The book followed a long-term teaching project with young asylum seekers which also brought together refugees from pre-War Europe and those from more recent conflicts.

Such is Carnegie’s diverse practice, in 2013 his Mannequin series was shortlisted as a finalist for the Sony World Photography Awards, in the fashion category. This particular portraiture series revisits a scene from the film Blade Runner, as the artist explores our relationship with mannequins and dolls as children, and the subsequent development in our creativity and imagination. He does this by taking a historical approach, using clothes and visual references from the 1970s when there was an enthusiasm for all things synthetic.

Around this time, Rory began and continued to experiment with multiple exposure photographs and produced his highly successful Port Meadow Dogs series. Prompted by the death of his beloved lurcher dog, the artist realised that he had few photographs that linked his dog and Port Meadow, Oxford, where they had both spent so much time. Photographing other dogs that he met on his walks through the historic and uncultivated meadow, Carnegie took this as an opportunity to develop his interest in creating deep, rich and multi-layered photographs that draw the viewer in. Having noted that the ‘slippery’ surfaces of digital images have a tendency to squash and flatten their subject matter, Carnegie layers the dog portraits over photographs of Port Meadow as well as other landscapes from different locations, each differing in opacity. He sees this as a process that invites the viewer to uncover the layers of the image for themselves, as if it were an archaeological dig. Despite conflict at the time regarding building developments on the vast common land, Carnegie insists that these photographs are not political.

Easter Rocket at Port Meadow, Rory Carnegie

Animals play a large role in much of Rory’s work, and further series such as “Long Ago and Far Away” continue to develop this multi-layered technique. Photographing horses and other animals, the photographs take on an ethereal and painterly quality, referencing 18th Century oil paintings such as those by George Stubbs. This painterly quality is not something the artist says was planned, but has come as a natural evolution in his practice. These works also allow Carnegie to explore ideas of the native and alien, as he transports animals into settings different from their natural habitats. Despite this, there is a great balance and elegance to these photographs.

Most recently, Carnegie has been commissioned by the National Crime Agency to feature works in a 2018 touring exhibition, Invisible People. Seeking to raise awareness on modern slavery, Carnegie uses friends, models and actors to recreate images of otherwise hidden scenes of exploitation and forced labour. Conveying, above all, what is it like to be a victim of this network of slavery, the artist also shows how these people might use different coping strategies to deal with their situations. He sees the commission as a natural extension to his previous work with refugees in Oxford, and adds, “That image in itself does not explain the disgusting living conditions, the absence of pay and the other iniquitous and evil aspects of modern slavery. These victims might not be living in chains, but they are living amongst us.”

Photograph from Invisible People, National Crime Agency

Rory Carnegie continues to make both political and personal work, juggling varied artistic interests while developing his own style and techniques. Many of his multi-layered animal portraits are currently available as editions.

Sarah Wiseman Gallery