Chris Levine on creating his iconic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II: ‘I was the wild card’
Ahead of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, we spoke to artist Chris Levine about the making of his iconic hologram portraits of Her Majesty. He reflects on two years of preparation, that fateful day in Buckingham Palace, and Lightness of Being, the outtake that almost outshone the original
Multidisciplinary artist Chris Levine is known for the sort of technical art wizardry that leaves jaws dropped, minds boggled and eyes dazzled. During a career spanning photography, installation, design, music and fashion, he’s collaborated with the likes of Grace Jones and Massive Attack and captured the likeness of everyone from Kate Moss to the Dalai Lama in his distinctive lightbox format.
But he’s perhaps best known for one of the most astonishing portraits of Queen Elizabeth II ever made, commissioned to mark Jersey’s 800-year of allegiance to the Crown in 2004. More recognisable still is an image that emerged from an outtake from said commission. Lightness of Being captured the monarch with her eyes closed as she rested between shots. The resulting hologram is meditative, ethereal and hyper-contemporary, and in the long and fruitful history of Royal portraiture, is entirely remarkable.
Wallpaper*: When you were first commissioned to photograph the Queen by the Jersey Heritage Trust, what was your response?
Chris Levine: I got a call out of the blue and honestly thought it was a friend pulling my leg. I’d shot rock stars and been asked to record Indian gurus but the Queen seemed far fetched. It was only when I was summoned to a meeting at the National Portrait Gallery with [former director] Charles Saumarez Smith and the Jersey Heritage Trust that it all became very real.
The portrait commission was to mark 800 years since the island of Jersey broke away from France and pledged allegiance to the Crown. It turns out I was the wild card in a shortlist of well-known artists put forward to Jersey by the artist Gordon Young, who was appointed to curate the historic commission.
W* How much time did you have to prepare, and how did you prepare?
CL: A date was set in the diary giving me some two years to prepare for the shoot. I had a lot of time to process the conceptual development and what I wanted to achieve. I considered a number of different light-based approaches from LED screen, electroluminescent film, different forms of holograms and laser etching in crystal.
I envisaged that there would be a lot of input from the Palace and commissioning body as to what needed to be conveyed in the work. I thought there would be a need for props and visual elements of suggestion, for instance, the three leopards of Jersey, or Mont Orgueil in the background. As it happened it was all left entirely to me including what Her Majesty wore. A week before the shoot I got a call from Angela Kelly [the Queen’s personal assistant and senior dresser] to ask what I’d like Her Majesty to wear. I got to style my subject, which involved going through a selection of clothes and selecting the Diadem from the Crown Jewels.
W*: Do you remember how you felt on that day in Buckingham Palace?
CL: We had three days in the Yellow Drawing Room to set up the equipment. I had been quite blasé about the shoot until the day of the sitting and became very nervous. We had just one sitting and we had to get it in the can. There was a lot that could go wrong and we were convinced there was some kind of electronic interference in the room that was messing with our electronics. George Bush was staying at the Palace and we wondered if there was some surveillance technology causing the interference. Luckily it resolved itself just before the Queen arrived. She was wearing the dress I’d been holding up two days previously when I told Angela I think this is the one. That was a surreal moment.
W* What did the technical side of the commission involve?
CL: Much of my work is collaborative on a technical level. I can look at what my visual and artistic objectives are and select the best people to execute my vision. I’d worked on a lot of hologram designs and a handful of pulsed laser portraits with Rob Munday and Jeff Robb and chose them as my technical team and the camera was custom-built by them. In the end, I worked with Dr John Perry in the US to make the final large-format holographic stereogram that was unveiled by Prince Charles at the Jersey Museum.
W*: Lightness of Being, depicting the Queen with her eyes closed, was made years later based on an outtake from the Equanimity portraits. How did this come about, and why do you think it still resonates?
CL: To shoot [in] 3D we used a digital camera that moved along a linear track in front of the Queen. I had a normal still camera positioned at the centre of the track to shoot reference images from the central position of the track. Because I also recorded 3D data scans of Ma’am, one of my potential post-production directions was to texture-map a photo from the reference camera onto the computer model.
There was a lot of light on Ma’am while we were shooting and each pass of the moving camera took a while to reposition and recalibrate. I was concerned that it was uncomfortable between passes and suggested to Ma’am that she rested between shots. She closed her eyes and we captured the moment. Some years later, I was reviewing the outtakes from the sittings and came across the shot and was blown away. I immediately put a filter on it and the piece was made. It’s as if I channelled it. The only tweak I made to it was to the colour of the lipstick and I gave it a contemporary spin.
I think that with the eyes closed it somehow takes the viewer into a spiritual realm and from there it touches people. It goes beyond the physical and conveys a sense of lightness, of being. The title came to me in meditation. Mario Testino told me it was the most beautiful image of the Queen he’d ever seen and inspired me to show it to the world. My exhibition ‘Lightness of Being’ was in 2008 and the rest was history. The NPG said it was the most evocative image of a royal by any artist. §