Chris Levine on photographing the Queen: ‘When she left, I just lay on the floor’

Chris Levine was hired by the Jersey Heritage Trust to create a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II - National Portrait Gallery
Chris Levine recalls hanging out with Boy George, John Galliano, and a host of other celebs and watching the dazzling laser show he put on for Kate Moss' 40th birthday party in 2014. He began to chat with another guest who turned out to be Lord Cholmondeley. Owner of Houghton Hall, Norfolk, famous for its summer exhibitions, most recently Anish Kapoor, Richard Long and Damien Hirst. Cholmondeley was obviously impressed with Levine because when he decided to host Houghton's first winter art exhibition that year, he hired him to do it.
Who is Chris Levine? He is best known for Lightness of Being, his 2004 photo of the Queen with eyes closed that is a staple of the National Portrait Gallery, but there is much more to it than that. I went to see him in his studio in the old schoolhouse in a run-down dorm village somewhere in Hampshire. It seems an unlikely environment for a high-tech artist, but he and his family moved to the area to be near Bedales Children's School and he got tired of commuting to his London studio. Only a silver-colored delivery van parked outside suggests that there is excitement inside.
Levine comes out to greet me, a tousled puck who looks much younger than sixty-one and speaks nineteen to a dozen. The studio contains some of his prints that I recognize - the Queen, Kate Moss, Grace Jones, the Dalai Lama - but also, unsettlingly, a bright green laser light that runs around the wall and sometimes on his cheek. I wish he would turn it off but of course we're here to discuss his art and his art is all about light. He signs his emails with "Be Light!"
Levine likes to talk about the 528 Hz Love Frequency installation he is designing for Houghton Hall. The centerpiece is a huge sphere that is mounted on a tripod that stands higher than the house. During the day it uses natural light, but at night it will emit lasers - one aimed at the North Star - “So the configuration is essentially a cosmic work of art. And it will emit a sound beam on the solfeggio scale that goes into the chakras of the people below to put them in a meditative state. If everyone meditated, there would be no more wars. "
His torrent of conversation is a unique blend of science, art, and pure woo-woo - somewhere that ley lines and the Great Pyramid of Giza come into play - which is difficult to follow but strangely convincing. The art and science come from his parents - his father was an engineer, his mother a painter - but the woo-woo belongs to him alone. He was born in Canada because his father worked there, but returned to England when he was two. The family moved so often that by the age of eleven he had already attended ten different schools and found it difficult to always be the new boy. His most vivid memory is that when he was about nine years old he was taken to the Science Museum and completely bewitched by a hologram from Dennis Gabor, the inventor of holography.
Levine is known for his work with light, laser and holography - Rii Schroer
"You pushed the button and it was there and then it wasn't there," he says. "And I loved that moment when I had to ask what is real?" Levine has been addicted to holograms ever since. He was good at drawing, so he got a BA in Fine Arts from the Chelsea School of Art and an MA in Computer Graphics from Central St Martins, where he developed his interest in holography. Actually, he says, he was just waiting for his pop group Triangle to take off, but they never did - he was the drummer but could never find a place to practice because he was making so much noise.
So he stuck to holograms and did mostly advertising work because advertisers had the money to invest in experimental techniques. In 1986, he worked with hologram technicians at Loughborough University to create what was then the largest hologram in the world, the Michelin Man, 5 feet by 3 feet. But as his career began, so was his alcohol use (his father and grandfather were alcoholics) and he ended up in rehab. He had his last drink on May 29, 1989. "Since then, I've been looking for other ways to get high in my work."
He also discovered meditation. He "struggled" when a friend suggested doing a silent retreat in Kathmandu. There he learned about the Vipassana meditation, which he claims to have "saved my life". He has attended Vipassana retreats every year since then, but these days he goes to a center in Hereford rather than Kathmandu because he thinks Nepal was a bit of a distraction. Is his wife going with you? "No. Gardening is her form of meditation. But I really needed it. I think I would burn spontaneously today if I couldn't be quiet regularly."
His career was going well when he received a phone call in 2004 asking if he would like to do a portrait of the Queen. At first he thought it was a joke, but it wasn't - the Jersey Heritage Trust wanted to celebrate 800 years of the island's fidelity to the Crown, and apparently one of the curators had suggested it. He had a completely free hand and said the Queen would sit for him for an hour and a half in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace.
Angela Kelly, the Queen's assistant and dresser, asked what he would like to wear to Her Majesty. Levine specified a very plain plain dress and a selection of capes so he could change the look. But "when she put the ermine on, it was magical". He was also brought to the Royal Collection to select a crown and chose the same tiara that Lucian Freud had chosen for his own portrait of the queen in 2001. But on the morning of the shoot, the palace rang to ask if it really was? need the crown because there was a security problem - security guards were tied up with President Bush's visit. “And normally I would have said 'good' but something inside of me made me say I really needed it. So Angela Kelly just brought it over in a large jewelry box and set it on the mantelpiece, and when Her Majesty arrived she opened the box and set it in front of the mirror. I thought there would be a ceremony or a ritual, but not at all. "
Levine Prepares 528Hz Love Frequency Molecule for Houghton Hall - Michael Fung Photography
Levine had been instructed to explain to the Queen what he was doing because normally there was only an easel waiting for her, while now there were all these laser scanners and a camera on rails and a team of technicians. So he explained. “But she didn't reveal anything and it was kind of annoying because I thought, 'Is she getting this? Or am I dreaming? ’But I suppose she has this mechanism to protect herself - which earned me the title of“ equanimity ”. So we did the session and when she left the room I just lay on the floor and let out a sigh of relief. I was still there when one of her assistants walked in and said, 'Well, Your Majesty enjoyed that and if you want another session all you have to do is ask. "
The first session was good, but the second was better because he had the advantage in hindsight. He raised the camera angle and told Her Majesty not to look into the camera, but to look beyond it at a small ultraviolet cross that he had hung behind the camera. And most importantly, he told her to rest her eyes between takes. “For the 3D work, we had a camera that moved along a rail and took 200 images in seven seconds, and for that it had to stand still. Then there is a pause as we reset, recalibrate, and I suggested that she close her eyes to rest. And then I took the photo of her with my eyes closed, and that resonated, it went into pop culture. "
The open-eyed portrait, Equanimity, has been used by the Jersey Trust and on the cover of Time Magazine, but it is the closed-eyed queen, Lightness of Being, who has become an icon. The National Portrait Gallery calls it "the most evocative picture of a king by any artist" and it has been reproduced endlessly.
Has Levine ever resented being known as the Queen type? No, he says, he is grateful for the boost, but he hopes that people will gradually see and appreciate more of his work. Hence his enthusiasm for Houghton Hall. Of course, the Queen's portrait will be there too, along with some of his famous lightbox portraits, but the main event will be the giant light sculpture on the lawn. "Whatever I do, it will be the best laser show you've ever seen!"
Chris Levine, 528 Hz Love Frequency, will be at Houghton Hall, Norfolk on December 23rd (houghtonhall.com).
In this article:
Chris Levine
Artist
John Galliano
British fashion designer
Anish Kapoor
Indo-British contemporary artist
Boy george
English singer, songwriter, DJ, fashion designer, actor, photographer and record producer
Damien Hirst
English artist

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