Chris Levine on Photographing Queen Elizabeth II

By Sotheby's
As Chris Levine's Queen Elizabeth II / 1926–2022 goes on sale at Sotheby's, we speak to the artist about the process of creating an iconic image of the most famous woman in the world.

Sotheby's: Let's start with your training and influences, how did you first get into photography?

Chris Levine: My father always had the latest camera gadget and I grew up with photography around us. At Chelsea School of Art I started to use photography in my creative process as a means of image capture. Much of my work then involved montages and image manipulation in the dark room where the camera was secondary. Whilst my photographic work has become quite well known, I don’t consider myself a photographer - I’m an artist who uses photography when relevant to my visual objectives. The work I do with light, the more experiential side of things is more difficult to define so the label of photographer by default seems so often the way.

Your Lightness of Being image of Queen Elizabeth II is what you are perhaps best known for. How did the sitting with the queen come about? Who approached who?

The year 2004 marked 800 years of allegiance to the crown by the Island of Jersey. It was the sculptor Gordon Young who was appointed by Jersey Heritage Trust to curate the commission of a modern portrait to mark this historic occasion. Gordon was familiar with my work in light and holograms and I think I was a wild card candidate for the commission.


Queen Elizabeth II was one of the most famous faces on the planet, did you feel that you had a lot to live up to for your shot?

It was daunting, the most portrayed woman in history and the subject of so many seminal artists. I wanted to make a portrait that was an evolutionary step forward from all that had been created to date. It was a challenge to which I applied my heart and soul.

How did you feel meeting her for the first time and whereabouts did the session take place?

In the few weeks leading up to the shoot I became extremely nervous as there had amounted a lot of expectation from Jersey. Up until then I had been quite relaxed - it was just a project. The sittings took place in the Yellow Drawing Room where she sat for most formal portraits. I met her for the first time at the Palace just prior to the sitting when she arrived wearing the clothes, jewellery and crown that I had chosen the week before and that moment was surreal. I got to style the queen which to this day I have to pinch myself that it really happened.

Was she familiar with your work?

The queen said to me when we first met that she understood I liked to experiment with light in my work. I think she had been given an overview of my work on her desk to prepare her for the unusual sitting.

Chris Levine, Queen Elizabeth II / 1926-2022.

You have photographed a number of other well-known subjects and sitters, including Kate Moss. How did working with Queen Elizabeth compare with these other subjects?

She was a seasoned and highly professional model. She was completely obliging and was very patient with the 3D image capture process I was using. I had a candle burning in the room and a light sculpture of an ultra violet cross helped set the scene. As with all my portraits, it’s about achieving stillness and the truth that is revealed when there is this state of serenity.

Your photograph of Queen Elizabeth II has been universally praised - including the photographer Mario Testino famously calling it the most beautiful image of the queen he had ever seen. What sort of response did you have from the Royal Household?

The response around the world was astonishing and though I knew the work was special I hadn’t expected such unanimous positivity. It is policy that she did not make official comment about formal portraits but I think the fact she gave me a second sitting and two private audiences that were not originally scheduled, was testament to the fact she had enjoyed the experience and respected the work. I made a small edit and we chose the final image together that I would develop into the final work. I wanted her to feel comfortable about the image with no surprises. However, it’s true to say that Lightness of Being was an outtake and its original purpose was to use it as a texture map onto a 3D computer model that we scanned of her in the first sitting. As far as I am aware the first time she saw Lightness of Being was, to my horror, on the cover of a national newspaper magazine. I had wrongly assumed that the Palace, if not the queen directly, had given permission for its publication.

Are there other members of the Royal Family that you would like to photograph?

I did have an enthusiastic conversation with Prince William about the idea of a family portrait. Of course it’s something I’d love to do. I’ve put it out to the universe… so let’s see!

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