Perhaps best known for his iconic images of Queen Elizabeth II, artist Chris Levine works with light to create expanded states of perception and awareness. In this episode of A Life Less Ordinary, Chris invites us into his London studio and explains how a childhood fascination with holograms informed his future career, and how his personal struggles led him to meditation which went on to influence his portraits of some of the most photographed women of all time. Chris also explains the serendipitous moment that led to his unusual portrayal of Her Majesty in ‘Lightness of Being’, a highlight of Sotheby’s upcoming Photographs sale (16 May | London). Click here to watch more Sotheby’s videos.
Read more about Levine's experiential discipline in this interview with the artist:
When did you begin considering yourself a light artist and embracing this unique medium?
I started exploring holograms at art school where it became clear it was a highly technical process and a laboratory exercise rather than a creative art form. Eventually it was the lasers used to make the holograms that really excited me. Laser light is very pure, single wavelengths on light that we don’t normally experience day to day. I remember seeing my first laser at the science museum as a kid and being spellbound.
What interests you about capturing subjects in meditative moments?
Increasingly my work and direction has been informed directly out of meditation. Stillness is a portal to the divine, and by taking my subjects towards stillness, it allows for a more soulful connection with the subject, and that light radiates in the work.
My process of distillation is kind of anti-style. It’s about touching the ephemeral, the infinite realm of the soul. Whilst I admire many artists, Kapoor, Hirst, Björk, ultimately I’m on my own trip.
Are there any artists in particular that have inspired your style?
I have an in-built mechanism to go into uncharted territory and make my work. My process of distillation is kind of anti-style. It’s about touching the ephemeral, the infinite realm of the soul. Whilst I admire many artists, Kapoor, Hirst, Björk, ultimately I’m on my own trip.
Your image of The Queen has garnered praise from institutions and photographers ranging from the National Portrait Gallery to Mario Testino. How did you achieve this intimate moment of stillness?
I was working in the yellow drawing room at Buckingham Palace which is where Her Majesty has sat for many portraits, as it has wonderful light. I blacked out the room and had a couple of small light works, one of which was an ultraviolet cross, and a candle burning. The atmosphere was serene.
The camera that shot the sequence of stereo images took a while to reset itself after each pass. Meanwhile The Queen was brightly lit, and I suggested to Ma’am she might rest between shots. It was during the moment between passes that we captured the image Lightness of Being. This was around the time I had been introduced to meditation and was very conscious of her breathing in order to capture a sense of calm in the work.
And you also styled her?
A week before the shoot I got a call from the Palace asking me what I’d like Her Majesty to wear for the portrait. Freak out. Who was I to suggest what The Queen would wear for my art? I then met with Angela Kelly, The Queen’s dresser and assistant. I looked towards simplicity, one line of pearls as opposed the usual three, a simple deep blue dress and a selection of capes, one of which was the ermine, that we could try on day of. I got to go through the Crown Jewels and chose the very beautiful Diadem because it was relatively understated. It was a surreal moment when she arrived for the sitting wearing the dress I’d decided on.
What was your goal for this series? How had you hoped to portray The Queen?
I set out to create an icon, and my attention was on creating just one powerful work that was worthy of the trust and faith shown to me. That work was Equanimity, which I titled with Her Majesty. At the time I had no idea that a body of work would transpire, as I was laser focused on the one image that I saw clearly in my mind’s eye. Even today I feel there is so much potential to further develop the work, but I drew a line and pressed pause.
You've captured the iconic Kate Moss, the elusive Banksy and many more. If not The Queen, who has been the most intimidating subject to shoot?
I wasn’t intimidated with The Queen but was very nervous. The expectations of the commissioning body were high, and I was left to my own devices to deliver. I think Ma’am felt my anxiety and was so completely obliging and a pleasure to work with. I was soon at ease. Shooting Grace Jones I was filled with fear and insecurities. She has been muse to some of the greatest image-makers, and my work had to stand up to everything that had been created of her to date. As it happens she was a delight to work with and just magical in front of the lens. She is pure poetry.
Any upcoming projects or shows you can share with us?
I’m developing a new body of work using laser, sacred geometry and meteorites. It will be presented in October during Frieze in London in a show called Inner (Deep) Space. Alongside this work is the iy_project, the collaborative sound and vision work born out of the Eden Project. I’m working with Rob Del Naja and Nick Mulvey on sound. The aim of the work is to take hundreds of people at a time into a meditative space using sound, light and nature, my humble way of making the world a lighter place.