Many artists perceive power in movement. Photographer and visual artist Chris Levine seeks to illuminate the power inherent in stillness.
His larger-than-life subjects — which include Queen Elizabeth II and singer Grace Jones — might be among the most photographed people in the world, but Levine has a knack for capturing them at rest, as if in the calm of a storm. “Every opportunity I got [to shoot a portrait], I tried to distill it back to just pure essence without any suggestion or iconography or anything,” he told TIME during a recent visit to his studio in Oxfordshire, England, ahead of his solo retrospective show at The Fine Art Society on May 17. “I’m experimenting with that and trying to get stillness in the image.”
He says the challenge as a photographer is to distance himself from the idea of his subject and focus on the person he has right in front of his lens. In a recent sitting with Kate Moss, Levine says he was determined to ignore Kate Moss, the supermodel, and instead tried “to bring her back, just to Kate – Kate, Kate, Kate.” In doing this, he manages to take one of the fashion world’s most recognizable faces and show it in a new light.
Which may explain why an artist who largely focuses on lights, lasers and holography — as Levine has done since his student days at London’s Chelsea School of Art; his light installations will be included in the retrospective at The Fine Art Society — has made a name for himself in recent years for his portraits. The Canadian-born Brit, now 41, says that he never expected to be shooting icons at this stage in his career. In fact, back in 2004, when he received a call from Buckingham Palace asking him to shoot a portrait of the Queen, Levine initially thought it was a prank. “I thought it was a hoax at first! Seriously, I really did. It just seemed so far-fetched.”
Once Levine was sufficiently convinced that it was not a ruse but a Royal request, he went to work preparing lights and equipment, wanting to put his knowledge of light and holography to use capturing the monarch in a truly modern fashion. Setting up the visual light equipment in Buckingham Palace took Levine about three days – “and it took every second,” he recalls – and the shoot itself took about an hour and a half. However, the resulting images, including Lightness of Being as well as the shot selected for TIME’s cover on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, are arresting and timeless.
“I think [these images] struck such a chord because it’s going somewhere into a more spiritual dimension and into a deeper realm,” he says. ”It’s what we are but people don’t very often connect with it.”
Chris Levine: Light 3.142 is on display from May 17 to June 15, 2013 at The Fine Art Society in London.
Chris Levine is a Canadian born light artist based in the United Kingdom.
Megan Gibson is a writer and reporter at the London bureau of TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeganJGibson.