Chris Levine’s meditative image of Queen Elizabeth II — who celebrates her Platinum Jubilee this year — demonstrates the enduring power of a great photograph to capture a fleeting moment and reveal a universe of possibilities, transforming time into a space for the imagination.
Levine, a Canadian artist best known for his holographic portraits and immersive laser and LED installations, is a virtuoso when it comes to using simple effects to elicit strong emotional responses in viewers. A prime example, Lightness of Being is often described as one of the most evocative portraits ever produced of a living monarch.
The backstory is as fascinating as it is fortuitous: In 2004, Levine was commissioned by the Jersey Heritage Trust to shoot a holographic image of Her Majesty to mark the 800th anniversary of the Channel Islands’ swearing allegiance to the crown.
Although the queen has sat for nearly a thousand portraits in her lifetime, Levine’s complicated production arrangements were unlike anything she had experienced before. No tripods or easels were used; instead, a camera affixed to a special track took rapid shots of her, in order to “build” a 3D rendition of her visage.
Conscious of the fact that the intense bursts of light — 200 every eight seconds — might affect her eyes, Levine ensured that Her Royal Highness had plenty of breaks. As she enjoyed a moment of rest, Levine instinctively captured this image of her on his still camera. The commissioned 3D work, which shows the queen with her eyes open, was displayed at Mont Orgueil castle in Jersey. The candid shot, however, remained in Levine’s private collection until 2011.
“A few years later, I was reviewing some of the outtakes, and I showed the image of Her Majesty with her eyes closed to [fashion photographer] Mario Testino,” Levine relates. “He said that it was the most beautiful picture of the queen he had ever seen, which was good enough for me! From this 2D picture, we computer generated a 3D version and made a light box for it. The work now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.”
Testino was no doubt struck by the softness of this very personal pose, which subverts the traditions of royal portraiture, showing the sovereign as inward thinking as opposed to outward gazing and presenting an idealized image of grandeur and responsibility. She’s more human, more vulnerable, and yet she remains icon-like, as Levine shifts the notion of stateliness to new transcendental realms.
By hand decorating this purple limited-edition screen-print with a delicate layer of shimmering Swarovski crystals, the artist adds luminosity to a Pop art aesthetic, imbuing the portrait with a sense of fun and exuberance that feels modern and relatable without forfeiting the reverential quality of his original shot.
“Someone once said that I have done to the queen what Andy Warhol did to Marilyn Monroe, and I really like that,” Levine says. “Ultimately, though, this screen-print, like the other versions I have produced, is about stillness and inner light. No matter what your feelings are towards the monarchy, Her Majesty’s equanimity brings a spiritual dimension to the work that touches people.”