Life & Culture

A life in pictures with the background fully explained

INTERVIEW: Gemma Levine


Photographer Gemma Levine has a word for getting what she wants — chutzpah. For 40 years she has applied that chutzpah to gain unprecedented access to some of the world’s most famous faces, resulting in some memorable encounters and iconic images.

She has chatted about the royal sons with the Princess of Wales while the latter changed clothes for a shoot. And Levine was later invited back to Kensington Palace. She has basked in the sun at the private residence of Moshe Dayan — then Israel’s defence minister — who soon after their meeting asked her to illustrate his book Living With The Bible. She has charmed Sir John Gielgud to remain in her studio way beyond the allotted time, meaning that the theatrical great missed a date with the dentist. “His personality was so absorbing, I couldn’t let him go,” she recalls by way of explanation.

These stories and more appear in Levine’s new memoir, Just One More, a snapshot of her career.

Proving the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, the 74-year-old frames each featured photo with an anecdote, offering the reader a rare glimpse of life behind the lens.

Who would have known, for example, the circumstance in which she gained her invitation to Moshe Dayan’s garden that sunny afternoon in 1974?

“Someone had told me I would never get his photograph,” Levine recalls. “Well, when someone says ‘you’ll never’, off I go like a bull against a rag. I phoned his office and, for some unknown reason, they put me through to him. But he refused to pose for any pictures and hung up. By chance a few days later, I saw him coming through the revolving doors of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I walked up to him and told him how he had brushed me off. That following weekend, I was sitting in his home with camera in hand.”

Born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Levine’s earliest memories are of running to nearby bomb shelters. After the war, she attended Hasmonean High School, before meeting her future husband when 19 at London University’s Hillel House. But it took some time before her love of art became her career, helped in no small measure by the sculptor Henry Moore who, having accepted her request to meet him in 1976, became her “mentor”.

Together they produced three books, with Levine documenting Moore’s work — both behind the scenes and the finished sculptures — for more than a decade. This period forms the first section of her memoir and is considered by Levine to be the time her life changed most dramatically.

But while Moore nurtured Levine’s talents, it is clear from reading the book that Israel supplied her canvas. The book’s second section, titled Journeys Through Israel, covers geography and history, with subject matter ranging from faceless tribes and desert mountains to prime ministers and presidents. The image of President Jimmy Carter with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Jerusalem follows that of a Bedouin man baking pitta bread on an open stove.

“Over the years, I met people in Israel from so many different walks of life and of so many different religions,” Levine says. “Of course I fell in love with it.” She hopes her pictures offer a different impression of the country — one at odds with the image conveyed by critics.

“The ordinary British person reads the newspaper and believes one story,” she says. “But if they actually picked themselves up and went for a visit, they would have a very different view. You have to see it for yourself, but I hope my photographs help.”

Having published 20 photography books during her career, Levine only discovered a love of writing two years ago when, diagnosed with breast cancer, she penned a book to describe her experiences.

Taking the title Go With The Flow from advice given to her by emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the book offered practical advice, guidance and humour to fellow cancer patients.

On a personal level, it became Levine’s “saviour during a time of illness”, inspiring her to open up her diaries and continue writing.

Indeed, the irony of an “old-fashioned” photographer illustrating her stories with words is not lost on Levine. Could it be that today — when “selfies” are ubiquitous and anyone with an iPhone can be considered a photographer — she has had to resort to a different medium? She takes the point.

“It’s chalk and cheese to how it used to be,” she says. “Everyone is used to having their photographs taken now. It’s all so frenetic and frantic, with people clicking away on their phones all the time. It’s a whole other world to me.”

For Levine, a photograph is the result of a “wonderful connection” between two people. But anyone contemplating turning the camera back on her should be warned. “I hate having my photograph taken,” she says. “Hate it, hate it, hate it.”

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