Gemma Levine - portrait of a photographer


Gemma Levine, many of whose portrait photographs have appeared in the Jewish Chronicle over the years, and who has produced several books, has now brought together a number of her best photographs in a memoir about her professional life.

Levine was a married mother-of-two who first took up photography seriously after a dinner-party meeting with a publisher who agreed to use her pictures on his book jackets. Thereafter, a number of opportunities came her way as a result of connections of which few can boast. Charles Forte, who helped her find a publisher, was a client of her husband’s; she bumped into Marcia Falkender, private secretary to Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the Royal Opera House. She also displayed tremendous confidence, phoning up Moshe Dayan when in Israel to request that he sit for her; crawling under a number of press photographers to get a good snap of Golda Meir.

As Levine herself says, she is someone who has profitably learnt to grasp the moment.
She relates how, when young, she and her husband rode in a carriage through the streets of New York with Frank Sinatra, who serenaded them with New York, New York. “If I had been then the person I am now,” she reflects, “I would have left the carriage that night with a contract in my hand for a new book and a dozen wonderful black-and-white photographs of this incredible man.’ She certainly didn’t allow many other opportunities to pass her by.

In the memoir, the black-and-white photographs are divided into three main sections. Her first books were about sculptor Henry Moore, then, following a successful session with Moshe Dayan, she worked on books on Israel and finally became best known as a portrait photographer of celebrities.

Many of the stories she tells about the sittings are hugely enjoyable. Some of the sitters lived up to diva status. Elaine Paige sent a list of requirements before her session; Ben Kingsley complained when she wrote to him without addressing him as “Sir”. But, as another famous sitter, the late Sir David Frost commented: “A good photographer must like people and be liked by the people she photographs.” In Gemma Levine’s case, many seem to have become good friends.

So, what of the photographs? The most successful, I find, are those where the sitter is placed against a plain background avoiding any distraction. Notably, too, Levine often captures her sitters off-centre, which introduces an effectively striking asymmetry. One favourite is of a young, shy MP called Tony Blair, whom she photographed with the clock tower of Big Ben rising directly behind him. The light appears to give him a halo as he looks to the future. A few years later, Levine photographed him as Prime Minister and he appears far more confident and relaxed.

One minor gripe is that, in some places, the chronology is awry. Thus, on one page we read about Levine having lunch with Princess Diana at Kensington Palace and a few pages later hear of the first time she met the Princess.

However, the combination of photographs and vignettes about their making results in both an enjoyable read and an opportunity to admire some fine photographic portraits.

Gemma Levine also writes about her recent diagnosis with breast cancer and how she is now unfortunately not able to hold her camera. But this not a woman to let things stand in her way and I have no doubt that she will find another way to continue her career

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