ShinyShiny talks to artist Chris Levine about his work with Huawei

Artist Chris Levine with his ‘trademark’ eyes shut shot

Artist Chris Levine (pictured above) first came to the public eye in 2004 when he was commissioned by the Jersey Heritage Trust to create a holographic portrait of the Queen to mark 800 years of allegiance to to the crown by the island.

As part of the work, Chris had to take hundreds of images of the Queen where she was required to remain still for 8 seconds at a time. Between shots, Chris asked the Queen to rest by closing her eyes and in that moment captured the image of Her Majesty that he has perhaps become most famous for (see below).

ShinyShiny’s Editor Chris Price caught up with Chris Levine at Barcelona’s Metronom gallery during the launch of the Huawei P10 at Mobile World Congress (MWC). Levine was one of several artists exhibiting their photographic work, all of which had been shot entirely on the Chinese company’s new smartphone.

How did the partnership with phone company Huawei come about?

It came about through the Saatchi Gallery. I’d heard of the company but had absolutely no idea about the scale of the operation. They’re the third biggest smart phone manufacturer in the world with ambitions to be number one. Their positioning in arts and culture and the tie-in with Saatchi and (camera manufacturer) Leica is a great move.

You are probably best known for your high quality images of the Queen, including those with her eyes shut. Surely you can’t get the same quality from a camera phone?

My work is about light and I use cameras in my work if I’m making images. Light is the raw data of image. The beauty of the Huawei smartphone is that images are taken through a proper lens system. If you look around the work here at the gallery there’s some really nice pictures. When you consider they are all shot on a phone it’s pretty f***ing amazing.

One of my concerns was that you wouldn’t be able to replicate the studio environment with proper lighting?  How have you managed to do that with your images?

What I found is that there are really two layers to shooting a picture. You take the shot and then there’s a lot you can do inside the phone. Part of the brief that I received from Huawei for this exhibition was not to take the images into Photoshop but to do all the post production inside the phone. You can really make the picture come alive by capturing the raw image and then working with it on the phone.

Below: Some of the pictures that artist Chris Levine took with the Huawei P10 which were exhibited last week at the Metronom Gallery in Barcelona. 

So were you given a specific brief for these pictures in the exhibition?

They had to be within the realm of portraiture. The next phase of work I’m going to be shooting is capturing raw sensorial images of light without being so figurative and having a person in the portrait. It was a good challenge for me because with a lot of my work I’m either trying to take it out there, make it really experiential or take it to a point of stillness. At that point it becomes something much bigger and there’s more a spiritual dimension in the work.

Do you use some of the features on the phone like the beautification effect?

Yes I use all of them. They’re amazing. There was a portrait of me on the big screen – I wish I’d used the beautification feature on that shot! You can adjust the images so that you remove blemishes and make the teeth whiter. It’s an algorithm that runs through the whole process. It’s great to take photos with a phone that’s always in your pocket. I’ve genuinely enjoyed using it.

Be honest now. Do you really think the Huawei P10 has a better camera than any other smartphone?

Compared to any phone I’ve ever used it’s honestly in a different league. It’s like a game changer. I’ve got an iPhone 6, I haven’t got the iPhone 7, but I carry the iPhone6 around with the Huawei. I know that if I go out and want to take a picture I’m genuinely p****d off if I don’t have the Huawei with me. I love the fact that you can shoot an image and then vary the depth of field, the focus and how you want the background to be. I’ve been blown away by it.

Do you like technology generally?

I do and I use it a lot in my work. But the key is to get a soulful connection because with too much technology you can lose the soul. You need to keep an emotive connection even though there’s a lot of technology being used. I love Instagram, it’s the only social media I use now. I was on Facebook but I dropped it.

Do you think having a device that can create these effects somehow devalues what you do because anyone can now do it?

I think it means you have to keep it moving. One of the things I’ve been doing for some time is shooting in 3D. The images I shot of the Queen which are in the National Portrait Gallery are 3D works. You can shoot 3D using a smartphone. I recently shot Naomi Campbell in a sequence to be translated into 3D.

What is the next step for digital photography? Is it 3D imaging?

It’s difficult to say, but phones like this one from Huawei represent a significant step forwards. The results here at the exhibition you wouldn’t believe are taken on a phone. It’s a whole new world now. There’s no sending images away to get them developed. Having said there is a movement going back to film because there’s something about the chemical and creative process.

But I haven’t used film for a long time. I don’t really consider myself a photographer though I use cameras in my work if I’m making images. For me it’s about light as the raw data of image and how you might capture that. Really the most important thing to me is the light and the experience of seeing. I like to take people towards stillness.

The famous picture of Queen Elizabeth II with her eyes shut, as captured by Chris Levine

Is it this stillness that you were trying to capture in those famous images of the Queen with her eyes shut?

With that image I’d asked the Queen to rest in between shots because I had a camera moving along a rig and there was a lot of light on her so it was quite bright. But also I was just getting into meditation and I was pretty evangelical about it – I thought everyone should meditate. I was very conscious of her breathing so I was trying to time the camera to move according to her breath so the image would have that composure to it.

What was she like to work with?

She was great. A week before the shoot I got a call from Buckingham Palace asking what I’d like Her Majesty to wear. Up until then I’d been designing the shoot for her to come in wearing anything. So for the shoot she came in bang on time wearing the exact clothes that I had chosen for her which was quite surreal. I got to choose the crown, go through the crown jewels and also got to work with her dresser. I had a vision. I wanted one line of pearls and not three and I wanted the image to look really clean and iconographic.

Did it take long to get what you wanted?
Originally she was only going to give me one sitting to mark the 800th anniversary of Jersey being part of Britain. But then she gave me an extra sitting. All the material I published came from the second shoot because although I was quite happy with what I had in the can from the first sitting I was able to relax and make some subtle changes. The second setting was much easier. She really took a personal interest in the images too.

You can see Chris Levine talking about his work with The Queen in this interview with The Guardian below: 


Chris Price