As she prepares to launch her autobiography, top female photographer Gemma Levine talks to Katherine MacAlister about her life and work
Gemma Levine’s book says it all really, page after page of the most famous people on the planet, all lining up to have their portraits taken by one of the best female photographers of all time.
From Baroness Thatcher to Princess Diana, Dame Judi Dench to Sir Henry Moore, Sir John Gielgud to Sir John Major, they are there in their droves. And while their legends proceed them, Gemma Levine’s story is as fascinating: the famous sculptor Henry Moore discovering her and tucking her under his wing, nurturing her talent for 12 years until she was unleashed onto the world, capturing it in her own imitable style.
Always holding her own in a sea of male photographers, Gemma steadily made a name for herself with her story-telling photography which saw her publish 20 books.
Full of anecdotes and as alert now as she’s ever been, despite a two-year battle with cancer and the loss of her right arm, Gemma has finally published her memoirs – Just One More – complete with her favourite shots which she is launching at the Jaffe and Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton tomorrow for the Hope For Tomorrow charity, which runs mobile chemotherapy vans.
“I started writing the book before I had cancer and had to stop for obvious reasons because I was so unwell, but once that was done I got back to my memoirs, and having kept diairies my memories are very strong,” she says.
Surviving cancer was an added incentive Gemma says to finish the book, but then Gemma is a very determined woman, her ambition and tenacity, as much as her talent, seeing her rise to the top of her profession. “I remember arriving at the Royal Albert Hall to take a picture of Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, and there were 500 men already waiting there with cameras trying to get the coverage and I couldn’t get anywhere near so I crawled through their legs and got the shot. I earned £35 for that picture as well,” she says proudly. “But there is a Jewish word for it as well – chutzpah – it’s more than guts, it’s about having a sense of humour as well.”
Whittling down her photographs for her memoirs was hard however, her work falling into three categories, The Henry Moore years, her first commissioned series of photographs in Israel, “chalk and cheese with what I’d been doing until then,” and her portraits, ‘Faces Of the 80s’, ‘Faces of the 90s’, ‘Faces of Theatre’, and so on, which encompassed an enormous variety of the rich and famous: “They came from everywhere, sport, acting, food...,” Gemma remembers.
Her gift? Putting them at ease, listening to them, not being intimidated, making them laugh. “I adjusted John Major’s tie and he burst out laughing and that was the shot.” They could trust her, Gemma’s reputation proceeding her. And so the likes of playwright Sir `Jonathan Miller, actor Sir Anthony Hopkins and Prime Minister John Major were immortalised, “so many fabulous people,” Gemma sighs.
“I remember Samantha Fox, with her clothes on waiting outside my studio with Baron Langford on one side, who was very stuffy, and the chairman of Barclays Bank on the other, which made me smile. But I’ve always liked mixing people up.”
And who does Gemma get asked most about? “Princess Di – they always want to know what she was like and what she talked about. She was one of the most professional people I worked with but always had a twinkle in her eye.” Some subjects on the other hand, Gemma remembers for all the wrong reasons, Robert Maxwell for example being very “intimidating”, allowing her five seconds to take her shot and then telling her to get out.
When not in her London studio, Gemma retires home to Chipping Norton where she “keeps herself to herself” enjoying her garden, “tickling” the plants, cooking and having friends round and of course taking photos. Because even though she lost the use of one arm to cancer, Gemma uses her iPad now to capture the world as vividly as ever. “I couldn’t stop taking photographs if I tried,” she says simply, “so I’m very lucky really.”
Gemma Levine’s book launch of her new autobiography, Just One More… A Photographer's Memoir is on tomorrow at 6pm at Jaffe and Neale in Chipping Norton in aid of Hope For Tomorrow, the charity run by Christine Mills MBE. Call 01608 6461033 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your place.