‘Diana was fantastic, Thatcher oozed power & Golda Meir baked me cakes’

‘Diana was fantastic, Thatcher oozed power & Golda Meir baked me cakes’

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Gemma Levine has taken many iconic images during her 40-year career. She tells Francine Wolfisz about some of her greatest subjects.

Gemma Levine: Thatcher 'oozed power'
Gemma Levine: Thatcher ‘oozed power’

Armed with just a Kodak Instamatic, when Gemma Levine looked through the small viewfinder and clicked, little did she realise she was about to record an historic moment.

The year was 1976 and the keen amateur photographer had turned up with her mother at Harvey Nichols to see Edward Heath signing copies of his latest book, Sailing.

But the event was interrupted by an urgent call from Downing Street announcing that Prime Minister Harold Wilson had just resigned.

A Daily Express reporter noticed Levine had been clicking away and asked if he could bike the film over to Fleet Street straight away. The next day, her photograph of Heath receiving the call appeared on the front page.

The former Hasmonean High School student recalls: “That gave me a terrific thrill. I thought: ‘Gosh, if I can do that, what else could I do?’” She never looked back.

Her signature black-and-white photographs have appeared in newspapers, books and magazines and more than 60 exhibitions around the world, including a 2001 celebration of her work at the National Portrait Gallery.

Now her career, spanning nearly 40 years, is celebrated in her latest book, Just One More…A Photographer’s Memoir, published earlier this month.

The London-based photographer, who grew up in Cricklewood, estimates she has photographed more than 1,000 key figures from the world of entertainment, sport, politics and popular culture.

“John Gielgud, Richard Branson, Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, Topol, John Mortimer, Joanna Lumley, Judi Dench, Nigel Hawthorne, Parkinson, Terry Waite – I could go on forever!” she laughs.


Gemma Levine's portrait of former Israeli Prime Minister
Gemma Levine’s portrait of former Israeli Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher was at first intimidating “because she oozed power,” but Levine confesses to a soft spot for the Iron Lady. “She was very straight, very direct and I liked that.”

Princess Diana photographed by Gemma Levine
Princess Diana photographed by Gemma Levine

Another famous subject was Diana and the resulting shot was chosen as the Princess’s official photograph of 1995. Levine describes that encounter as “fantastic” and adds: “She was so easy, because she was so professional. She was the most photographed woman in the world at the time.

“Diana knew how to sit, how to pose, how to turn her head by a minute fraction of an inch. I asked if she would remove her jewellery and it was simplicity itself. I liked that shot very much, because Diana was very relaxed with me.”

Her career also took her to Israel and between 1974 and 1978 she photographed the country’s landscape and its people, including Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir.

Of the latter, Levine affectionately recalls how, upon arriving at her Rehavia home, Meir brought out a selection of fairy cakes she had specially baked that morning. She struck up a close friendship with the former prime minister, who she asked to write the foreword to her book, Israel: Faces and Places.

“When the book was finished, Golda was dying in hospital and I was allowed to go to see her. She sat up in bed and flipped through it with a smile. Then she signed it, ‘In admiration, Golda Meir’. That will stay with me forever.”

Just One More…A Photographer’s Memoir by Gemma Levine is published by Elliott & Thompson, priced £25

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