Rocketman at 50
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Elton John has described photography as his greatest passion outside music – his collection of modernist works had its own Tate Modern exhibition in 2016. But the pop star is less enthusiastic about being in front of the lens. “I’m not mad about sitting for portraits, as anyone who has photographed me knows,” says the 76-year old.
Nevertheless, certain occasions have required chronicling. “My career-defining performance at Dodger Stadium shot by my long-time friend Terry O’Neill – and the David LaChapelle image for my current Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour” are two that he singles out. “I also had the honour of having my portrait taken by both Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.”
This year marks another career-defining moment. July sees the musician wrap his last-ever tour, “Farewell Yellow Brick Road”, marking his retirement from 50 years of performing that have seen him play more than 4,000 concerts – an average of 80 gigs a year – which makes him one of the most prolific live acts in history. Although some raised an eyebrow at John’s announcement – American singer Smokey Robinson noted that John has declared he will retire no less than five times over the years – this tour will include a momentous gig: his first performance at Glastonbury, where he will headline the Pyramid stage on Sunday night.
To mark the occasion, John wanted to “do something innovative in portraiture”. Chris Levine, the Canadian-born light artist known for using lasers and 3D camera technology, and who has captured personalities such as Queen Elizabeth II, Kate Moss and Grace Jones, was a clear choice. “Chris’s use of colour and light, his breaking of rules, inspired me,” says John.
The pair had first met back in 2016 at the opening of The Radical Eye, the Tate exhibition showcasing John’s photography collection. “I gave him a big hug,” says Levine. “We both stopped drinking [at] the same sort of time, and I knew he had some of my work. So it was just a really nice connection.” Two years later, Levine was approached by the Elton John Aids Foundation, the charity founded in 1992 with the goal of ending the Aids epidemic, to see if he would donate a photograph to its annual Academy Awards Viewing Party auction, a gala that raises funds to support the Foundation’s work providing 100 million people with education, prevention, treatment and support across 90 countries. Levine’s fluorescent-pink silkscreen portrait of Elizabeth II, studded with Swarovski crystals and sprinkled with diamond dust, went for six figures – and he has continued to donate works ever since. “They really are making a difference,” he says of the charity, which has raised more than $565mn over the years. “They’re taking a lot of stigma out of [having Aids].”
It was a thrill when Levine received the commission. He had been a fan of John’s music since his teenage years, and “wore out” his vinyl of 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “I don’t often get starstruck, but Elton is something special,” he says. “There’s a magic around him.”
He prepared John using his customary method: inducing a state of supreme calm. “I get them into a meditative state if I can,” he says. He asks his subjects to look at a cross-shaped light while a camera passes in front of them, producing a 3D image. He adapts the process depending on the sitter. For the late Queen Elizabeth II, he used candles and incense sticks. Emma Thompson simply wanted to chat, allowing Levine to capture her in a rainbow of emotions for a recent New Yorker profile. For John, he took a sonic approach. “I had a Bluetooth speaker emitting 136.1Hz” – the om frequency. “It has to do with the vibration of the earth. It’s very calming”.
Elton John had envisioned an image that would both commemorate the end of an era while celebrating his ongoing work as a recording artist: his synth-pop single “Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)” with Dua Lipa (a mash-up of four of his previous tracks, including “Rocket Man”) hit number one when it dropped in summer 2021. “My life is in such a great place right now,” he says. “I’m coming to the end of my final world tour after 50 incredible years on the road, and feel excited about what the next phase will bring. I hoped the image would capture that.”
The result sees John sitting and smiling, wearing pink sunglasses, a Gucci blazer embroidered with a flower and his name, his hands resting on pink, Gucci-print-covered knees. It recalls a school-graduation portrait, or a photograph of an astronaut seated for take off (Levine titled it Rocketman). The light artist has produced multiple iterations, deploying fluorescent inks and diamond dust. A 3D lightbox version sold at the Oscars party this March for $100,000. “With Elton you can’t crank it up too much,” chuckles Levine. “The more sparkle, the more effervescent you can get – the better.” A fitting tribute to a glittering career.