How a photo of Golda Meir made former Hasmonean pupil Gemma Levine a celebrity photographer

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

How a photo of Golda Meir made former Hasmonean pupil Gemma Levine a celebrity photographer

The 80-year old has published 27 books and exhibited all over the world

Gemma Levine
Gemma Levine

Rifling through the bookshelves in my local charity shop in Stamford Hill, my eyes alighted on a book titled Just One More by Gemma Levine. A quick Google search revealed that she’s a photographer, now in her 80s, who has published some 27 books and has exhibited her images extensively worldwide.

She’s had several exhibitions in Israel, including at the Jerusalem Theatre and Tel Aviv Museum, and her entire archive in Israel is housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She’s visited Israel on many occasions and has a great affinity for the land. Her heartfelt photographic images of the country and the people of Israel have been prominently displayed at a prestigious London venue. She’s also produced beautiful large-scale coffee table books on Mayfair (where she currently lives) and Claridge’s hotel.

Having acquired a number of her books, I emailed her enquiring whether she would kindly sign my copies. She responded immediately, overwhelmed by my admiration, wanting to frame my letter and suggesting that we meet at her Mayfair flat. I was keen to find out more about the person behind the lens.

Chutzpah isn’t usually a word you would use to describe the requisites of a professional photographer. Expressions such as “an eye for a picture” and “the ability to be in the right place at the right time” come to mind. Levine has all of these and more, but you don’t get to photograph Princess Diana, prime ministers and doyens of sports, stage and screen by offering them merely your technical ability. It’s not even a matter of who you know. For Levine, it’s always been how can she insinuate herself into a position where the celebrity actually wants to be photographed by her.

Born in 1939 in North London, Levine attended Hasmonean grammar school. There’s something of a parallel between her youthful introduction to photography and my own childhood efforts. We both possessed rudimentary Kodak cameras, and while I took black-and-white summer holiday snaps of the beach and windbreakers on the Belgian coast, she was taking colour landscape images of the rural London suburbs. She met her husband at Hillel House, part of London University (I knew that well, too), marrying in 1961 at West Hampstead Synagogue. Having already toured Israel at 17 with the Zemel Choir, of which she was a member, she arranged for the choir to sing at the chuppah.

In 1974 she was asked to assist a local photographer at the Royal Albert Hall, where Golda Meir was appearing. Armed with her basic Instamatic, she crawled between the legs of the crowd of photojournalists, securing a couple of images of the former prime minister. One of these photos was published in a daily newspaper, and that spring boarded her whole career.

The following year, while on holiday in Israel, she daringly telephoned Moshe Dayan and secured an invitation to his home in Tzahala, completing the photo session with her newly acquired Olympus camera. On showing these photographs to another contact, the publisher George Weidenfeld, she was commissioned to return to Israel.

Moshe Dayan

The fruits of many repeat trips over seven years were two books with major personalities. In Moshe Dayan’s Living with the Bible (1978), Dayan, a keen amateur archaeologist, explores his findings in the context of familiar biblical texts. Israel Faces and Places (also 1978) was prefaced by Golda Meir, following Levine’s spontaneous request. At her Rehavia home, Meir served her tea and home-baked fairy cakes. Although Meir was ill, Levine wanted her to be the first to see the published book and took it to her hospital bedside. Meir died two months later. Levine also collaborated with Yehuda Avner (one of Golda Meir’s speech writers) in The Young Inheritors (1982), a moving portrait of Israel’s younger generation.

In 1976, having heard about British sculptor Henry Moore from a friend, she wrote to him on impulse, hoping to learn from him about art. She estimated it would take about a week to complete her photographic assignment. In the event, her three books on Moore were published over a period of almost 10 years. From him she learned about definition and shadows, light and shade, and also the ability to become “part of the furniture,” blending in with her subject, all of which served her well throughout her long career. It was Moore who coined the epithet Gemmalevine (all one word), thinking it was her first name.

Dame Judi Dench

Now a well-established worldwide photographer of major celebrities, Levine has produced a number of portrait books, such as Faces of the ’80s and People of the ’90s. She also negotiated extended access to the famous Claridge’s hotel in London for Claridge’s – Within the Image (2004). Here again, chutzpah magic came to the fore. Without anywhere to live while her newly acquired next-door apartment was being refurbished, she offered herself to Claridge’s as “photographer in residence” in exchange for bed and breakfast. In the event, she was allocated a luxury suite and spent some months photographing the hotel staff and guests for her book.

Throughout her professional career, Levine has donated the proceeds of the majority of her books to charitable causes: Faces of the ’80s for the Sharon Allen Leukemia Trust (Sharon was a nine-year-old girl with leukemia), People of the ’90s for the Malcom Sargent Cancer Fund for Children, and Memories (1998) for the Alzheimer’s Disease Society. She has staged concerts and launched charity campaigns for many other worthy charities.

Gold Meir

In 2010, Levine was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently with lymphoedema (localised tissue swelling caused by an accumulation of fluid usually drained by the body’s lymphatic system), which has somewhat impaired her ability to deal with the logistics of taking photographs.

She has, nevertheless, continued to publish, writing on her cancer experience (Go with the Flow, 2012) and, with a medical expert, the definitive guide to lymphoedema (Let’s Talk Lymphoedema, 2017), offering advice and support for sufferers. Bringing it all together is Golden Threads (2022), with proceeds going to Lymphoedema Research, in which she shares the emotions and memories of her interaction with the many well-known people who have sat at the other end of her lens. In May of this year she arranged a huge fundraiser for lymphoedema at Claridge’s, with the hotel and a number of distinguished personalities, including Dames Judi Dench and Joanna Lumley together with Simon Callow, volunteering their services to the cause.

Princess Diana

I came away intoxicated that I had met an exceptional talent. Not only that, but Levine is as kind and generous a person as you could hope to meet. It’s refreshing to know that, in this sometimes impersonal world in which we live, there are still people out there who really care.

If you would like to make a donation to Gemma Levine’s charity, the Lymphoedema Research Fund,

A version of this article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report and is reproduced with kind permission. 




Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: