Royalty – Framed – (Betrayed by their photographers)

Having just watched the second season of the crown, I was fascinated by the episode on Princess Margaret and the photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowden.  There is an interesting relationship between royalty and their photographers.  Perhaps this reached the zenith as Lady Dianna Spencer was killed in a car accident fleeing a pack of papparazzi.  I have put together a small collection of Royal photographs.  After reading the stories one is left wondering whether the Royal subjects were caught in the cross hairs of friendly or unfriendly fire.


Richard Avedon – The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Waldorf Astoria, suite 28A, New York, April 16, 1957 copy

This is what he did: When Avedon arrived at the appointment to photograph the Windsors, he got them seated just as he wanted them then told them a lie. He explained how, on his way to meet them, his taxi had accidentally run over a dog in the street and killed it. As the Windsors flinched with sympathetic horror, Avedon clicked the shutter – and caught their expression. Here is that photo.

The photograph caused an international sensation. Some said it made the Duchess look like a toad. British Royalists were outraged at the unflattering portrait. But Avedon defended lying to the couple to conceive the portrait, arguing that his photographs tended to show what people were really like.

If that was indeed true, the Windsors appeared to be two very dreadful people, a suspicion already aroused by their most ungracious familiarity with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies in the pre WWII years. While living in an elegant Paris home provided by the French government on a lavish income bestowed on them by the  British government, the Windsors regularly made pro-fascist remarks to the press as well as disparaging comments about their lack of loyalty to either of  their host countries, France and Britain. They palled around with British traitors like Oswald Mosley and wife Diana Mitford in the French countryside until the Duke’s brother, the reigning King George VI of the United Kingdom got wise to the danger and shipped them off to the Bahamas for the duration of the war.

Avedon once remarked that the Windsors loved dogs more than they loved Jews.



Princess Margaret by Lord Snowdon, 1967

The portrait of Margaret. The fourth episode of The Crown’s second season ends with a stunning image of Princess Margaret, a portrait taken by Armstrong-Jones in which she appears to be naked, and which she, in a fit of rebelliousness, sent to The Times of London to be splashed across the country. The photograph on The Crown is a faithful recreation of one of the most famous portraits of Princess Margaret, but there’s a catch: the real one was taken in 1967, when Armstrong-Jones and Margaret were already married and known as the Lord and Countess of Snowdon. Vanessa Kirby’s recreation of the portrait, though, remains stunning.


“I’m very much against photographs being framed and treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art. They aren’t. They should be seen in a magazine or a book and then be used to wrap up the fish and chucked away.” – Lord Snowdon

“I believe that photographs should be simple technically, and easy to look at. They shouldn’t be directed at other photographers; their point is to make ordinary people react – to laugh, or to see something they hadn’t taken in before, or to be touched. But not to wince, I think. One of the most glib things that anybody can do with a camera is to be cutting or sardonic.” – Lord Snowdon – 1958 [cited in: Creative Camera September 1968, p. 297]

The couple remained married sixteen years, some less than ideal. “They were both pretty strong-willed and accustomed to having their own way, so there were bound to be collisions,” according to biographer de Courcy. His work also consumed a great deal of time. “She expected her husband to be with her more, but one of Tony’s strongest motivations was work.”  The marriage was accompanied by drugs, alcohol and bizarre behaviour by both parties, such as Snowdon’s leaving lists between the pages of books the princess read for her to find, of “things I hate about you”.  They both engaged in affairs.   The marriage ended in divorce in 1978.[50]


Mario Testino’s portrait of Diana Princess of Wales – as used in Vanity Fair and later on the cover of Time magazine

1101970915_400One of Testino’s most memorable sittings to this day is his series with Diana, Princess of Wales. Commissioned for Vanity Fair in 1997, he said: “One of my greatest experiences in life was photographing Princess Diana. It’s not only that the experience itself was amazing, but she opened a door for me because I then started photographing the royal families of Europe extensively…this brings out my love for tradition, for a way of showing family and the longevity of people”. He has photographed many royals including The Prince of Wales, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, the King and Queen of Jordan and King and Queen of the Netherlands, among others.


Diana was a modern princess living on the cover of magazines and gracing the media with her charms.  Less wanted attention came from the Paparazzi an unorganized  group of independent photographers who took candid pictures of the Royals, typically going about their everyday life routines.

In 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed were killed in a limousine crash as their driver was speeding, trying to escape paparazzi. An inquest jury investigated the involvement of paparazzi in the incident, and although several paparazzi were taken into custody, no one was convicted. The official inquests into the accident attributed the causes to the speed and manner of driving of the Mercedes, as well as the following vehicles, and the impairment of the judgment of the Mercedes driver, Henri Paul, through alcohol.


Chris Levine, Lightness of Being, (2012)

Chris Levine is a light artist who works across many mediums in pursuit of an expanded state of perception and awareness through image and form. Levine’s work considers light not just as a core aspect of art, but of human experience more widely and a spiritual, meditative and philosophical edge permeates his work. Levine is perhaps best known for producing what is already being described as one of the most iconic images of the twenty-first century, Lightness of Being. With light and stillness at its core, the sensational portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II presents an utterly fresh depiction of the most famous woman in the world. The National Portrait Gallery stated it was the most evocative image of a royal by any artist.

“I wanted the Queen to feel peaceful,” wrote Levine of the photo in the Guardian, “so I asked her to rest between shots; this was a moment of stillness that just happened.” Levine took this striking image of Queen Elizabeth, full of the gravity of old age and a decades-long reign, in 2004, to mark 800 years of allegiance to the crown by the Island of Jersey. “It has such an aura about it,” he wrote, “a power.”


I can’t help but think that the Queen looks old and tired in this photograph.  It is perhaps not a flattering portrait.  The Queen has been the subject of a number of unflattering portraits, perhaps the most famous being the painting by Lucien Freud (right).  I am left wondering, “What is the role of the portraitist?”  There seems to be a tension.  Do they portray what the subject wants to show of themselves.  Or do they look below the surface to see what they dare not reveal to the world.