ELIZABETH II AND CAMERA PRESS,
60 YEARS OF "GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT"
Born in 1926, Queen Elizabeth II of England is the only international figure to have been photographed for over 80 years by the world’s top photographers. Her official portraits thus cover half the history of the discipline.
These portraits reflect photography’s evolution from Pictorialism, with its in-studio application of academic codes, to such contemporary approaches as a radical use of flash.
Between these two extremes, the portraits of the Queen represent a broad range of photographic practices: from hand-painted images to the arrival of colour, with the latter long duplicated in black and white. The style gradually loosened up, with successive influences making themselves felt: Hollywood in the 1950s, the freedom allowed by the Kennedys and the fake “intimate” reportage, the fashion photography of the 60s and 70s, and contemporary photography, with ten photographers invited to Buckingham Palace in 2002.
Paradoxically this queen, so often described as a poor communicator, turns out to have quite a history in terms of mise en scène. There are no set times for the taking of the pictures, which mark official occasions, weddings, births and birthdays, visits to Commonwealth countries or a felt need for communication. During the Second World War, for example, the royal family was shown phlegmatically taking tea outdoors as bombs rained down on London; later came the future Queen’s enlistment in the army.
The photographers called on have been among the great names in portraiture: Tony Armstrong Jones, who would become Lord Snowdon when he married the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret; and Cecil Beaton, Yousuf Karsh, Baron, Lord Patrick Lichfield, Dorothy Wilding, pop star Bryan Adams and Prince Andrew, the Queen’s son.
The selection shown in Arles focuses on the portraits. There are few group pictures, even though, obviously, there exist many official photos of Her Majesty with other members of the family, and a host of reportage images. What interested us here was to limit the choice to prearranged photography sessions, for the most part at Buckingham Palace. The photographers do all their setting up in advance, with the Queen appearing for a few minutes for the taking of the pictures. The images are then handed over to her press department, which decides which of them should be used. The idea for this exhibition first had to receive approval from Buckingham Palace, which additionally consented to inclusion of a Jubilee image of the Queen sitting beside a collection of hunting boots – a photograph not released in 2002.
Since its founding by Hungarian photographer Tom Blau sixty years ago, the London agency Camera Press has enjoyed a privileged relationship with Buckingham Palace in terms of providing photographs for newspapers and magazines around the world.
For the exhibition marking the 60th birthday of Camera Press, it was decided to present black and white pictures as offered to the press before the agency’s archives were digitised. The colour images are recent digital prints from the original slides.
At the agency two delightful personalities, Donald Chapman and Roger Eldridge, have helped maintain the link with the Palace over the years. With their elaborate discretion, unfailing smiles and winning humour, they typify the French vision of the English gentleman. Donald indicates his age by saying he is two years older than the Queen – which makes him 83 – and keeps fit by drinking gin at lunch. Roger feigns ignorance as to why the Queen made him a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order. They have played a crucial part in ensuring that the official portraits are put into circulation “appropriately” by the agency. They have suggested photo opportunities and made appointments with photographers, but were never present when the pictures were taken. Along with the late Tom Blau, Donald Chapman and Roger Eldridge are maestros of the gentleman’s agreement.
François Hébel, curator.
Digital prints produced by Picto.
Exhibition created with the support of HP.