Queens and Looking Glasses

My own notions about Queens are largely based on those of Lewis Carroll (an interesting photographer in several ways) in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland‘ and its sequel. Queens – like the Queen of Hearts in the Dormouse’s tale were apt to come out with “Off with his head!” at the slightest provocation.

So I was shocked to hear on the BBC News one morning this week, that photographer Annie Leibovitz had dared to tell the Queen to off her tiara, and surprised that her maj’s reported response was as mild as saying “I’m orf” (shouldn’t it have been “We are orf” or perhaps “One’s orf”? At the very least Annie would surely have ended up spending a night or two in the Tower of London.

So it came as no surprise to learn that the whole thing appears to have been an ill-advised publicity stunt, using a clever bit of cutting, or that, having carefully allowed the story to play to maximum effect, the big bosses of the Beeb were down on their knees grovelling for the royal pardon.

It’s a sad story. The BBC, and in particular its ‘World Service’, has a proud record that has led to it being a trusted around the world – and listened to in many situations, even at times and places when it was illegal. TV has of course its own needs to present constant noise and controversy, frenetic and demotic, that at times override sense and taste, and always sacrifices subtlety.

For those with a little knowledge of photographic history, there was a certain sense of the similar, remembering the famous image of Winston Churchill, taken by Karsh immediately after he had apparently snatched Winston’s trademark cigar from his mouth, and there was baby without his dummy glaring into the camera, apparently on the edge of bursting into tears.

At least Annie wasn’t said to have snatched the tiara – and once anchored by the Queen’s hairdresser this would probably have taken some doing (and headlines ‘Annie Scalps Queen’). The pictures she made aren’t bad, if perhaps not her best work. But good portraits don’t always arise from making your subject comfortable, and some well-known for the apparent psychological depth of their images have taken quite different approaches. Paul Strand is said to have told his subjects where to stand and then to appear to have ignored them, although obviously he was waiting for the expression or stance that he wanted.

I thought a little about this yesterday, when another photographer butted in (perhaps unintentionally) while I was setting up a photograph and proceeded to give all of the people in it clear and precise directions as to what to do. Well, it isn’t the way I like to work, though of course I do sometimes need to attract people’s attention, and I like to work with people and let them react to me and what I do, but not to direct them.

Peter Marshall

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