What I saw

Posted in comrades, Photography, Portraiture, Spanish Civil War by Deputy city editor on July 21, 2007


Comrades. Jubilee Gardens, South Bank, London, 21 July 2007.  Annual commemoration, International Brigade Memorial Trust.

The lioness in winter

With this triumphant image of the Queen, Annie Leibovitz has produced one of the great photographic portraits of all time.

The Queen has been astonishing us for years with her sang froid, Miss Leibovitz with her pictures.

Leibovitz’s genius is proven again and again as even a quick review of her work here will show. So here is an epic confrontation between two mythological women, whose backgrounds could not be more different. Leibovitz, self-made artist; Her Majesty, Queen by virtue of genetic and circumstantial accident. The result has exceeded the wildest expectations. It is a seductive and extraordinary portrait made under the most fascinating of circumstances.

The questions I ask are whether Miss Leibovitz’s portrait of Her Majesty may be not just her greatest picture but in the pantheon of the greatest portrait photographs ever taken? Whether this picture may be more revealing, than even could be Her Majesty nude, by Lucien Freud? And finally, is she wearing matching underwear under all that schmutter?

The circumstances of the photograph are notorious and the subject of much current media coverage (which if you are not already thoroughly bored with it, can be tasted here in a piece by Torrin Douglas). As is now known, the Queen had not long before had a little hissy fit in the corridor where – partly one suspects, showing off to the BBC crew that was filming her – she made the comment that she was getting fed up with dressing up this way.

I suspect this was a perfectly accurate summation of her actual feelings. Witty, because it is true. The Queen has been a valiant trooper for many years, sitting for portraits by artists great and usually small. So for once, she allowed herself the privilege of pique. Perhaps to be later regretted. She is, after all, 81.

Nevertheless, as it always does, duty called and she proceeded to the apartment where Miss Leibovitz waited with her crew.

One of the things that will be really fascinating about the BBC documentary in which we are to see this event, when it is aired, and if the sequences are seen in the right order, is to see what really happened when Annie met Elizabeth. (They had met previously at a reception, following which the Queen agreed to sit for the American artist.) This time Miss Leibovitz had her cameras and crew; the monarch her ceremonial robes and her crown intact. “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”

Miss Leibovitz has remained silent on the affair but I suspect the Queen will have been one of the most challenging of all her subjects if not the most cantankerous. With the minefield of protocol to be negotiated, even allowing for Miss Leibovitz to take advantage of the fact that she is American, the advantage was always going to be with the monarch.

Until she tells her story, and we see what the BBC has got, reconstruction of what happened depends on limited information. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the taking of the actual picture are almost as interesting as the picture itself. The result of these circumstances is rich.

This is the story of two powerful women – each in their own way dependent on image – encountering one another in frankly bizarre circumstances. Here is the one struggling to reconcile duty, grandeur and a desire to collapse into a dressing gown and a pair of slips, and the other, an artist determined to put her own stamp on the situation, to control her subject, and to produce a picture as good as the singular opportunity presented by its subject. We see two women, under pressure, with the Queen perhaps losing her cool, but Miss Leibovitz emerging the winner.

Practiced in control, almost jaded with the process of portraiture, the Queen nevertheless enters this session slightly handicapped – or flustered, perhaps. The state robes are heavy and uncomfortable. For all their weight and importance, they are ever so slightly – absurd. She is a woman who would rather be with her horses and dogs than a smart-aleck New Yorker photographer.

The Queen finally gets to the photo shoot, accompanied by a rabble of BBC cameraman, a soundman, probably a producer, maybe others knowing the BBC, plus her own footman and a lady-in-waiting. She finally gets to sit down, to see this mad-looking American woman with big hair, with her own crew of technicians and tens of thousands of pounds of apparatus, in a gilted corner of Buckingham Palace.

The Queen knows something of Miss Leibovitz from Vanity Fair, one might presume, even if she may have had to ask one of her ladies-in-waiting whether this Susan Sontag had ever been presented. Miss Leibovitz, one might presume, has some stage fright of her own. But she is strong. She likes to be in control. It is an accident that by merely politely attempting to put herself in control of her shoot, she pours salt in exactly the relevant wound.

Suggesting the Queen remove her crown (diadem, actually), seemed to reopen in the mind of the Queen the question of why she was dressed in this absurd get-up and having put it all on, she wasn’t about to start taking it off. I think most of us might say: Quite so, Ma’am. So Miss Leibovitz was (unintentionally) waving a red flag at a bull. So, this is the mis en scene for the meeting of these two.

Miss Leibovitz, who had immediately noticed the beauty of Her Majesty’s hair, may have lost the battle of the wardrobe, or the headgear, anyway, but not the war to capture the Queen offguard. Indeed, the Queen was now just a little rattled.

According to the latest and preumably accurate time sequence reported by the BBC, this is when Miss Leibovitz takes the photograph above. (Obviously, this image is much more impressive is print than in feeble low-bandwidth representation on the Internet.)

Although it might seem the Queen has taken control, by means of refusing Miss Leibovitz’s request, the exchange, and the events in the corridor of which presumably Miss Leibovitz had no knowledge, has opened a space for an entirely exceptional and revealing as well as beautiful and technically dazzling image.

Leibovitz gives us a Queen unsettled in multidimensions of time and space. She is between darkness and light, great age and crafty youth, captured in a time itself literally and metaphorically frozen. It is a photograph in layers, in three dimensions, with the third dimension being time, because this Queen also radiates from within her armour propre the time when she was not a queen but just a little girl, with no expectation of monarchy.

In this photograph, one can detect if not quite see, in the zone between and in front of the eyes, a glimpse of Lillabet the naughty girl, the child who is already conscious and slightly ashamed of her power.

The Queen has voiced what normally she keeps to herself, and knows now she would have behaved better biting her tongue. Instead she has been petulant. A show-off. And rude. She has perturbed Miss Leibovitz, she fears. Here is the Queen in conflict – the naughty girl, the considerate monarch, the woman of duty.

On the other side, there is a photographer, at the height of her powers, who is feeling the jangle of a subject who is already tricky and not cooperating, and of a photo session where she is at risk of losing control. Control, absolute control, is what lies at the soul of the power of Miss Leibovitz’s greatest work. Where she has it, and controls every pixel of the image, her work is transcendental. Where it is lacking in such exactitude, she still often manages results of great brilliance, but not in the same dimension. Here, Leibovitz has lost control (the Queen’s refusal to remove her crown) but Leibovitz has nonetheless managed to exploit her subject’s mood, to produce something we have never seen before.

The photographer is experienced – she has photographed many of the greatest personalities of her time. But The Queen of England would not have been routine for her. Slightly unsettling, I suspect, even for as tough a cookie as Miss Leibovitz.

And the result is a picture of the Queen – but also of naughty Lillabet. It is the part petulant, part defiant childishness in Her Majesty’s expression that to me is truly the startling element in Miss Leibovitz’s photograph. It is the conflict of a childish, natural, wholesome villainy and the crush of duty and responsibility, and of a monarch who is made of both.

This story of this photograph has been one in which newspapers and columnists have striven to produce the greatest howls of outrage at the perfidy of the BBC. So it goes.

In the visceral BBC bashing that followed, the media as usual missed the greatest story – which is that the result of all of this hugger mugger in the palace is the greatest picture of the Queen, one of the greatest pictures (against stiff competition) ever taken by one of our most fabulous photographers, and a candidate by any criteria for one of the great photographs of all time.

* Wackiness has been a characteristic of English royals for a long time having been introduced with the fecund Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France who was mad as a cat. As was the Queen’s second cousin, Lillian Bowes Lyon.