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photo of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, March 28, 2007, by Annie Leibovitz
photo of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, March 28, 2007, by Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz photographed Queen Elizabeth. Here’s what she had to say about that experience.
Excerpted from Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz, published by Random House © 2008

The Queen

In 2007, a few weeks before Queen Elizabeth visited the United States for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, I was asked to take her portrait. I was the first American to be asked by the Palace to make an official portrait of the Queen, which was very flattering. I felt honored. I also felt that because I was an American I had an advantage over every other photographer or painter who had made a portrait of her. It was O.K. for me to be reverent. The British are conflicted about what they think of the monarch. If a British portraitist is reverent, he’s perceived to be doting. I could do something traditional.

It’s ironic that the sitting with the Queen became controversial. I’m rather proud of having been in control of a complicated shoot. The controversy arose about two months after the pictures were published, when the BBC claimed that the Queen had walked out while we were shooting. This was completely untrue, and although they retracted the claim and issued an apology to the Queen and to me almost immediately, the scandal had a life of its own. The story, which came to be referred to as Queengate, wouldn’t die. Eventually the head of BBC One resigned over it.

When I was preparing for the shoot, I thought about using the landscape around Balmoral Castle, in Scotland. I brought this up in the very first conference call with the Palace. I said that Americans thought of the Queen as an outdoorswoman. I had been influenced by Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen and I couldn’t help mentioning how much I liked her character in that film. There was a long silence on the other end of the line.

The second idea I had, after Balmoral, was to photograph the Queen on horseback. I asked where she rode and they said she went riding every Saturday at Windsor Castle. I said that I would love to see her in her riding clothes, and in a later conversation I asked if she could stop during her weekend ride and get off her horse and mount it again. That is, could I do a portrait of her in the trees. They said, No, it was not possible. She just rode the horse and came back, and, anyway, she didn’t wear riding clothes anymore. A few days later they said it was going to be Buckingham Palace and no horses.

I realized that I was going to need some time on the ground for this. When we arrived in London, we went straight to the palace and were shown all the rooms, including the throne room—everywhere except the private quarters. And then we scouted the back. There was a wintery sky and the trees didn’t have leaves. It was an appropriate mood for this moment in the Queen’s life. There was no way, however, that she was going to stand outside in formal attire.

For a sitting like this you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You try to have as many options as possible. I kept thinking that somehow I would get the Queen outside, but I began choosing formal outfits. I narrowed the robes down to a very handsome Order of the Garter cape, but then we were told that she could wear only a white dress under it. We were lobbying for a gold dress. I was also hoping for a dress with more body to it. The Queen wears very streamlined dresses now that she’s older, and I wanted her in something with more volume. But she didn’t have anything like that. Finally everyone agreed that she could wear a gold-and-white dress under the Order of the Garter robe. The Queen was 80 years old. She was sturdy, but putting on and taking off a lot of heavy clothes is tiring, and she had to be dressed in layers to expedite things. The gold-white dress became the base.

I was still upset that I couldn’t get her outside. It was so beautiful out there. And it wasn’t cold or raining or anything. I began thinking about what Cecil Beaton had done. He brought in flowered backdrops. Beaton was big on backdrops. He made very stagy portraits. Perhaps because the pictures were made in black and white you don’t notice the backdrops. They sort of go out of focus. I realized that I could do something similar digitally. I decided to photograph the garden and the trees for a backdrop.

The Palace had given us 25 minutes with the Queen, so there had to be a battle plan. I chose a grand reception room, the White Drawing Room, as the principal setting because of the light from the tall windows. Supplementary lights had been pre-set so that when the Queen moved from one spot to another all we needed to do was switch them on. We had constructed a gray canvas backdrop in an anteroom, and she was to come in there wearing the Order of the Garter robe and the dress, but no tiara. The first shot was to be made on a balcony, with the sky behind her. That sky could be digitally exchanged later for the pictures I had taken in the gardens the day before. I didn’t want her to be wearing a tiara in the gardens.

The morning of the shoot, the Queen came walking down the hall very purposefully. She was definitely a force. This was all being taped by the BBC for a documentary. I would never have agreed to their being there if I felt I had any choice, but they had been following her around for months. Their microphone picked up her saying, “I’ve had enough of dressing like this, thank you very much,” as she marched down the hall. Later, when segments of footage for the BBC were edited for a promotional film, it appeared as if the Queen were stomping out of the photo session rather than going into it. Thus the brouhaha.

The Queen was about 20 minutes late, which we thought was a little strange. When that happens, you never know if it can be made up on the other end. My five-year-old daughter, Sarah, had come with us, and she curtsied and offered the Queen flowers, and I introduced my team. At this point I was in shock. The Queen had the tiara on. That was not the plan. It was supposed to be added later. The dresser knew that. The Queen started saying, “I don’t have much time. I don’t have much time,” and I took her to the first setup and showed her the pictures of the gardens. I think she understood what we had in mind. Then I walked her into the drawing room, probably sooner than I would have if things had been going well. She composed herself when I took some pictures.

I knew how tight everything was, especially with the loss of 20 minutes, and I asked the Queen if she would remove the tiara. (I used the word “crown,” which was a faux pas.) I suggested that a less dressy look might be better. And she said, “Less dressy! What do you think this is?” I thought she was being funny. English humor. But I noticed that the dresser and everyone else who had been working with her were staying about 20 feet away from her.

We removed the big robe, and I took the picture of the Queen looking out the window, and then I said, Listen, I was a little thrown when you first came in, and I have one more picture I’d like to try, with an admiral’s boat cloak. I was thinking of one of Cecil Beaton’s last pictures of the Queen. A very stark and simple and strong portrait in which she’s wearing a boat cloak. We went back into the anteroom, where the gray canvas backdrop had been set up, and she took off the tiara and put on the cloak. That’s the shot we digitally imposed on pictures of the garden.

Right after we finished, I went up to the press secretary and said how much I loved the Queen. How feisty she was. Later I mentioned to a couple of friends that she had been a bit cranky, but it was nothing unusual. What was remarkable about the shoot, and I wrote the Queen a note about this later, was something the BBC missed: her resolve, her devotion to duty. She stayed until I said it was over. Until I said, “Thank you.” We were finished a little before our allotted 25 minutes were up.

 

Readers, for more on this episode, read my post, “The Queen is Mad.”

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