Assignment 4 – ‘A picture is worth 1000 words’
In this essay, I will look at the photo taken by Annie Leibowitz of Queen Elizabeth II and her grandchildren as part of her 90th birthday celebration. I will look at the whole context of the image; including the photographer and the image’s background, as well as including my own interpretation of it.
As previously mentioned, for the Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday celebration, Annie Leibovitz was asked to take a series of photographs to mark the occasion. The Queen herself had the ideas for the shoot that she wanted, and being very enthralled with her family wanted a photograph with her youngest grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The photograph was taken in the green drawing room at Windsor in April 2016. The Queen seated in the regal looking room surrounded by the young children, including Princess Charlotte on her lap and Mia Tindall proudly holding her handbag by her side. It is clear that Leibovitz used her charm of making people feel wholly comfortable and natural and previous research into how to photograph the Queen and her family to ensure the “perfect” image.
The Queen is not unused to having her photograph taken in this way. Cecil Beaton was the royal photographer for the Queen’s coronation, and when her children were born. He captured her just being a mum and doing what comes naturally to her.
This image by Leibovitz shows just that. An almost endearing side of the Queen, not the all-powerful monarch that we as a nation look up to, but making her look just like a regular grandmother, surrounded by the youngest members of her family. The irony within this, and within the photograph, is the setting of it; taken in a room filled with gold plated mirrors, lamps and sofas, definitely not like a “normal” living room. Having this as a setting creates a distance between the viewer and the family within it, we do not feel any kind of empathy towards the subjects as they are in a situation that we cannot fully understand.
Group portrait sittings of the royals are not a new concept. Queen Victoria would often sit for paintings by Franz Xaver Winterhalter with her children surrounding her. These were often depicted with the queen herself seated in the middle and her children playing in the area around her, they would always be wearing regal clothing, and have a background that didn’t fit the relaxed nature of the sitters.
The clothing within the Leibovitz photo is interesting in that they are not of a modern style. Agreeably, they are not in formal regal clothing, the queen is not wearing her crown (much unlike Leibovitz’ previous photographs of the queen for her Jubilee year), as the studium would suggest they should be, none of them are dressed in what one would call a 21st century style. This adds to the suggestion of although it may feel like a traditional family portrait, it certainly separates the royal family from an ordinary family.
I as a viewer find it difficult to fully appreciate this as a natural family photograph, which is what I feel they were trying to achieve by including the children. Obviously the image has been staged, all the children are fully aware of the photographer (and probably an assistant – as some of them are looking slightly off camera), all of them are standing in the same way, and have been posed in a way that we as an audience are clearly able to see them all. Their poses are rigid and the smiles and faces do not feel completely natural. To some extent the photograph looks like it could be made of a number of different images, there is no interaction between the children and their grandmother, apart from Charlotte being on the Queen’s lap. The person that really draws me into the image is Mia Tindall. The way she is holding the bag, and looking very proud of herself gives a sense of normality to the image, as this could be something that a grandchild would do with her grandmother’s handbag.
Although this photograph was a part of a series released for the celebration, this (and the others), could all work well as a standalone image. There is no narrative that is trying to be constructed here, as it is a posed image.
In conclusion, no matter how staged or un-natural this photograph may feel to the viewer, it is an image of the Queen and her family that is not one that we see on a regular basis. The royal family are a successful institution, and the public will always buy into them, and what they produce without question.