Queen Elizabeth II is one of the most recognisable and loved people in the world. For ninety years she has been followed in her duties by official and unofficial event photographers and there’s an extensive catalogue of photographic images of the small diversions and momentous times in which she’s participated.
Born on 21st April 1926 at 17 Bruton Street, London to the Duke and Duchess of York this little girl was not expected to reign. Her father was a younger son, the reigning monarchs George V and Queen Mary expected their eldest son David, later King Edward VIII before his abdication, would take the throne. His rejection of duty threw Elizabeth’s father in to the limelight and suddenly from occasional staged event and party photography in polite society the York’s were jettisoned into the insatiable public arena.
During the Second World War the model family of George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Lilibet as she was known (as a toddler Elizabeth couldn’t pronounce her name) became the focus of reassuring stability for the nation and empire. Gone were the approved images from event photographers, the new style of photographs showed the royal war effort and finally when the war ended party photographers captured the celebrations of royals and non royals.
Wartime photographs of Elizabeth under vehicle bonnets are frequently used in tributes, they reinforce her sense of duty and pragmatism, of being part of society and not removed from it. These are not the images of a woman destined to be queen or glittering event photography but they show enduring important and respected sides to her nature.
In the 1940’s and 50’s images of Elizabeth were taken by party photographers and her public events were recorded but it was normally Princess Margaret who charmed the party photographers so this tends to suggest to the public that the Queen was always the serious sister but she had and has a fun loving nature.
Another aspect of Elizabeth was the young girl in love. Prince Philip of Greece was, in those days, viewed as a Scandinavian god and the spectacular event photography for their 20th November 1947 wedding was circulated around the globe as a clear signal that the good times were back.
At this time she was relatively normal, as much as you can be as a royal figure, she was a naval wife and mother and in Malta she joined in with day to day life and activities as if she were any other woman, some believe that this formed the happiest time of her life, certainly the least formal. In 1948 Prince Charles was born, in 1950 Princess Anne joined the family and with all due indulgence these private family events were recorded for the public so that they too could share in the joy of new life and another generation being added to the Windsor dynasty.
Tragedy struck in 1952 with the death of Elizabeth’s ailing father and on the 6th February 1952 the princess became Queen Elizabeth II, life would never be the same again. If the camera lens had loved her before her accession it barely left her side from the moment that she stepped off the aeroplane from Kenya where she’d been paying a visit, to take up her lifelong role. The photographs that contrasted between the joyful wife and mother and the duty laden grieving daughter are unforgettable.
The coronation in June 1953 provided some of the most familiar and enduring images of Elizabeth II and her family in their grandeur while the later images of Princes Andrew and Edward’s infancy in the 1960’s reminded people that these family events, although commonplace, were in her case nationally recorded moments which would be looked upon in the future like the 18th century portraits of royals, to discern their characters, family traits and the way that they wished to be depicted.
The Queen never flinches from the camera, whether it’s a state banquet, meeting another head of state, or a small gathering, photography, event photographers and the Queen are inevitably linked so that her life is forever visually documented.
Queen Elizabeth II had carried out over 15000 official engagements by the time she reached 87 years old and over 340 in 2015, and you can guarantee that there was an event photographer at each and every one. The Queen understands that photographs deliver her image around the world to make her real and accessible to people.
In one moment she’s the personification of duty, solemnity and respectful at a war memorial or smiling happily at a family wedding or christening or centre stage at thanksgiving events and in the next she is posing with statesmen and women and engaged in business and politics.
She’s reigned longer than any other monarch, during 12 Prime Minister’s tenures, from Churchill to Cameron, and met 12 of the 13 U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama (she never met Lyndon Johnson) and there will be a new President by 2017.
Press and event photography can also reinforce the light in which we regard her, as she watched Windsor Castle burn in 1992 she was an “ordinary” exhausted figure in a head scarf losing treasured possessions inspiring sympathy but at Princess Diana’s death she was the official figurehead as the nation demanded she sympathise.
Event photographers love it when she pulls a face, wears an odd outfit on tour or does something not quite regal, in informal moments her jaw might slacken or appear as if she’s sulking but that’s just the way her face settles in repose she says. It doesn’t stop the photographer. A party photographer will relish the sight of her dancing or the glint in her eyes when she’s playing with her grandchildren and great grandchildren and being “normal.”
She knows that it’s part of her life as queen to be photographed wherever she is, and that not all shots are entirely desirable. Bless her.
Happy 90th Birthday, Your Majesty.