08 diciembre 2015

Of Princes, Duchesses and a Posh Little Cardie


This is a BBC radio 4 interview of Arthur Edwards, the Sun newspaper’s royal photographer recorded on Nov. 30th, 2015 for Today Programme on the occasion of Kensington Palace releasing pictures of Princess Charlotte taken by her mother, the Duchess of Cambridge.
While the interviewer seems to be trying to lead Mr. Edwards to say he is now out of a job as a royal photographer, Edwards has nothing but kind comments towards Kate Middleton and goes on to praising the Duchess' skills.
The end result is a small triumph of domestic photography, just a mother sharing a picture of her baby. What could be an ordinary daily life moment has wider connotations.

When the journalist suggests Mr. Edwards might be out of the job, he answers « not until she starts catching planes and taking pictures of the royals around the globe » implying he's still the one in charge of immortalizing that kind of events. Maybe they won't need him indoors to take the family portraits anymore but he still does and covers the official visits as well as the domestic events – their births (besides their baby pics), deaths and marriages The journalist  says « your job will be in public places » as if he were trying to redefine his job already.
Historically and traditionally those with direct access to the prince or the royals in general benefit of social and political status. To be appointed to the staff of the chamber of the King was a sign of great privilege and assured high rank. The royal painter was included among these valets de chambre and they would swear an oath to serve loyally. This closeness to the king and the access to his intimacy was a great honor for artists and would propel the career of a common artisan to the highest possible step of the ladder. I can think of artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, just to name a few. All held at one point in their careers a position at court. But since it's the picture of baby Charlotte that made the buzz, I can't help but think of Diego Velazquez's famous painting entitled « Las Meninas » where the Infanta Margarita or Infant Margaret is surrounded by all her courtesans preparing her to be portrayed.
But even without going back so much in time, in this very same interview, Mr. Edwards talks about his relationship to Diana and how it was him the one in charge of the intimate family portraits.
The Brits love their royals and the media machine that surrounds the Windsors has become as much of a British institution as the Royal Family themselves. They went from distant beings dressed in velvet and sitting in thrones to being celebrities. We would all recognize any member of the family if they drove past but this was of course not the case not that many generations ago. The Palace would have to print portraits of the monarchs so people would know who to cheer. Since the invention of photography it then became the norm for a camera to accompany the King or Queen on every royal walk, especially when they were meeting with ordinary people. I believe that showing the public the King's daily duties helped to justify the British monarchy at a time when most of Europe was getting rid of it.

Edwards talks with affection of the family as if he were part of it. He saw the princes grow in front of his camera lens and now it's the grandchildren that get to be portrayed by someone else... their mother, for that matter. He doesn't seem worried that his heyday as the royal photographer is behind. He has been loyally serving for many decades and he shouldn't be far from retirement. But his successor's job description will certainly be modified.

Nowadays we can all do a photo-portrait, a practice historically limited to only a few . You no longer have to be a professional photographer to take portraits: Everybody is a photographer

The camera used to be a way of conveying truth and recording a memory while representing a symbolic appropriation or selection of the world. Now this art has evolved drastically as to include digital retouching, filtering and all sorts of different methods to enhance reality.
But as the journalist himself puts it, it's not so much the fact that the Duchess has taken a picture -as she probably takes thousands of them- but that she's shared it. Even the more artistic, less special event-driven kind of photography that used to be reserved for hobbyists is now democratized by photo-sharing apps like Instagram or, in this case, Twitter as it was the official Kensington Palace Twitter account the one that first published the pictures. So it's not only the fact that we can all take any kind of picture with the ubiquity of mobile photography, but that they can also be shared without any further effort.
Mr Edwards compliments Kate Middleton's photographic talent and says that despite « SOME technical imperfections the pictures are just brilliant « .
The decisive moment, Cartier-Bressons' staple style, has lost relevance as now digitally manipulated images can render almost any effect. Composition and exposure are less of a skill as everything can be cropped, deleted, added or in every way modified. Just by clicking on any of the dozens of filters Instagram has to offer, we can add that romantic vintage look that, paradoxically, analog pictures have.

What are those « technical imperfections » Edwards talks about ? Or is he just saying that to make the point they weren't taken by a professional?.
The pictures seem more than acceptable to me, have you ever tried to shoot a 6 month old baby ?. That leaves me to question what's the difference between a  professional and an amateur shot when now we can all have access to the same high-end cameras and post processing tools. While the answer exceeds the limits of this presentation I can't help but wonder how this art is changing in an online visual world. Could it be that being a professional photographer at the present time is only about the privilege of being in the front bench of events ?.
« Tell her to carry on » he says. “You’ve just got to adapt, you’ve just got to accept, and still find something to do every day,” Mr Edwards tells presenter Justin Webb. Aware of the changing nature of his profession.

To us foreigners the British monarchy appears as a thing from the past and its continued existence is somewhat a mystery. Despite the prestige of the institution being slightly deteriorated in the last decades and its very existence questioned, it is generally felt that the monarch and the Royal Family play an important role in society. They are regarded as role models (this is especially the case for the Queen Mother and Princess Anne, maybe less so for Charles even though Princess Diana is still massively loved) and they are the image of a perfect united family. They are actively involved in charity work, they are the image of unity and morality.

The new generation of royals (Prince William and Harry) are seen as being down-to-earth regular guys. The Duchess of Cambridge is supposedly one of us. The future queen is every fashion magazine coveted cover-girl and the girl next-door who married a prince. They are seemingly ordinary and likable and not the unattainable semi-gods that they once were. Equally, George and Charlotte are the babies of the nation and everybody feels entitled to say how much the boy looks like his father or make a remark about the the baby girl's smile. Gone are the days of oppression and tyranny. These babies grow up in front of our eyes as if they were art of our own family.

The pictures of Princess Charlotte that were shared show a regular baby, dressed in regular baby clothes (a Liberty dress and a posh little cardie) playing with a stuffed dog. Nothing particularly fancy or royal about the picture composition. Maybe this is also another way of justifying the monarchy: showing us that we're not all that different after all.





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