Queen, lies and fly on the wall documentary

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The photographer Annie Leibovitz is commissioned to make a photographic portrait of the queen. A BBC camera crew is making a documentary about the queen, and films the making of the portrait. A trailer of the documentary is assembled and shown to journalists. In the trailer Leibovitz asks the queen to remove her crown. The queen refuses. The next shoot shows the queen walking through a room accompanied by two attendants and saying with badly controlled vexation that she is not changing anything, she had enough.

The palace accused the BBC of lying, on the grounds that the two shoots created the impression that the queen stormed out of the photo–shoot following Leibovitz’s request to remove the crown. In reality, the second shoot preceded the first, which means that the queen was in a foul mood already before the meeting with the photographer. After much soul searching it was decided in the BBC that the at least some of the blame lies with the young, under trained, unscrupulous post production workers who assembled the trailer for maximum effect.

In the discussion about the ethical dilemmas of the fly on the wall documentary, it is conveniently forgotten that underneath all the layers of deception this is a story about the making of a photograph; The anger at the BBC for meddling with the truth is based on the assumption that the photographer at least, was there to record the truth. It is in contrast to this perceived monolith honesty of the photograph, that television appears as a unstable bricolage, open to manipulation and susceptible to lies.

In fact, the making of this photograph as it appears in the video clip, is a brain war between to experienced players: The queen is in the most vulnerable of social situations: not only she is been photographed, but she is also filmed by the television crew while photographed. The presence of the video camera exposes the delicate negotiations between the photographer and the model for what they really are: a ruthless gambit over the domination of the set; for the photographers aim is to break through the photographic face of the model into the aloneness and the fear experienced by one about to be immortalized. for the queen on the other hand, attrition is the most effective strategy – sooner or later the photographer will have to make a move, she only needs to wear the mask for the duration of the shoot.

To win this battle, Annie Leibovitz choose similar strategy to the one Yousuf Karsh famously employed while making a portrait of Churchill. Karsh snatched the cigar from Churchill’s fingers and pressed the shutter in time to capture Churchill’s anger.

Churchill
Yousuf Karsh: Churchill

Karsh was Canadian, and the symbolic castration he performed on the war leader could be forgiven on the grounds of his commonwealth loyalty and professionalism: he was a studio photographer specializing in flattering portraits of politicians.

Leibovitz on the other hand offended royal sensitivities on several levels; her Jacobean remark: “I think it will look better without the crown”, is a beheading order issued by a red American jewess for whom the values of monarchy are as meaningless as they are alien. Without her crown the queen is dangerously close to crossing the threshold between the dignified and the ridiculous; her position depending on being able to take herself as seriously as others do. The queen is fully aware of course that Leibovitz is working in the shadow of two major figures of American culture – The photographer Diane Arbus, the patron saint of the freaks, and Suzan Sontag, who, in her book “on photography” celebrated Arbus’ great talent for making people look ridiculous in her photographs.

Diane Arbus. King and Queen of a Senior Citizens Dance
Diane Arbus: King and Queen of a Senior Citizens Dance

But even Arbus knew to draw a line between her most glaringly misanthropic personal work and the more agreeable magazine commissions for which she produced some of her most famous photographs. Arbus was not drawn to photographing the famous, preferring instead to concentrate on those for whom the chance meeting with a photographer was a momentous event full of magical promise. Leibovitz’s own photographic style is not as ruthless, she is the master of the flattering visual pun, the extravagant props, the carefully choreographed double take that never fails to reassure the viewer in his own cleverness and sensitivity. Her images are a win-win proposition even when she photographs a hotel maid with a steam iron in hand: it is grace and goodwill all over the shop.

The video clip that caused all this embarrassment for the BBC exposes the deep seated dilemma that the queen so patently failed to resolve. After all, there are any number of jobbing studio photographers out there who would make an excellent portrait of her majesty in the way she wishes to be portrayed. Buy agreeing to pose for Leibovitz the queen agrees to be subjected to the celebrity treatment commissioned by the Vanity Fair. And yet, the tiara stays. What we don’t know, and probably never will, is did Leibovitz press the shutter at this moment of royal anger, when the queen lost her nerve in front of the Lens. And if she did, did she look in this moment like someone from a photograph by Diane Arbus?

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