ANNIE LEIBOVITZ (USA, 1949)
Queen Elizabeth II, 2007
Collection National Portrait Gallery, Londra
Annie Leibovitz began her career in the 1970s with Rolling Stone magazine. She continued working as a portrait artist and fashion photographer in the 1980s and 1990s for magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. Some of her shots are now part of the history of pop culture, as is the case, for instance, with her photo of a naked John Lennon embracing a clothed Yoko Ono, which was taken only a few hours before the singer's death. In parallel to her portraits, Annie Leibovitz also produces reportages: recently, for example, she followed Barack Obama's election campaign.
In 2007, she was asked to portray Queen Elizabeth II of England in occasion of the sovereign's travel to the United States - the first in sixteen years. "I feel like it's a documentation and want to take a very simple portrait": these words of Annie Leibovitz's refer to the present series of pictures, which actually required weeks of work and the help of no less than ten assistants.
Drawing inspiration from the sober and evocative black and white photos that Cecil Beaton had taken of the Queen Mother in 1939, Annie Leibovitz chose as the setting for her portraits the White Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace - reserved for the sovereign's meetings with representatives of foreign states. Leibovitz asked the Queen to pose in official attire, a pale gold embroidered evening dress, a stole of white fur, the diamond necklace she was presented with by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1947, and Queen Mary's diadem.
The office responsible for the image of the royal family gave Leibovitz only fifteen minutes to take her shots - for the eighty-year-old sovereign was expected to find the photo session both tiring and unusual. The Queen was thus portrayed for the first time by an American female photographer. Her rich official dress, weighing over forty kilos, shows her in a manner quite unlike that which the British court has sought to display itself over the past years - namely, as less distant from the people and less formal - by favouring more ordinary attitudes and attires.
The most frequently mentioned and gossiped-about episode in the meeting between these two figures so different from each other was the moment when for one of her shots Annie Leibovitz invited the Queen to take her crown off in order to assume a "less dressy" air. Visibly annoyed, Elizabeth pointed to the dress she was wearing and answered, "Less dressy, what do you think this is?" The artist is used to rigorously directing her photographic sets, but in this photo session Leibovitz's authority had to measure itself against that of the Queen. The photographer appears to have given the Queen directions as she would have to an ordinary model during a fashion photo session, treating the crown - an absolute insignia of regal authority - as a stage accessory. What must crucially be noted here is the relation between these images and the classic genre of official portraiture.
The photographs were taken by adhering to all the parameters of traditional portraiture, yet emphasizing the unusual discrepancy between the artificial way in which the Queen is presented on stage - almost as if this were a fashion shoot - and the perfect authenticity of the context (for the court hall and clothes worn reflect the sovereign's real social status). The rigorous construction of the pictures, the sophisticated attire and the extremely formal setting of this space, reminiscent of a museum, all contribute to lending the Queen an appearance almost similar to that of a wax statue rather than a person in flesh and blood. Elizabeth is portrayed as a symbol of royalty, in line with iconography serving to represent her role - as opposed to her individuality.
The American photographer therefore portrays the Queen as she appears in the collective imagination, as a vision shaped by traditional iconography: a dignified and timeless figure in her rich official residence, the furnishings of which reflect the long history of the royal family. These images stand in contrast to the usual and more modern and "bourgeois" representation that the English royal family has given itself over the past years, as well as to the actual political role played by the Queen, who now serves a purely representative function and no longer wields the same kind of power as the kings portrayed in the paintings from which Leibovitz has drawn inspiration.