There was a time when monarchs actually ran the countries over which they had sovereignty. They chopped peopleís heads off or made things easier for serfs. They appointed ministers and generals, decided which wars to fight and how much tax to levy to fund those excursions. These kings and queens may not have earned their keep, exactly, but they did engage in what could be described as full-time jobs, albeit at the higher end of the firm. For the last 200 years or so, the British monarch has not had to strain himself (or, actually, mostly, herself) doing any such beastly hard work. As we know, in the United Kingdom elected governments do all the governing, leaving his or her royal majesty to carry on being the symbolic head of state.
This Ďsymbolicí business makes for a good life: you have loads of palaces, really nice clothes to wear, lashings of the best grub, and, literally, armies of energetic persons watching your rear end should you choose to play around a bit. In return, if youíre male, a king or a prince, youíre expected to join one of the armed forces and put yourself in harmís way in times of war. If youíre a queen, youíre supposed to avoid excitement and vie to break the records set by past queens for the longest reign. If youíre a princess, youíre supposed to avoid wearing terribly short skirts in public and sleep around only extremely discreetly (apparently not as much of a restriction on the lads, whoíre supposed to display a little horsepower).
As Britainís royals grow up, one imagines they get the benefit of one of the better systems of education in the world, with some elements of it probably unique. As they grow into older teenage, one also imagines these princes and princesses get to do things such as fire rare shotguns, drive fast cars and maybe even fly aeroplanes and helicopters and stuff. It would be very surprising if, at some point in all this, all the recent royals havenít received some sort of basic introduction to the one craft that will rule their lives as rulers ó photography. A working acquaintance with the production processes of both still as well as moving pictures would, one imagines, be indispensable to a person whose chief duty in life it is to be photographed.
Since youíre part of a symbolic royalty, what youíre mainly expected to do, from birth to death, is look after the symbol. Since the last 80 years or so, this has basically meant being constantly photographed and filmed. From your first picture as royal baby and probable/possible future king/ queen to when the funeral cortege clatters off to Westminster Abbey, most of your Ďsubjectsí and most of the world will see you only in photographs and TV footage. From the oldest faded photo in the lounge of the Fairlawn Hotel, Calcutta to the latest HD Olympic footage, itís this catís cradle of images that keeps you suspended above ordinary people, that letís you stay where you are and lead the life you do.
As photography apparatus has evolved, the royals (and other celebrities) have had to evolve along with it. As mass media made inroads into previously ferociously guarded citadels, as notions of a free press expanded, the royals and celebs, too, had to mutate. By the 1930s, individually portable cameras with flashguns came into play. This meant that a photographer like Weegee could capture all sorts of images of freshly committed crime; it also meant that in a film like Citizen Kane Orson Welles could use a photographer ambushing a millionaire as a highly convincing plot device. This meant both criminals and kings now had to watch out at night. From the 1930s to the 1960s the body of the camera shrank as the sizes and capabilities of the lenses increased. By the early 1960s, you were attaching the camera to the really big lenses rather than the other way round and these lenses could give you reasonable close ups of the moon. Or the stars.
The single lens reflex camera with telephoto lens and motor-drive coupled with fast emulsion films became a formidable instrument of change in our times. The lenses cropped out the distant action, like an eagle or a hawk magnifying a piece of food, whether live or just dead. The rest of the equipment helped you grab it.You could capture war scenes never before seen, or police shooting demonstrators. You could capture secret meetings, a conclave of mafia bosses on the terrace of a villa or a shady Kissinger with an equally shady-looking Zhou Enlai. You could also voyeuristically intrude into the hitherto private lives of the rich and the famous. The telephotos missed Jackie Kennedy in Dallas, when the gunman (or men) didnít miss her husband, but once they hit the wider market their aim was unerring. Yatch or villa, shopping or wining and dining, Jackie (now Onassis) was always on display. Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, mostly escaped coming under the examination of the tele-lens by dint of the fact that she died before the lenses really came into their own. So, while you see lots of photos of Jackie where the tele pastes everything up close and grainy, you rarely see Monroe in similar shots. Anyone photographing the famous blonde always has to confront her, interact with her, and vice versa.
Now cut from this to two recent photo-scandals involving one of the Brit royals. If youíre drunk or high and completely unclothed at an extremely jolly party, play-mounting a woman whoís also naked, in a room full of naked people, you canít really be keeping an eye on whoís working their cellphone camera, can you? Itís a real bother and it does get in the way of future pleasure. Itís even worse when youíre currently fourth in line to the English throne and caught on a phone-cam partying in full Nazi regalia. Thatís when you wish youíd been naked instead.
Between the years when Queen Elizabethís sister Margaret was the main fodder for the tabloids and now, photography has changed radically. So have the means by which juicy or semi-juicy voyeur-images are disseminated. What hasnít changed very much at all, however, is the role the Windsors think they play, not only in the UK but around the world. Even as injunctions against Closer magazine were being sought in a French court, we saw footage of the paparazzi victims William and Kate visiting a tiny Polynesian island called Tuvalu. The young couple (fully clothed this time) climbed on to a pair of chairs in a kind of palki. The palki was then lifted up by bare-torsoed natives and carried forward. In the next sequence, Will and Kate donned the local skirts and began to dance. Kate has clearly been to some Bollywood classes and Will has obviously imbibed lots of rap videos, so they both swayed their booties with slow abandon. Next, the duchess received some gifts and garlands from a woman who was clearly bare-chested and many were seen to wonder on Facebook how rude the young Englishwoman looked by not being bare-chested herself. One may not be able to imagine the current queen and the ghastly Duke of Ed dancing as Will-Kate Ďsportinglyí did, but the palki certainly brought back bilious memories of images from the official catís cradle: Elizabeth and Philip lording it over dark natives in some remaining colony of Britain, at some time well into the 1970s, decades after the raj was dismantled.
Tuvalu gained independence from Britain only in 1987, and the royal pair may have had no choice in following the protocol for the ceremonious welcome, but one of the more intelligent aides should have headed off the palki at least. For many of us, whatever sympathy we may have felt for W&K because of the Provence photos evaporated when we saw the Tuvalu footage. Here was an absurdly privileged couple, preening and peacocking, blithely oblivious to the ghastly colonial imagery they were channelling. If the sunbathing pictures were intended as voyeuristic titillation, these pictures were pure, imperialist pornography.
As we all know, Williamís mother, Diana, died in an accident while being chased by paparazzi. Diana too first sought the limelight and later hated it. But towards the end there was a real feeling that she was saying, ďThe hell with it, shoot and publish and be damned, Iíve had jolly b****y enough of this!Ē As Diana played hopscotch from millionaire to millionaire, among the people tempted to be sympathetic there was a conviction that Diana was now questioning everything the British royal family stood for. On that fatal drive, her only mistake was that she neglected to put on her seat-belt. Had she done so, Lady Di might have still been alive. And she might or might not have had a few words of sage advice for her oldest and his new bride, not to mention her younger son.