The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Diamond Jubilee Portrait; by Thomas Struth. To be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery
It's hard to miss the presence of the Royal Family in the UK at the moment, what with a wedding done and a Diamond Jubilee coming up, and I've been interested in the images floating around. As usual.
What grabbed my attention the most was the above, by Thomas Snell, which was recently reported on by the BBC. I'm aware it has come in for some negative popular comments (see the previous link), specifically that people want it to be a little more pleasant or even affectionate, but for me it is of interest as a complex to read and difficult piece of photography. The image not only conjours the relationship between the Queen and the Duke (with Prince Philip sat slightly behind and in shadow, while the Queen commands the scene) but also speaks to a peculiarly British visual imagination.
Indeed, the positioning of the 'loveseat', which places the sitters close but with no intimate contact, evokes a long history of the photography of Britain's elderly couples. These images speak to a deep intimacy which has developed over many years, encompassing both good times and events of pain and struggle. As such they are markedly different from the effusive, physically dynamic images we are more used to today, which speak to immediacy and a passing moment rather than envisioning a life spent together. For a photographer whose work often depicts intimacy without contact the photography of Tony Ray-Jones is worth a look.
This raises a secondary issue related to this image, which is how much photography of the Royal Family connects to a wider visual economy of 'British' imagery (I've written more on visual economy here). Not only is the history of the relationship between the Royal Family and photography extensive (as I've noted on the Americas blog before), it also grows dynamically through the wider popular culture of the UK.
As a result, it is impossible to look at the above photograph, the chintzy decor and un-smiling expressions without thinking of that other Royle family, who were often depicted on their sofa in a similar composition and demeanour. Of course, this (as far as the Royal Family are concerned) is an incidental association, indirectly linked with the image the Royals and their forebears have worked to create, but it does illustrate the complex and organically evolving visual imagination Struth's work has made a deliberate contribution to. Moving into the realms of punditry for just a second, I would also wager that Struth has knowingly doffed his cap to these sorts of cultural references; which makes this a very 'British' portrait in many senses of the word.
So, it looks simple on the surface but this photograph is part of an extensive and evolving history and visual economy of the photographic imagination of the Royal Family. Given that, I'd recommend going to have a look at this in the flesh - in all of its 2 metre wide glory