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Annie Leibovitz Remembers Photographing Queen Elizabeth II

Thought Leader: Annie Leibovitz
September 9, 2022
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Annie Leibovitz was invited to photograph Queen Elizabeth II twice, in 2007 and in 2016. She was the first American photographer to be asked by the royal family to do so, and considered it an honor. As Leibovitz wrote in her 2008 book At Work, “It was ok for me to be reverent. The British are conflicted about what they think of the monarch. If a British portraitist is reverent he’s perceived to be doting. I could do something traditional.”

The 2007 images are reverent, but the sitting that produced them didn’t go entirely to plan. Leibovitz had wanted to shoot at Windsor Castle, with the queen on horseback. Instead she was given 25 minutes at Buckingham Palace. The queen arrived late, not in a terribly good mood, and was wearing a tiara, which wasn’t in Leibovitz’s plan (the tiara was supposed to come later in the shoot). Leibovitz asked if she could remove it so that the image would be simpler. “Less dressy” was how she put it. “Less dressy!” the queen replied. “What do you think this is?”

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An image from the 2007 shoot—Leibovitz was given just 25 minutes for the sitting.

 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

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Leibovitz digitally imposed the queen against the Buckingham Palace garden, 2007.

 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

In an interview conducted hours after the news of the queen’s death, Leibovitz spoke to me warmly about that 2007 shoot, though admitted to being nervous (“I’m nervous on every shoot,” she said) and also recalled the second sitting years later at Windsor Castle, in honor of the queen’s 90th birthday, where her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and corgis were all present. Both sessions yielded historic images, which are assembled here. “They were epic adventures for sure,” Annie told me. “I understood that she believed in giving you free rein when you worked with her. She thought of this as her duty and part of her job—to sit for photographs.” More of her memories from our interview follow:

Inever understood why the queen asked me to take her picture the first time. I found out when I went in for the second shoot 10 years later. I said, why did she ask me? And they said that I had asked. And actually I had asked, five years earlier. I wanted the queen to sit for my book Women.

For that first shoot, I wanted a straightforward, intelligent portrait. I thought that this would be my only chance to photograph the queen. I was allotted less than half an hour. They showed me catalogues of her clothes and jewelry and asked me to pick what she would wear. I picked a long gold dress as a base. The rest—the dark cloak that Cecil Beaton photographed her in, and the Order of the Garter robe, and a fur coat—would be layered on top of it and removed for the different pictures.

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Another image from 2007 in the White Drawing Room.

 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

She was probably the most photographed person in the world and we talked about photography. I brought up Dorothy Wilding and she said Wilding didn’t even come to the famous shoot [in 1952, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and used famously, on stamps and banknotes ever since]. Wilding had her assistant take the photograph. We also talked about Jane Bown, who was about the queen’s age and took her 80th birthday portrait. Bown came to the palace alone, carrying two bags full of equipment. “Yes, she came all the way by herself!” the queen said. “I helped her move the furniture.” She remembered all these things. I told her I was using Beaton as a reference for working at Buckingham Palace and she said, ”You have to find your own way.”

At one point when things had calmed down—after the misunderstanding about her wearing the tiara or not wearing the tiara—she settled into the shoot and became quiet. She then said, “I think Princess Margaret would have been a much better subject.” That moment of vulnerability—it makes me cry right now to think of it…that there was this moment in the middle of the session when she thought that maybe she was not a good enough subject, that she kind of questions herself. We got to see all sides of her that day.

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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, in the Oak Sitting Room at Windsor, 2016.

 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

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Alongside her daughter, Anne, the Princess Royal, in the White Drawing Room at Windsor, 2016.

 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

And then, ten years later, we get this other call. I asked for Balmoral and they said no, Windsor. This time, she had ideas for the shoot. She wanted her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and Princess Anne and her corgis. Probably the most endearing sitting on that shoot with her was with the grandchildren. They were running around calling her “gran” or “granny.” It was chaotic and we asked if she would let Princess Charlotte sit on her lap. And she said, “But I’ll get all black and blue”—because at the time Charlotte was a terror. Mia Tindall [another great-granddaughter] wouldn’t even get in the picture. She was running around and finally the Queen gave her her purse and Mia started going through it and walked back into the picture and we quickly took a couple of frames.

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The queen with two of her grandchildren (James, Viscount Severn and Lady Louise) and five of her great-grandchildren (Mia Tindall, Princess Charlotte, Savannah Phillips, Prince George, and Isla Phillips), in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor in 2016.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

My own children met her. We were working on the photograph of her on the stairs with the corgis and it started to thunder and rain and she motioned for us to shelter in an alcove under the stairs. That’s exactly when my children [Sarah, then 16, and Susan and Samuelle, then 12] were driven up. We all hovered under the stairs while it rained and the queen told them how she played there as a child. They couldn’t believe she was the queen.

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On the steps of the East Terrace at Windsor Castle with corgi Willow, dorgi Vulcan, corgi Holly, and dorgi Candy, 2016.

 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

I remember coming away thinking I don’t know if I did the right thing. Of course I really wanted to photograph her driving her Range Rover at Balmoral. It was so frustrating because I would see her driving around, right in front of me, at Windsor.

The queen was in good shape, walking every day. She showed me her gardens. She was quiet. She was never talkative—and she would never bring up a subject. If you brought up a subject she would talk about it.

It was her duty sitting for photographs—part of what she did. And she totally gave herself over to the process, to the photographer, or the artist or the painter, to use their creativity and their imagination.

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Leibovitz and the queen after the shoot at Windsor in 2016.

Photo: Kathryn MacLeod

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