Those New Duchess of Cambridge Photos
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If you weren’t a fan of Paolo Roversi before his incredible photos of Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge dropped over the weekend in recognition of her fortieth birthday, you surely are now. Whether or not the royals hold any intrigue for you personally, the photos are an artistic achievement. The Italian fashion photographer was a rather astonishing choice for a future queen, who, if Netflix’s The Crown is to be believed, must reliably strike a note for the public of perfection crossed with comforting, unimpeachable blandness.
Yet Roversi, an artist whose work is the opposite of bland, was chosen for these photos, which will hang grandly in the National Portrait Gallery, but for most people, simply be dissected on social media. The resulting images — Catherine as we’ve never seen her, hair wavy and tousled, smiling with real emotion instead of obligation, regal in a both antiquated and modern way — are stunning, illustrating the power of photography in a way seldom seen in the era of #content.
Throughout her tenure as a royal and as Prince William’s girlfriend and fiancée, the Duchess hasn’t made a glaring misstep with her image. Early in her marriage, she was celebrated for shopping at the grocery store while wearing perfectly normal clothes, albeit always glamorous enough to look like she could be modeling in a catalog for a brand like J. Crew. When she makes public appearances, she wears fashion while also keeping a distance from it. She dabbles in sparkly gowns, but then repeats them. She enjoys both her dresses and coats in non-threatening A-line. She wears the British label Alexander McQueen, one of the most fashionable brands on the planet, but with edge stripped away, as though the clothes have gone through a sieve to filter out any trendiness or eccentricity before reaching her body. Her taste has been so perfectly and brilliantly calibrated that I can’t help but think she has a terribly astute understanding of fashion, and that if she could wear anything, she might be going to the grocery store in fluffy sandals and Old Celine, a beat-up Birkin on her arm.
But Kate understands that wearing the best while maintaining a distance from fashion is what success in her role demands. We will probably always live in a world where fashion threatens people and reinforces class distinction. It is this taboo that the Duchess seems to try painstakingly to avoid. When she appeared on the cover of British Vogue in 2016, she knew it would only work if she insisted the shoot not actually include any fashion. Then-editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman wrote that in fact the Duchess had refused at least one earlier cover offer, surely knowing how distastefully glamour-hungry she would seem if she appeared on Vogue as part of a glitzy fashion spread. When she finally accepted, it was partly because, Shulman explained, the magazine was working with the National Portrait Gallery on a retrospective in honor of British Vogue’s hundredth anniversary. The Duchess had been a patron of the gallery, and a photo from this shoot would be added to its collection. Plus, the magazine acquiesced to the Duchess’s demands that, while this was a fashion magazine, this would not be a fashion shoot. Shulman wrote:
It was very clear from the outset that these pictures were to be of the woman herself rather than of a figurehead, and that they would be as informal as possible. The Duchess liked the idea of being photographed in the countryside, and she wanted the pictures to reflect an element of her private existence. She didn’t want to be dressed as a fashion plate and was not keen to be shot in gala gowns and tiaras. Instead, the clothes Vogue’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers gathered for the day were based on what the Duchess likes to wear when she is off-duty – jeans, shirts, T-shirts. The same as the rest of us.
The resulting photos, featuring jeans and plaid shirts, might even have been safer than they needed to be. The talents of photographer Josh Olins are evident but on much more obvious display in his Instagram feed.
But this is the challenge of bringing fashion energy to official photos of a royal — and why Roversi, known for haunting romanticism and long exposures, was such an unexpected choice for the fortieth birthday photos. Here’s his fall 2021 campaign for Alexander McQueen:
And one of his portraits of Indya Moore from the 2020 Pirelli calendar shoot:
Describing his approach, Roversi has said:
“My photography is more subtraction than addition. I always try to take off things. We all have a sort of mask of expression. You say goodbye, you smile, you are scared. I try to take all these masks away and little by little subtract until you have something pure left. A kind of abandon, a kind of absence. It looks like an absence, but in fact when there is this emptiness I think the interior beauty comes out. This is my technique.”
And so we get the Duchess of Cambridge, in those perfectly pretty, not-edgy McQueen gowns designed by Sarah Burton, her hair in waves with visible frizz, her eyes aglow, looking somehow both completely human and completely ethereal, fashionable but also not.
But the below shot might be the most stunning, given it somehow looks modern but also like it could have been taken a hundred years ago. A number of outlets have noted that the Duchess could have sat for a painting, the implication being that our fair lady of the grocery store has the sense to be like, Who does that in 2020s? The pro-monarchy Daily Mail reported, “A Palace source said that for the side-on shot, Kate, who studied art history at St Andrews University, was inspired by the work of Cecil Beaton, the revered photographer who captured historic images of the Queen and Princess Margaret.” (See here for reference.)
Given the significance of the photos, it’s notable that this is perhaps the most fashionable set ever taken of the Duchess. I was stunned that she chose Roversi, whose aesthetic is so singular. However, it also fits with the progression of photography in culture over last few years. After photographers including Mario Testino, who took the Duchess’s official engagement photos, were sidelined following accusations of sexual misconduct, the industry opened its doors to new talent, one of the most famous examples being then-23-year-old Tyler Mitchell capturing Beyoncé for the September 2018 cover of Vogue. The general public had become so used to Testino’s style of celebrity portraiture after his decades of prominence in the industry, partly cemented by his famous photos of Princess Diana months before her death in 1997 in addition to all those Condé Nast commissions, that anything different was practically a shock to the eye. Today, photographers like Mitchell, Harley Weir, and Alasdair McLellan shoot American Vogue covers, still a significant assignment, helping to expand the public’s notion of photographic art.
Roversi is not a new or young fashion photographer. He’s 74 years old, has been doing this for more than 40 years, and is a long-established talent in the industry, his previous notable work appearing in numerous fashion ad campaigns and for European editions of Vogue. But with more varied perspectives entering the mainstream, his particular style can perhaps now more easily find mass appeal with a subject like the Duchess. And by surprising the public with these photos, the Duchess reinforces the idea that she and the monarchy generally can be modern and relevant, contrary to the revelations made by her brother- and sister-in-law, Prince Harry and Meghan the Duchess of Sussex, after leaving the royal family.
The images remind us of the power of incredible photography, increasingly hard to find in the era of social media, when every banal moment is captured and blasted out to the world for public consumption. They also remind me of how sad it is that there are so few media outlets with the ability to even commission great photographic art. And how those that can like Vogue waited so long to mix things up.
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