King Charles’s Official Coronation Photo Is a ‘Little Piece of Theater’

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King Charles’s Official Coronation Photo Is a ‘Little Piece of Theater’

As King Charles III was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Saturday, Hugo Burnand, a British photographer, waited in Buckingham Palace’s glittering Throne Room for the most important moment of his career.

The royal household had commissioned Burnand, 59, to take the official portraits of the newly crowned monarch — to create images that every newspaper in the world clamor to publish, and that art historians rush to analyze.

Yet given the coronation’s complex schedule, Burnand would have limited time to do it.

On Monday, the royal family released the results of Burnand’s short session with the newly crowned king, queen and other members of Britain’s monarchy, giving royal watchers worldwide a chance to judge whether Burnand had lived up to the commission.

In Burnand’s pictures, King Charles III is depicted sitting forward in full regalia, holding the Sovereign’s Orb, a hollow gold globe made in the 17th century and decorated with a large cross, as well as the Sovereign’s Scepter. The two items represent the king’s authority and power.

In another photo, the king is shown smiling with Queen Camilla by his side.

In an interview before the coronation, Burnand said he knew that the portraits were aimed at a global audience, but that he wanted them to feel intimate, as if viewers were “having maybe a one-to-one conversation” with the king. With the portraits, he said, he wanted to create a “little piece of theater.”

Burnand has now joined an exclusive club of photographers to have taken a coronation portrait. For centuries, Britain’s royal family commissioned artists to paint newly crowned kings and queens, but it also began commissioning photographers in 1902, for King Edward VII’s coronation.

Several went on to create iconic images of royalty. In 1937, Dorothy Wilding took King George VI’s portrait, with the monarch wearing such long robes that Wilding had to stand 20 feet away to fit the huge garment into the frame.

Two decades later, in 1953, Cecil Beaton photographed Queen Elizabeth II wearing the regalia of a monarch for the first time, including a weighty crown. In that image, the queen appears to be in Westminster Abbey, but Beaton actually photographed her after the ceremony, in front of an artificial backdrop at Buckingham Palace.

On that day, Beaton found the time constraints a challenge, later writing in his diaries that he spent the session “banging away and getting pictures at a great rate.” “I had only the foggiest notion of whether I was taking black and white, or color, or giving the right exposures,” Beaton added.

Paul Moorhouse, a curator who in 2012 oversaw an exhibition of royal portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, in London, said in an email that Beaton’s images created “a spectacle of monarchy that was deliberately enthralling.” Burnand faced a tough challenge to match its impact, Moorhouse added, especially since his photos needed to appeal to younger generations that were more skeptical of the monarchy.

Burnand, who once worked in horse stables and did not become a professional photographer until his late 20s, has a long relationship with both Charles and Camilla, having first met the queen in the 1990s.

When Charles and Camilla asked Burnand to photograph their 2005 wedding, he initially turned them down, he said. He was on sabbatical in Bolivia at the time and had just been robbed. “I’ve had all the family’s passports stolen, and our money, and my cameras,” he recalled writing in an email to the palace.

Yet he quickly changed his mind and the wedding turned out to be a life-changing moment. Burnand said he no longer had to wait for the phone to ring with work offers; now, he could pick and choose jobs.

Among his other royal engagements, Burnand shot the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, receiving acclaim for an intimate photograph of the newlyweds surrounded by page boys and bridesmaids (he had just 26 minutes for that shoot). Burnand said that during the session he and his stepmother, Ursy Burnand, used sweets to coax the children into behaving.

During the recent interview, Burnand said that he loathed having his own portrait taken, which helped him empathize with his sitters. He often discussed ideas with his subjects before a shoot to make them feel part of the process, he added, but he declined to reveal any details of his discussions with Charles and Camilla.

He said he had taken other steps to ensure he achieved the best results for this event, including spending weeks studying images of past coronations, and taking mock-ups with stand-ins.

But even with such preparation, Burnand said great photographs ultimately depend on luck — especially when the photographer has a king’s schedule to work around.

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