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What We're Reading: When Thomas Struth Photographed Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip

By David Schonauer   Wednesday July 21, 2021


You never know where the news will take you.

Recently, the journalist Janet Malcolm died, at age 82, after a decades-long career as a provocative observer of society and, often, a piercing critic of journalism itself. “Malcolm produced an avalanche of deeply reported, exquisitely crafted articles, essays and books, most devoted to her special interests,” noted The New York Times. These included literature, biography, psychoanalysis, true crime and, as it happens, photography.

Which led us to a 2011 profile of German photographer Thomas Struth that Malcolm wrote for The New Yorker. It’s a fascinating magazine article, as Malcolm’s articles invariably were. “Whatever Ms. Malcolm was writing about, her real subject was often the writing process itself — the slipperiness of truth, the perils of the writer-subject relationship, the ethical choices that writers are constantly called to make.” In her article about Struth, she examines the choices that photographers make, how they go about their work, and how their work rests within the framework of art and society.

You could spend an hour or two doing worse things than reading her profile of Struth.

The backdrop for her profile of Struth is a commission the photographer received from the National Portrait Gallery to photograph Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. “The occasion,” noted Malcolm, “was an exhibition of paintings and photographs of Elizabeth II done in the sixty years of her reign, which the Diamond Jubilee of 2012 will celebrate. Struth’s photograph would be the final portrait in the exhibition."

Speaking to Malcolm in Berlin, Struth confessed to an initial burst of creative angst after accepting the job. “This is not the kind of photography Struth usually does,” she noted. “He is one of today’s most advanced and acclaimed art photographers, whose monumental color photographs hang in museums throughout the world, and whose interests do not extend to taking inoffensive pictures of famous people.”

“When the National Portrait Gallery called and said that in their eyes I was the best person to do the portrait, I was quite shocked,” Struth told Malcolm. “My immediate reaction was ‘What can I possibly do that’s not only affirmative but would include a message from me? Would I be able to say something new about people like this?’ ”

Malcolm, as a sharp-eyed observer, was fascinated by the elaborate preparations Struth made prior to the portrait session at Windsor Castle. “He studied old photographs and found most of them wanting,” wrote Malcolm. “He saw the technical mistakes, ‘what should not happen’—notably their distracting backgrounds. He visited Buckingham Palace and decided it was too cluttered. When the gilded green, red, and white drawing rooms at Windsor Castle were offered, he selected the green room (the white room was ‘too tired’ and the red room ‘too much’) and spent a day there making test shots.”

Rarely has a writer dissected a photo shoot with such detail. The article, aimed at a broad audience, delves into the art and artifice of portrait photography, explaining the work that goes into making the magic happen.

4 Comments

  1. John McDermott commented on: July 21, 2021 at 12:41 p.m.
    Ms. Malcolm could, perhaps should, have written that the National Portrait Gallery chose the wrong photographer for the wrong reasons and that even after his extensive research and analysis he delivered a very disappointing result.
  1. commented on: July 21, 2021 at 3:41 p.m.
    I suppose she might have argued that - if she had agreed with your opinion. My recollection of the article is that the portrait was well received by both the NPG and HRH.
  1. commented on: July 21, 2021 at 4:08 p.m.
    Wel lat least Prince Philip liked it, according to the conclusion of Ms. Malcolm's essay: "Struth wrote that he had heard from the curator of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that Philip “was clearly touched by the portrait, and asked, ‘How did he do that?’ ” I wrote back and asked about the Queen’s reaction, and the answer was that it was unknown.In a recent e-mail, Struth wrote, “Still have not given up to find out what the Queen thinks. I tried to get in touch with the dresser, but I heard they are all in Scotland right now.” He added, “Not that that is at the top of my agenda.”
  1. Martin Kraft commented on: July 21, 2021 at 8:16 p.m.
    I agree with McDermott, this photo is disappointing. It would have been a much stronger composition if Struth cropped the right side just beyond the Queen.

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