The images are strikingly modern, yet timeless; classic yet cute; epoch-defining yet intimate. Bravo to the photographer whose portraits of the royal children will not only illustrate the history books, but rewrite them.
Of course, the most astonishing thing about these portraits is that they were taken not by a professional photographer, but by the Duchess of Cambridge herself.
She broke with tradition early in motherhood, releasing her own photos of Prince George. Observers were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the images.
Since then, her skills with the camera have got better and better – to the point where even seasoned professionals are wowed.
‘She’s got a very good eye and has produced some really lovely images,’ says former official royal photographer Jayne Fincher, who was one of the late Princess of Wales’s favourites.
Jenny Johnston spoke to professional photographers about the snaps taken by the Duchess of Cambridge. Pictured: Kate taking photographs of Prince William in Canada in 2011
‘She’s also got the advantage – the huge advantage – of being their mum. One of the most important things when photographing children is getting that eye contact with them. That’s not a problem for her.’
Jayne is herself responsible for some of the most iconic royal shots ever taken.
She captured Princes William and Harry as youngsters (one of her most famous images is of them running into Diana’s arms on the royal yacht in Canada in 1991).
She was also commissioned to take portraits of the family at home.
It’s perhaps the ultimate accolade for the duchess that Jayne admits to being a little envious of the images Kate has managed to produce.
‘Remember that the technology has improved immensely, and obviously she doesn’t have the pressure of only having a set time to complete a shoot.
‘But you do look at the images and think, “This is an amateur and she’s got better pictures than I ever did.”’
Greenwich-based photographer Andrea Whelan, who specialises in family portraiture, has taken a keen interest in the duchess’s work, and admits she too would have been proud to have taken some of the most recent shots.
‘Any professional would be,’ she says.
‘There are some that are iconic. The shot of Prince Louis finger-painting is technically impressive – getting the hands in focus is important and shows that the photographer knows what they’re about – and the rainbow colours capture not just a family moment, but a national one.
‘The image of Prince Charles hugging little Prince Louis is gorgeous. It’s beautifully lit.
‘It captures a side of Prince Charles that we aren’t used to seeing, which is why it’s striking and memorable. I’d have loved to have taken that picture.’
Andrea was particularly struck by the portraits of Princess Charlotte that were released to celebrate her fifth birthday earlier this month.
Kate with her camera at the ready
‘The duchess studied Art History at St Andrews,’ she points out.
‘Well, it shows. The portraits of Charlotte where she was delivering food in Norfolk are stunning. They aren’t just lovely family snaps, they show that Kate has a great understanding of light. What you are looking at is classic Rembrandt technique.’
She singles out one shot – with Charlotte in a gingham dress looking determinedly to the camera, arms folded.
‘There is a single main light source, and the Rembrandt technique creates a triangle of light on the shadowed side of the face.
‘The contrast of light and dark creates a mysterious and moody portrait. It’s wonderful to see how it contrasts with portraits from previous years.’
In short, these are images taken by someone who knows exactly what they are doing. No luck involved. The duchess herself has spoken of the power of photos in capturing a mood – even a national mood.
At the launch of the virtual gallery project Hold Still, where she appealed to all of us to upload our images of our lockdown experiences, she summed up her love of the art form.
‘One of the fantastic things about photography is really capturing a moment, so it’s not stage-setting it, it’s not setting it up perfectly, it’s not clearing your house away so you’ve got the perfect studio set-up.
‘It’s capturing those moments that feel real to you… That’s the power of photography, it can capture a moment and tell a story.’
She was modest about her own skills, joking about how she should have taken a picture of her (messy) self after capturing the colourful images of Prince Louis, insisting, ‘I am very much an amateur photographer. I learn along the way, but during this time I’ve spent lots of time picking up my camera and taking photographs of the children because they are always around us and we’re doing stuff together, which has been great.’
Kate appealed for everyone to photograph their lockdown experiences at the launch of the virtual gallery project Hold Still, as a lasting testament to the chapter in British history. Pictured: A photograph of Princess Charlotte taken by Kate to mark her third birthday
The images collated as part of this project, which she launched with the National Portrait Gallery, will be a lasting testament to an extraordinary chapter in British history.
Of course, the younger Kate Middleton understood, and was fascinated by, the power of the photograph. At St Andrews she did a dissertation on Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, who was also a keen photographer.
And all through university, Kate was to be found experimenting with her own photography, and going out of her way to learn from the best.
One of those who became a friend and mentor was celebrity photographer Alistair Morrison, who ran a gallery in Windsor and who is lauded for his portraiture.
In 2007 Kate, by then as famous as any of his subjects, organised an exhibition for Morrison showcasing his images of stars including Tom Cruise, Kate Winslet, Ewan McGregor and Sting.
Yet she had first asked for his advice while she was at university. ‘She came to my gallery and we talked through some of her work,’ he said in 2007.
‘She was looking to get a little help.’ He was immediately impressed by her potential.
‘She is very, very good, and it shows,’ he said. ‘She takes beautiful, detailed photographs. She has a huge talent and a great eye. I’m sure she will go far.’
She has a huge talent and a great eye – photographer Alistair Morrison, her mentor, 2007
How prescient. Perhaps she would have pursued a career in photography whatever, but in terms of finding her dream subjects the duchess struck gold with her own children, and it is interesting that it was through them that her skills were honed.
It’s increasingly clear that with the duchess’s own photography we are seeing the merging of a mother’s desire to capture those special family moments with a more artistic approach.
This is also a woman who knows that every image she allows to be released will be pored over, both now and in decades to come.
The message from Kate, via these photos, is unequivocal: the Cambridge children are like everyone else’s – delightful but ordinary.
‘What’s interesting is that there are no royal “trappings”,’ says Andrea Whelan. ‘Her subjects fill the frame. There are rarely any wider lifestyle shots.
‘The way she shoots and what she chooses to show us, says a lot.’ In short, no views of castles or crowns.
‘She’s releasing images that are more likely to portray the family as people like you and me. Her backgrounds are minimal and clear of distractions, which is key to strong portraits.’
Getting formal shots is tricky, though, even for the pros. ‘There are a different set of challenges with every age,’ says Andrea.
‘When you are trying to photograph children of different ages together, it can be a nightmare.’
Hats off, then, to the duchess’s shots of her children together. One of the most loved images is of Prince George as a toddler planting a kiss on baby Charlotte’s head (see page 42).
Royal photographer who broke the mould
While it is true that there have been many quite fusty images of the royal children in past years, there are some delightfully relaxed photos in the archives too.
Some astonishing portraits of the Queen and her sister Princess Margaret show them at play.
These were captured by a photographer who, like Jayne Fincher, worked hard at gaining the trust of the Royal Family.
Lisa Sheridan snapped a photograph of the Queen and her sister Princess Margaret playing with their dogs (pictured) in 1940
Lisa Sheridan, who worked under the professional name Studio Lisa, was involved with the family between 1936 and 1966, and took a particularly striking set of them at home at Royal Lodge, Windsor, in 1940.
The images, taken over several visits, showed the sisters gardening, knitting, riding and playing with their dogs.
There are also several photographs of the princesses with their parents at weekends, during their brief respites from wartime visits and inspections.
Some of these do seem stilted in comparison to today’s carefree images of royal children, but at the time they would have been regarded as extraordinarily intimate – and necessary to bolster the national mood during wartime.
Later, Lisa returned to capture images of the Queen with her own growing family, including a cheeky Prince Andrew (see top right).
Fast forward a few years, and we have Charlotte doing the same with Louis. ‘To capture that tenderness is wonderful,’ says Andrea.
‘I think it would be very difficult for a professional to come into that environment and get photographs that are as relaxed.’
Jayne Fincher was one of just a handful of professionals who did manage to build a rapport with the royals, first photographing a young Lady Diana Spencer even before her engagement, then on her honeymoon (with Diana famously dressed in tweed, looking relaxed and radiant) and then travelling the world with her and Prince Charles.
She points out that many royals have been interested in photography.
‘Diana often had a camera with her, and loved to take shots. At home she had a huge collection of photo albums. The royals have their own archives at Windsor for their personal collections.
‘The Queen is a keen photographer, as was Queen Victoria. Princess Anne too.
‘I travelled a lot with her and she was often taking pictures, mostly of tribal dances. Or horses. I don’t ever remember her taking pictures of her children.’
While we think of Princess Anne and her brother growing up in formal times, what’s striking is how some images of them were informal too, particularly a few taken by Jayne’s father, photojournalist Terry Fincher.
‘You have Princess Anne on a tricycle, and Prince Charles in his corduroy trousers, just being children. They aren’t that different from the images I captured. Or the ones Kate has done.’
One of Jayne’s fondest memories comes from being invited to shoot the Wales family at Highgrove back in August 1988.
There were already rumblings that there were problems in the marriage, but Jayne is adamant she did not see them.
‘What I saw on that day was a loving family. There was banter – Diana was teasing Charles about what he was wearing. The boys were laughing. It was a glorious day. I look back on it fondly.’
When photographing children, Jayne always took a bag of toys.
‘That time I’d been to a joke shop and bought props, including one of those arrows that seems to go through the head.
‘My abiding memory is of Prince Charles standing behind me with it on, making silly noises, getting the boys to laugh. You can see they were laughing. That’s why.’
The image captured that day is one of her finest. William has his arms flung around his mother’s neck and both boys are relaxed and happy. Jayne also challenges the idea that Charles was less tactile with the children than Diana.
‘Take that yacht image of her running to them. There was one of him hugging them too, but the photo of her is the famous one.’
Pictured: Lisa Sheridan’s portrait of the Queen Mother with Charles and Anne in 1954
Some images really are timeless, and that’s the case with some of the Duchess of Cambridge’s most recent photos, which have been released in black and white. This suggests she is being increasingly confident with her editing, says Andrea Whelan.
The duchess continues to learn from the best – and to pass on her own skills.
One year ago, she was named as the new patron of the prestigious Royal Photographic Society, succeeding the Queen. She has taken part in several workshops for children.
She’s also embraced the challenge of taking portraits of subjects who are not part of her family.
Earlier this year she commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with a series of portraits of survivors and their families. The shots, in the style of the Dutch artist Vermeer, are highly stylised. Family portraits still, but ones with a specific tone.
Doubtless the duchess’s images will continue to captivate. There is one thing about them, though, that’s a bit sad. Like all images taken by a doting mother, they lack her in them.
‘Mums will be familiar with this,’ says Andrea. ‘They’re never in their own pictures. I hope someone is snapping her with them too, in those moments.’
And as good as the duchess is, there may still be a few challenges ahead.
‘What she doesn’t appear to have done yet is get all three children together, on their own,’ says Andrea. ‘If she can pull that off, I’ll be impressed.’
For details on how to take part in the Duchess of Cambridge’s Hold Still community photography project, visit npg.org.uk/hold-still.