Hugo Burnand on photographing the Coronation – joking with a King, pomp and planning
Setting off for Buckingham Palace on his bicycle on Coronation day, royal photographer Hugo Burnand was just hours away from taking the official portraits of the newly crowned King Charles and Queen Camilla. But as he cycled through Hyde Park in the sunshine, if he was feeling any nerves ahead of the momentous occasion, he certainly didn’t show it.
“Yes, it’s big, but I didn’t get blown away by the enormity of it – I was just photographing people I’ve known for a long time,” he smiles afterwards, settling down with us at the luxurious COMO The Halkin hotel near the Palace. “I’m able to crack and share a joke with them and that enables me to get on with the job of photography without thinking, ‘Ooh it’s the King!’ “I can get emotional – I really hope I don’t today,” he says, having dashed to meet us from dismantling his equipment in the Throne Room.
He’s funny and friendly, and asks for a glass of water, quipping, “If I have a gin and tonic I’ll tell you everything.” We can see why the royal family feel so at ease with him.
With a unique 20-year relationship reflected in the portraits he took on the day, Hugo, 59, has also photographed the weddings of King Charles and Queen Camilla as well as Prince William and Princess Catherine. “They’re not fools and they know that I’ve been round the block with them a few times. And this was the last official appointment, so I could say, ‘Come on, let’s go for it, let’s do it!’”
Since Coronation day, which saw Prince Harry reunite with the rest of the royal clan, Hugo’s official portrait of the King has been seen all over the world and was taken with one very clear goal in mind – to ‘keep it real’. “That is the Throne Room. That is the King. That is who you’re getting, there’s no fantasy,” he says.
Commenting on the contrast between this and the famous coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, he says, “It’s very different from [photographer] Cecil Beaton, who had the 25-year-old starlet who was beautiful and you could photograph in any light from any angle and would literally sparkle. I wanted to show you the real man at the end of a really long day, still showing his dedication to duty.”
Did he get to share a joke with the King? “Yes, but I can’t possibly tell you what. I could make you fall off your chair!” Hugo’s one regret was that he didn’t manage to capture his own image reflected in the King’s orb. He explained: “It was one of the rules – I had to get myself in the job. But I took the shot on quite a long lens and I was so far away, so I thought, ‘I just have to get over that personal ambition. The only way I can get in there is by cheating.’ And the reason why I like these photographs is because they are authentic.”
Hugo, who admits, “I do have imposter syndrome, I’m just paddling away underneath!” says if he felt nervous, he didn’t show it. The only stress on the big day was looking for his missing waistcoat that morning, which “someone must have put in the bin”.
When it came to the shoot, everything went like clockwork. Given just one hour to capture a moment in history, the smooth running was down to the “quite strict” three-day preparations Hugo and his “amazing and fantastic” team of six made before the big day, including “replacements for replacements” for each piece of equipment and using his colleagues in place of the royals to perfect the lighting.
“You don’t always want someone with youthful skin and good bone structure, as they are going to look good in any lighting, wearing anything,” he says. ”[Otherwise] you’ll take the test and it’s amazing. Then when you get to the real McCoy, you think, ‘S**t! Maybe we should have practised this!’” he laughs.
Talking about the chaos that can ensue at any family gathering, Hugo says, “There was a lovely atmosphere in there. There were definitely more people than we needed but that was really nice. Again, had I been a newbie, I would probably have melted or panicked. But I don’t have a problem telling people to get out of the way. I know what’s got to be done, and there was a festive atmosphere that was helpful in that it buoyed everyone’s spirits.”
“This was the first time all day they weren’t ‘on show’ so there was a really good feeling throughout. I’ve taken pictures of families where the children are far too well-behaved and l looked at the photos and I didn’t want to be a part of that family! I love it when children are children.” And the secret to keeping so many famous faces all looking at the lens in those group shots?
“Just keep talking. I’m never rude and will never call people by their first name if they shouldn’t be, but I talk utter nonsense, which is the polite word for the b*****ks that comes out of my mouth,” he laughs. “I literally don’t know what I’m saying but it’s got their attention. When I am the one talking I don’t have open mouths of people talking and chatting to each other because they’re listening to me.”
As he proudly shows us his historic portrait of Queen Camilla, he comments, “She looks beautiful – happy and content.” Of the shot of the King and Queen together, he notes, “It’s a very formal picture but what I hope you notice is that they’re so close and supportive of each other, with the sense of humour that they share as well as the responsibility of duty. When I see them together, I always feel that theirs is a real love story that has survived so much.”
Having spent a truly historic day at work, Hugo and the team cycled back home again in the driving rain and, this time, got soaked to the skin. After drying off, there were no immediate celebrations “and definitely no alcohol” as they had to stay alert to edit and prepare the portraits for the world’s media.
“But we made up for lost time after that,” Hugo jokes, admitting that the ensuing 12 hour sleep he enjoyed may have been an indicator of just how demanding the experience was.
What was his favourite memory of the day? “I’m not sure if I am far enough away from it yet,” he reflects. “They both were so kind and generous in spirit and I really liked that.” Although he promised us he wouldn’t get emotional, Hugo’s eyes fill with tears. “The kindness the royal family – and especially King Charles – showed me and my team during this entire shoot was phenomenal. He’s really, really special.”
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