Royal shutterbugs: The king and queen of photography


posted Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 7:06 PM EDT


As a working photographer, I have met the king of rock and roll, the king of Norway, and other royalty. Yet I never imagined that there was a king (or queen, for that matter) of photography. Certainly, no one ever called Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon or even Annie Leibovitz that. So who is this king of image-making?
It turns out he is a real king -- Bhumidol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand.

I had come upon him quite by accident while doing some Google searches of cameras of the aristocracy. He is also the subject of a short video titled "The King of Photography" (embedded below) along with a self-published book by Thai artist and photographer Tiane Doan na Champassak.
Adulyadej, amazingly, has ruled Thailand since June of 1946, making him the longest-ruling monarch alive, surpassing even Elizabeth II's 60-year reign. A true monarch, offenses against the king's dignity may get you tossed into jail posthaste, despite Thailand having a constitution and a democratic government, and Adulyadej's own belief that his actions should be open to criticism.
Adulyadej is a king obsessed with photography, and he is hardly ever seen without a camera. There are dozens and dozens of photographs of him with every conceivable type of camera in his hand or held poised at his eye. Yet despite the ever-present cameras, I could not find a single photograph he has taken, anywhere online. (Editor's Note: We did discover that there are at least two Thai royal photography museums dedicated to exhibiting his images, as well as a few photos of his photos on display.)
His reign has been long and has had its difficult moments. At 85, he is seen by many as distant and out of touch with his people. However, since you can't openly say things like that about the king, artist / photographer Champassak took a different tack. He illustrated this "distancing" by compiling a score or so of public domain images of the camera-toting ruler. (You can see some of them on the PhotoBook blog.)

Another Royal Shutterbug
I couldn't help but be reminded me of another royal with a passion for photography, and the strange encounter I had with her. I'm talking about none other than Queen Elizabeth II.

It was the 1980s, and the queen was visiting Vancouver and Seattle from the royal yacht, Britannia. I was shooting for the City of Seattle at that time and was assigned to photograph her walkabout of Seattle Center and the Space Needle. The morning of the event I arrived at the Center, where I was given a spot to stand between two large British secret service types.

After three hours of waiting in that small spot, the royal entourage finally arrived. Led by the queen and the Mayor of Seattle, the group included Prince Phillip and several ladies-in-waiting, who solemnly walked several paces behind Her Majesty. As they passed us, the queen glanced at me, paused and started to walk in my direction. The entire entourage turned in unison, following her like a flock of geese. As she neared, the men beside me stiffened to attention while I froze.
When she was just a few feet away I realized that she was not looking at me, but rather at the shiny Leica M4 dangling from my neck. After a moment of inspection she looked up, smiled, said "Lovely," and then immediately moved on.

The queen of England, like the king of Thailand, is an avid shutterbug, but she was known for her penchant for Leicas. My black enamel M4 was a bit of a rarity because only a few were ever made -- it was just before Leica switched to the longer-lasting black chrome finish -- and she noticed it.

Keeping a Ruling Distance 
In creating "The King of Photography," Tiane Doan na Champassak makes a point about how a ruler may use his or her camera. The book suggests that with his camera, Adulyadej keeps distance between himself and the Thai people. The implication is that, like his photographic subjects, the king sees those he rules as only representations of real people.
When I thought about it, I felt sympathy for the old king. After all, he isn't the only one who has put a camera between themselves and the world. Haven't you ever gone somewhere and taken hundreds of photographs, never putting your camera down long enough to actually experience where you were, and the people around you?
I know I have, and I'm not even a Prince of Photography.

THE KING OF PHOTOGRAPHY from Tiane Doan na Champassak on Vimeo.

You can read more of Steve's fascinating takes on the history of photography at Imaging Resource: