Why Kate Middleton's birthday portraits of Prince George, Louis and Princess Charlotte are relatable
The Duchess of Cambridge's love of the arts is well documented. She studied art history at the University of St Andrews and after marriage became patron of two of London’s most prominent artistic institutions.
In recent years, the Duchess has also become a photography enthusiast, sharing personal photographs of her children on special occasions, from birthdays to first days of school.
It's become Cambridge tradition for Kensington Palace to release official portraits by the Duchess to mark the mini royals' birthdays each year. For Prince George's sixth birthday in July 2019, three undated pictures were revealed to have been taken on holiday in an undisclosed location.
As with many of Kate's portraits of her children, the photographs were taken outdoors and the young royal was all smiles as he posed for his mother.
Earlier in May of that same year, Kensington Palace also shared a set of pictures the Duchess had taken of her daughter Princess Charlotte to celebrate her fourth birthday.
The photos, which depict Charlotte playing in the grounds of Kensington Palace, followed portraits Kate had taken days prior for Prince Louis’ first birthday at her Norfolk home, Anmer Hall.
John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University and the author of Perception and Imaging: Photography as a Way of Seeing, says there's probably a reason Kate often photographs her children outdoors. Previously, she has shot her sons and daughters in locations including the grounds of her home, the steps of Kensington Palace’s courtyard and outside Prince Louis’ school.
“[Most of the] photos are not 'environmental portraits' in which we see the surroundings of the children, which could easily remind us of their royal upbringing,” he said.
Suler says this approach does what some previous royal portraits have arguably been unable to do - make the Cambridges seem like an ordinary family.
“Instead, these could be anyone's children, which encourages viewers to relate to the pictures.”
Kate’s skill with her camera has been noted in the past, with photographer Glenn Gratton telling the Daily Mail that she was “clearly using Photoshop” to improve her pictures and “feeling more confident with her camera”.
In 2018, the V&A’s senior curator Martin Barnes said the Duchess was “really knowledgeable” and understood the “technology behind the photos” following her appearance at the museum to open a new photography centre.
Kate serves as royal patron to the Victoria and Albert Museum and was seen exploring the photography centre's debut exhibit in October 2018, where she pored over vintage portraits and cameras.
Family photographer Andrea Whelan also assessed Kate's technical skill with a camera, delving into how her work has improved over the years and what she could also potentially stand to work on.
Whelan said one of the earliest photographs Kate shared with the public was her "favourite shot", namely the above portrait of Prince George before his first day of school in 2014. She explained that it had "no distractions" and noted his "cheeky face", praising the choice to shoot him in his uniform.
She said, "Sometimes the clothes make or break a portrait."
Whelan also deconstructed Kate's technical skill in Princess Charlotte's 2015 birthday portrait above, saying, "Great composition here. [She made] use of the wider depth of field to help us focus on Charlotte and blur the teddy."
While she noted that Prince George's first day of school portrait in 2016 was "quite striking", Whelan noted that the way Prince George fit into the frame actually might not have been the best choice for a happy occasion.
She said, "The central composition is quite striking and creates tension, which is congruent to the image as it's his first day at school."
While George's central composition and busy background may not have been a winner for Whelan, Middleton's portrait of Princess Charlotte the following year proved the Duchess had improved.
She said, "Lovely use of light and neutral background, [which] helps the subject Charlotte 'pop'."
Kate moved into more advanced territory in 2018 with Prince Louis' official birth portrait, as Whelan explained that Kate had managed to create "catchlights" in his eyes. Catchlights occur when a photographer is able to capture the reflection of a light source on a subject's eyes, which can help brighten a portrait.
She said, "Perfect catchlights in [Prince Louis'] eyes here, really brings the image to life."
While Kate has in the past shot many posed pictures of her children, she went outside of her comfort zone for Prince Louis' first birthday portrait taken on the grounds of their home Anmer Hall.
Whelan said, "Lovely action shot of the little prince here, great expression and depth of field."
And finally, she praised one of Kate's most recent pictures of Princess Charlotte in 2019, saying of the above, "A fine natural shot of the princess. Fab expression which shows a lot of personality and character."
In a pamphlet for the National Portrait Gallery's Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography exhibit the Duchess expanded on her interest in photography.
Victorian photography and “photographs of children in particular” were the basis of Kate's undergraduate thesis - knowledge she seems to have factored into her own work.
She also called herself an "enthusiastic amateur photographer".
Suler notes, “Rather than relying on professionals, people are doing their own photography, and sometimes become quite skilled at it, as in the case of these photos.”
“One advantage of this is how parents, rather than a 'stranger,' decide what moments and photographic styles best capture the personality of their children,” he finished.
But recently, Kate has expanded her subject range, most notably photographing Holocaust survivors for an exhibition marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Leading up to Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, 2020, Kate shared portraits of two survivors of the horrific genocide, photographing them alongside younger generations of their families.
One portrait depicted 84-year-old Steven Frank and his granddaughters, Maggie and Trixie. Frank, who grew up in Amsterdam, survived multiple concentration camps as a child.
Kate's second portrait featured 82-year-old Yvonne Bernstein and her granddaughter, Chloe. Bernstein was originally from Germany and was a hidden child in France throughout most of the Holocaust.
"I wanted to make the portraits deeply personal to Yvonne and Steven - a celebration of family and the life that they have built since they both arrived in Britain in the 1940s," Kate said of the portraits, which were taken at Kensington Palace. "The families brought items of personal significance with them, which are included in the photographs."
Kate's portraits were two of 75 images in the exhibition, which was organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Jewish News and the Royal Photographic Society (Kate is the royal patron of the latter). "It was a true honour to have been asked to participate in this project," she said.