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Transforming light into flesh

Scripts can be revealing. One such script – the fourth episode of Netflix’s second series of The Crown – leaves a lasting impression. It is punctured by certain sounds: [CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKS], [CAMERA WINDING], [CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING]. The result is an episode ghosted by the image of the camera and its lens. Why should this be the case in an episode exploring the beginnings of a love affair – one between photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Good) and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby)? What is its relation to the experience of love?

Our fascination with the photograph stems from the relation that the image maintains with its subject. Philosophers have articulated how this incites pleasure. Roland Barthes writes how “the [figure]…has really touched the surface, which my gaze will touch…[L]ight is here a carnal medium”. In other words, photography displays its magic, produced by light, by connecting the viewer with the body of the photographed.

Photography can be erotic as it captures a body that we can touch with our gaze. It is fitting, then, that the royal love affair develops with the development of a photograph. We are shown intense close-ups of the couple’s hands – leading the other to the photograph in the chemical bath; gliding paper over the surface of water; taking a corner, lifting it, and revealing the white of a shoulder. The Crown shows that the photograph can only be created by touching the surface – we view with our hands – much like love and desire.

This glimpse of a shoulder epitomises how we see photographs as fragments. The words “and flash” echo through episode four. The images exist only in a flash, or as Eduardo Cadava writes “a slash of light”. The episode shows how this fragmentation seduces us, exploring photography’s fetishist gaze. Apart from its sexual meaning, fetish also refers to an object that has magical powers. Arguably the meaning of a photograph, its magic, is embodied in these close-up fragments.

The episode begins with Armstrong Jones as a wedding photographer, his photographs enlarging certain details: the laces of a child’s boot, the ribbon on a man’s hat, and the white flower in a guest’s lapel. It is these seemingly insignificant details, “qualities easy to miss”, that carry the essence of photography. The same can be said for love. It is only a certain fragment of Margaret’s photograph – her eyes – that carry the eroticism. The point is emphasised by the box of Margaret’s engagement ring. It is decorated with her eyes, torn out from the photograph. What arrests us with both love and photography, then, is a marginal or unexpected detail that somehow carries the meaning of their image.

Contemplating love and photography, Barthes writes how “we must think of something other than simply light or photography: we must think of…the last music”. He articulates a certain link, or “correspondence” between music and photography – a relationship that is equally explored in The Crown. We hear the sensual voice of The Flamingos vibrating through episode four, singing “My love must be a kind of blind love. I can’t see anyone but you”.

The sound quite literally underscores a fascination with the erotic potential of the surface of images. Like the photograph, music has the power to leave an imprint or a trace because of its rhythm. Rhythm literally means “type” meaning to mark or imprint – be that on wax or vinyl.

Margaret dancing to I Only Have Eyes for You transforms her into another kind of erotic surface. Her body moves as if to a rhythm that begs to inscribe – one that Kirby sensuously harnesses.

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