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No paparazzo

Ray Bellisario was the royal photographer the Queen tried to ban before Diana was even born. He put Tessa Mayes in the picture

Ray Bellisario pioneered the use of long-range lenses to take intimate pictures of the royals more than 30 years before 'paparazzi' became a dirty word. He prefers the title photojournalist. 'Paparazzo' conjures up the image of the photographer as immoral money-grabber, and Bellisario views himself as a man of principle. 'The only reason I did things such as photograph over brick walls', he says, 'is because I was pushed into it by the palace'.

How did this mild-mannered photographer from aristocratic Roman stock come to be seen as such a nuisance to the royals that palace officialdom attempted to destroy his career?

It all started in 1961 when commander Richard Colville, the Queen's press secretary (1947-1968), accused him of intentionally breaching official protocol to cover the royal tour of India and Pakistan. Unused to travelling abroad with the royals, Bellisario had committed the cardinal sin of asking the Indian High Commission for press accreditation, rather than applying to the palace. When Colville discovered the photographer had not got palace accreditation, he assumed that Bellisario was trying to join the royal entourage unofficially.

'Colville accused me of lying and abusing the Queen's hospitality', remembers Bellisario. 'He said I was not going to get palace accreditation to follow the Queen's tour of India. He said that whatever accreditation I had got from the Indian High Commission, he'd cancel it, and furthermore he would see to it that I never got a pass again to photograph the royal family.' A friend and former Picture Post cameraman warned Bellisario that 'Colville is a bastard. Once he's got his knife in your back, he'll never take it out'.

Bellisario's banishment came out of the blue. 'Up to that point, the young princesses - Margaret, Alexandra and even the Queen - loved being photographed as trend-setting, beautiful ladies in their evening gowns and tiaras. They used to acknowledge me with a nod and smile.' Glitzy colour shots of these high society girls were in demand. His photographs adorned magazine covers and illustrated endless articles on the royals in the British and foreign press. On one occasion, the request for a photograph came from Princess Alexandra ('a friendly person') and he was happy to oblige.

But Colville kept his word. Suddenly Bellisario found that he was denied permission to photograph royal engagements not just in India, but in London. There were other incidents where policemen would walk over to obstruct his line of vision. Occasionally he would be dragged away.

Finally, Ray Bellisario was summoned to meet a high-ranking police officer at Scotland Yard. 'I wasn't accused of anything, but I got a stern warning. He told me - in front of my solicitor - that I had gone around taking photographs of the royal family at any time I wished. He said, "It's going to stop. If it doesn't, I'll pin something on you and I'll see that it sticks".'

At the start of the sixties, press deference ensured that the royals could still impose draconian reporting restrictions without much protest. Little had changed, it seemed, since the thirties, when Edward VIII's affair with Mrs Simpson (which was all over the European papers) went unreported in Britain for six years before the abdication crisis. Once the palace had exiled him, however, Ray Bellisario had to make up new rules of his own.

Unwittingly, the photographer who had begun his career as a favoured royal image-maker became an image-breaker. He bought long-range lenses after being barred from the press enclosures, so that he could zoom in for close-ups. After his removal from the royal parks he bought all the ordinance survey maps for Windsor Park, Balmoral and Sandringham - 'anywhere the royals ever went' - which detailed the public pathways that he was still entitled to use. 'I didn't care what the royal family did. If they did it within my view, I was prepared to photograph them.'

As a result Bellisario's collection of royal photographs became more intimate, comprising shots of private, unguarded moments, compared with the more posed official photographs obtained by others.

In December 1964, following a formal complaint by the Queen herself, the Press Council condemned Ray Bellisario's actions as an 'unreasonable intrusion on the private lives' of the royals. His crime this time? Photographing the Queen and Princess Margaret in a park without their knowledge. Images of the Queen enjoying a picnic and Margaret in her swimsuit were splashed in the Sunday Express and the People.

In a statement the palace warned the whole of Fleet Street: 'It is Her Majesty's hope that the use of pictures taken under such circumstances may be discouraged, and these activities will therefore become less profitable to the offending photographers.'

Newspaper editors responded by refusing to use Bellisario's work, or other similarly candid shots of the royals. In the popular press he was labelled 'royal pest', 'royal scourge' and 'royal pain in the neck'. One journalist even claimed that Bellisario had disguised himself as a bush.

If the palace officials hoped the young photographer would pack up his cameras and go home to Italy, they were to be disappointed. 'Bellisario comes from my Roman ancestor's name, Caesar's general Belisarius, which means warlike in Latin'‚ he smiles mischievously. 'Somewhere in my blood there is something that will hit back when pushed so far. You can't let people in Colville's position push his weight around.'

Although a republican, Bellisario had originally taken his pictures in order to make a living, not to undermine the royals. Now this supremely privileged family was using its power not just to stop him taking pictures in officially sanctioned royal places, but to prevent him photographing what he liked in public places. 'When public figures do things in public places they cannot complain if somebody photographs them in that situation', he insists. He continued to record the royals' unguarded moments but sold most of his work overseas. It revealed a different side to the royals - and not always a flattering one.

A photograph he is most proud of is of Princess Anne falling off a horse in the seventies. 'I'd planned it for a long time, turning up to all the horse trials time after time', he recalls. 'She knew I had photographed her riding plenty of times and was after that one shot. She said "you'll never get it". But I did.'

In the aftermath of Diana's death, the methods Bellisario used to get some of his pictures are now widely condemned as unethical. Photographs obtained through persistent pursuit, unlawful behaviour, intimidation or harassment are banned under the Press Complaints Commission's revised 1998 Code of Practice. Even the News of the World now asks its photographers to sign a similar code of conduct.

When it comes to the private lives of public figures, the critics argue, do we really need to know all and see all? Ray Bellisario's view is simple. You never know when something significant will happen, so the best solution is to keep up the surveillance. Take Bellisario's black and white snatched shot reprinted on page nine. It looks like a woman taking a quiet stroll with a friend in a park. In fact it is the Queen walking with her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, in the grounds of Buckingham palace during the late sixties. This was the first meeting between the Queen and the Duke since he was officially cast out after abdicating the throne. The palace denied the meeting took place. The photograph has never been published before in the British press.

Even for Bellisario, however, there are limits to what photographs he will release for publication. Despite being happy to have sold the infamous swimsuit shots of Princess Margaret, he refused to release photographs of her then husband Lord Snowdon in his swimming trunks which were 'out of taste'; they revealed his emaciated left leg, the result of suffering from polio as a boy. Nor would Bellisario have photographed Princess Diana looking distressed. 'My own sense of dignity, decorum and self-respect'‚ he explains, 'would prevent me from selling those kind of shots which invade somebody's private and personal life and are not of concern to the public'.

The monarchy continues to renegotiate public and private no-go areas for the press. Prince William issued a statement this summer criticising the Sunday Mirror for revealing the surprise fiftieth birthday celebration he planned for his father, and warning the press off invading his privacy. You might think that such details are not worth knowing about anyway. But to Bellisario the shift in image control back in favour of the royal family is a problem: 'They keep certain things hidden, whether it's about their money and investments in apartheid South Africa, or other shocking things that if people were to find out would be disastrous for the monarchy.'

Ray Bellisario's dark eyes look straight at me when I ask if he has any regrets about taking on the royal establishment. 'It was something I did out of a tremendous principle. The royals can't just push people around.'

Despite official denials, Bellisario snapped the Queen's meeting with the disgraced Duke of Windsor. This picture has never before been published in the British pressphotos: ray bellisario

Anne dethroned

Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998

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