Romeo & Juliet: Vogue’s Love of a Lifetime feature


Artistic analysis and commentary on paintings by pre-Raphaelite artists.

Thoughts and observations inspired by pictorial constructions of renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Vogue’s “Love of a Lifetime” feature spread, shot by the masterful Annie Leibovitz, is simply magnificent. Starring Coco Rocha as Juliet and ballet dancer Roberto Bolle of American Ballet Theatre as Romeo, the photographs resonate with an enchanting antiquity that captures the spirited romance and sombre tragedy of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Other celebrities featured in the spread are Estelle Parsons as the Nurse and John Lithgow as Friar Laurence, both of whom bring a sense of gravitas to the beatific.

Interpreting the art of theatre through the lens of photography demands that composition tell a story; words are subpoenaed by location, props, body language and facial expression. Liebovitz’s astute rendition of light and shadow, colour and design, posture and position draws the viewer in with enticing enchantment. The “Love of a Lifetime” feature tells the story of Romeo and Juliet with grace and dignity. The precise architecture of each shot suggests the nobility and grandeur typically associated with Italian High Renaissance painting, and true to renaissance art, Leibovitz’s characters are engaged in actions of great depth and significance. The viewer is lured into the dramatic atmosphere of each frame and beguiled into an emotional investment whilst simultaneously looking in as a critical observer. And so the photographs elicit an ambiguous response that is rooted in the expert rendition of art through photographic medium.

The Fateful Night

Romeo: O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
(Act I, Sc. 5)

The Harsh Truth

Nurse: His name is Romeo, and a Montague,
The only son of your great enemy.
Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.
(Act I, Sc. 5)

The Stolen Moment

Juliet: Three words, dear Romeo, and good night indeed
If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow.
(Act II, Sc. 2)

The Promise

Friar Laurence: These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.
(Act II, Sc. 6)

The Curse

Romeo: This day’s black fate on moe days doth depend,
This but begins the woe others must end.
(Act III, Sc. 1)

The Ruse

Friar Laurence: Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse, and as the custom is,
And in her best array, bear her to church;
For though fond nature bids us all lament,
Yet nature’s tears are reason’s merriment.
(Act IV, Sc. 5)

The End

Prince: A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was there a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
(Act V, Sc. 3)

The muted tones that envelope the images are tainted with virginal white and passionate red, emphasising heightened emotion. In The Fateful Night a winsome Juliet pines after a love she knows yet not, as Romeo openly adores the object of his new found affection. The stoicism of the Nurse in The Harsh Truth tells the tale of motherly love put to the test by a hope that is embroidered in the ecstasy of an illicit affair. The sanguine serenity of A Stolen Moment is sublime in its passionate perfection; an idealism undermined by the subtle menace of The Promise, in which the well-meaning Friar Laurence turns his face to the heavens for guidance (perhaps forgiveness) while the wedded lovers steal a kiss in the shadows. The image speaks through the use of light and shadow, telling a tale of star crossed lovers… doomed to the discovery of their fate; a fate sealed in The Curse by the retributive murder of Tybalt. The Ruse is prophetic in its envisionment of death; a pale and lifeless Juliet is secondary to the Friar’s staged consternation and the Nurse’s suspicious bewilderment. But interference is overruled by Destiny, the tale’s protagonist. In The End tragedy claims the lovers; enveloped in the blood red folds of poetic liebestod Romeo and Juliet find love only in death, as rendered through the exquisite imagining of Pre-Raphaelite sentiment.

The fearful passage of Romeo and Juliet’s death-mark’d love is told with the perceptive sensitivity of Leibovitz’s artistic sensibility. And so beauty is liberated through the freedom of expression; and the world is better for it.