Arrivals: On chatting terms with the queen

The aliya story of Charles Green, who was the official investiture photographer of Queen Elizabeth II, and moved from London to Netanya in 2013.

Charles Green (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Charles Green
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Charles Green’s father disappeared from his life when he was six months old, leaving his mother to raise her son alone.
She worked day and night, mending runs in silk stockings – they were a valuable commodity in the early ’50s – to give her son a good Jewish education, never compromising her religious beliefs.
From this inauspicious start in life, in the English seaside resort of Brighton, he went on to become the official investiture photographer of Queen Elizabeth II – quite a journey for the modest 65-year-old, who today lives in Netanya with his wife, Toni, having made aliya in 2013.
“The only thing I got from my father is that I am a kohen, as he was,” says Green.
The photos of the queen and other famous people are legendary – he has published several books, and his latest portrait of Her Majesty was used on a $20 Canadian bill – but how did an observant boy with a hardworking single mother rise to such dizzy heights?
“When I was a little boy, my mother worked all day on the stockings, and on Sundays she would deliver them,” recalls Green. “So for as long as I can remember, I was put in the local cinema to watch cartoons, with instructions to the usherettes to keep an eye on me.”
Perhaps his love of films and his ambition to be a film director stemmed from these early experiences.
He went on to study film at the Covent Garden Film School, and was shortlisted for a job with BBC television as a trainee. “It was an amazing opportunity,” he explains.
“In those days if you got a job at the BBC, it was for life.”
But when he was told he would have to work one Saturday in four, he had to turn down the offer, not being prepared to work on Shabbat.
When he was 10 his mother began to worry that if they stayed in Brighton he would not get a Jewish education; she decided to come to Israel. In 1960 mother and son arrived, settling in Ramat Gan.
For six years Green was in the Israeli school system, learning to speak fluent Hebrew. But he had set his heart on photography, which he could not study here, so he returned to England.
By the age of 17, he was doing odd jobs with the first camera he owned, purchased for him by his mother.
“I was very into pop music and played the guitar in a pop group,” he recounts. “I used to photograph pop singers and later develop the photos in the bathroom, as of course I had no darkroom.”
He was earning £20 a week and decided to take a holiday with friends. But his pals all wanted to go to Israel and he had just left – so he went to Rimini, Italy, instead. There he met Toni, from Antwerp, staying with her family at another hotel.
“We went out together every day – and on the last night I proposed,” he recalls. With marriage ahead and no real income, Toni came up with the idea of doing weddings.
“I’ll do it if I have to,” said the young Green, feeling it would be a comedown from the pop singer photos – but willing to try.
He advertised by pinning a photo of a singer he had taken in a kosher restaurant in London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood, with the words “Outstanding Wedding Photography” added. The ad worked and he got his first job with a bride who believed in him, even when he admitted he had never done a wedding.
To this day, the two couples are friends. “I rented two cameras for the weekend,” he remembers, “and practiced all day Friday.”
In May 1972, he and Toni married, and he found he enjoyed being a wedding photographer. “They were fun – there was always good food, a happy atmosphere and they paid well.”
Green became very busy and also made his name, not just for great photos but for his original ideas. He was the first photographer to take couples outside for photos in nature.
He worked and studied hard, gaining qualifications in Britain and the US, lecturing all over the world. “I was one of the first photographers to go digital in 2000,” he points out.
With a large studio in Edgware, London, where they lived, Charles Green Photography became a byword for stunning family photos and simha photography.
One day, after returning from a holiday abroad, the couple found a message on their answering machine. A plummy voice, belonging to the queen’s secretary, said they were looking for a photographer for investitures at Buckingham Palace, and would he give them a ring? After wondering whether the whole thing was a practical joke, Charles and Toni decided it was authentic and called back. He was invited to the palace for an interview.
With the feeling that he didn’t really care whether he got the job or not, he naturally passed with flying colors.
“I don’t work on Saturdays,” Charles was quick to emphasize to the four aristocratic gentlemen who interviewed him. “Oh, don’t worry, no investitures are held on any religious days of any religion,” they assured him.
After the nearly hour-long interview and being shown around the palace and grounds, he went home on a high but as time went on, gradually forgot about it and carried on working.
One afternoon about two weeks later, sitting with a friend who was the head of Edgware’s Rosh Pinah Primary School, the phone rang and Toni answered. It was Buckingham Palace, to tell him he had the contract. “Within an hour the whole community knew – as the headmaster told the children, who all told their parents,” he laughs.
Now he was nervous. “We couldn’t sleep with the excitement of it all. I knew I had a lot of work to do, recruiting and training staff to help.”
He immediately stopped doing weddings, except for those already booked, realizing that 28 investitures a year – each with 100 recipients and their families – would be a full-time job. Each person who received an honor, whether a knighthood or an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), would want photos with their entire family.
By 1992, Charles was working at the palace every week: “I became part of the scenery.” But he had not yet met the queen.
A year after he started he was asked to photograph the Gentlemen at Arms, all robed in red, with the queen at the center of the picture.
“We set up everything at 8.a.m. and she was due to arrive at 10,” he says. “On the dot of 10, she walked in – a short lady, beautiful with very blue eyes. There was a total hush, no one spoke. I knew I was supposed to say a special blessing on seeing a sovereign, but couldn’t remember it,” he details. “It was a great moment to be personally introduced to Her Majesty.”
The queen sat down and put her ubiquitous handbag next to her feet. “In the final picture, it didn’t look right and I had to remove it,” he reveals. “It was complicated, as it was long before Photoshop.”
He continued working at the palace for 20 years, photographing the queen and other members of the royal family on many occasions.
“She’s a fabulous lady, really interested in what you have to say,” he enthuses.
Today, happily retired, he and Toni reside in a beautiful home overlooking the sea, and he fills his days with studies at Bar-Ilan University, swimming and visiting the couple’s three children and nine grandchildren – all of whom live in Israel as well.
“Now, we’re living in paradise,” says Charles with joy.