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Photographer shares story behind iconic Princess Diana moment

Although Princess Diana rose to become a style icon, she captivated the world’s heart during her early days as a shy and blushing nursery school teacher.

One of the long-time royal photographers who captured her rise spoke with TODAY at the site of one of the first famous pictures he took of her — and he insists that the revealing September 1980 photo, which captured a rare fashion faux pas, had very innocent beginnings.

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Remembering Princess Diana when she was still just 'Shy Di'

Play Video - 3:31

Remembering Princess Diana when she was still just 'Shy Di'

Play Video - 3:31

“I didn't do it on purpose, I promise. I didn't do it to embarrass her, but it was such a good picture you couldn't not publish it,” said Arthur Edwards, describing the now-famous backlit photo he captured of the skirt-wearing Diana.

Arthur Edwards / Rex via Shutterstock
Photographer Arthur Edwards captured this revealing shot of Princess Diana (then Lady Diana Spencer), with two children from the nursery school where she taught in 1980.

Edwards had just become the royal photographer for the British tabloid publication, “The Sun,” when he went searching for the new girlfriend of one of the world’s most eligible bachelors at the time, Prince Charles.

He knew she worked at a preschool in London’s West End neighborhood so he began knocking on doors until he found the right one.

Getty Images
Lady Diana Spencer, fiancee of Prince Charles, leaving her home in London in 1981.

With permission from the school’s owner, Edwards brought the former Lady Diana Spencer to a nearby park, along with two children she had with her.

“She posed up and I did half a dozen pictures,” he said.

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Soon, other photographers converged on the scene and started taking pictures of their own. All seemed fine until a couple of minutes later.

REX via Shutterstock
On a sunny day in London in 1980, photographers captured Prince Charles's girlfriend, the future Princess Diana, when she worked as a nursery school assistant at the Young England Kindergarten.

“Everybody doesn't believe this but it is the gospel truth — halfway through, the sun came out and revealed those beautiful legs,” Edwards said.

In all, the encounter that captured "this amazing silhouette picture" only lasted two or three minutes.

"In many ways, I'm glad the sun came out because it made it an iconic picture," one that almost always comes up whenever he gives lectures about his work, Edwards said.

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Newspapers splashed the photo across their front pages, horrifying the young Diana, who was only 19 at the time. She reportedly declared to Prince Charles: “I don't want to be known as the girlfriend who had no petticoat.”

Reginald Davis/REX/Shutterstock
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on their engagement day at Buckingham Palace in 1981.

Edwards went on to work frequently with Diana, who died on Aug. 31, 1997, in a Paris car crash after being chased by paparazzi.

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“She was obviously just a charming person. She was never rude, she was never aggressive, she was always pleasant,” Edwards said.

Diana and Prince Charles eventually got married on July 29, 1981. They divorced 15 years later.

“I think she knew this running the gauntlet every day of the media was part of the test, part of getting ready for the job,” said Edwards, who has since taken pictures of seven royal weddings, four funerals and seven royal births.

Torsten Blackwood / AFP-Getty Images
Princess Diana waves to the public as she leaves the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney on November 1, 1996.

Diana's gradual transformation into “the people’s princess” eventually helped improve the public perception of the monarchy, he noted. Diana allowed herself to be photographed holding sick infants. She hugged people who had AIDS and touched leprosy patients.

Tim Graham via Getty Images
Princess Diana at Neves Bendinha, an ICRC Orthopaedic Workshop In Luanda, Angola in 1997.

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“This woman changed the way it all worked and that's how it goes today. Her sons are doing exactly the same thing, and Catherine as well,” Edwards said, referring to the charity work conducted by Prince Harry, his big brother, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife, Duchess Kate.

Edwards singled out Harry's girlfriend, actress Meghan Markle, saying she will need to have the same fortitude as Diana if she eventually joins the royal family.

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“It's tremendous pressure. If they can cope with that pressure, then they can do the job. If they can't cope with it, then they're better off to get out,” he said. “It's better that they cope with it at these stages and it's a lot easier than it was for Diana.”

For more on Princess Diana’s life, tune in to Dateline on Friday at 9/8pm central.

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