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© Roger George Clark / National Portrait Gallery, London
by Roger George Clarkbromide print, 4 October 19798 7/8 in. x 11 1/2 in. (224 mm x 291 mm)Purchased, 1982NPG x15116
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Roger George Clark
27 March 2017, 19:33
Roger George Clark describes how he took this portrait of Lord Snowdon
By Roger George Clark
Roger George Clark recalls the time - Thursday 4th October 1979 - he met and photographed Lord Snowdon who was going through a turbulent period in his life
‘Do you know what this is?’ asked Lord Snowdon handing me a purple-looking lens.
I had come to his west London studio in Kensington to interview him about his latest book and here he was throwing out a challenge before we had even started.
I peered through the glass. All the colours seemed to disappear and his studio looked as if it had changed to black and white.
‘It’s a panchromatic vision filter,’ I said. ‘It gives a visual impression of what a colour picture would look like when photographed with mono film.’
‘That’s right,’ said Snowdon with a smile.
Famous photographers liked to test me when I went to photograph them. Cecil Beaton had done it. So had Arnold Newman. They wanted to know if the young man they were dealing with knew anything about photography, or if I had just come for a gossip.
Lord Snowdon - or Snowdon as he insisted he was called - lived in an elegant house situated between Kensington High Street and Cromwell Road, within walking distance of the Royal Albert Hall. Dating from Regency times, his white stucco home had a round turret on the roof and an L-shaped garden out the back.
Arriving at 10 o’clock in the morning I rang the bell and the door was opened by Snowdon himself dressed in white corduroy jeans, a blue-striped open-necked shirt and brown leather boots. He smiled broadly, shook hands and invited me in.
All the ground floor was given over to his photography. One room served as an office, another as a darkroom and layout area, while down the hall was a small dressing-room next to his studio.
As I sat down in his office Snowdon asked: ‘What would I like to drink?’
‘I think I’ll have a sherry,’ I said.
Snowdon rattled through a pile of bottles on a table and laughed: ‘I haven’t any sherry.’
So we settled for vodkas and tonics.
While we sipped our drinks Snowdon said: ‘Do you mind waiting a few minutes if you’ve not in a hurry?’ I had come to see him at a crucial time in his career. The previous year his royal marriage had fallen apart and he had been divorced from Princess Margaret. Five months later he remarried and he and his new wife - Lucy Mary Lindsay-Hogg - now had a young daughter. I could hear baby Frances gurgling away in the background along with the whirl of a washing machine.
Snowdon gave me a copy of his latest book Personal View to look at. It was a sumptuous coffee table affair containing a distillation of his life’s work - portraits, fashion, theatre, artists, documentary and reportage, mostly in black and white. He had been taking photographs professionally for more than 25 years and had now produced a photographic autobiography in which he had gathered some of his best work. This was the reason I had come to see him. Since the collapse of his first marriage Snowdon was trying to pick up the pieces and re-establish himself in the public eye as a serious photographer.
But there was a problem. The Sunday Times, where he worked, had shut down for nearly a year because of interminable labour disputes and this had dashed hopes of large-scale publicity. Rival publications would hardly look upon his work with favour, let alone seriously discuss his pictures. Sensing an opportunity I got in touch. Would he agree to an interview for the world’s oldest photographic magazine, The British Journal of Photography? I wrote freelance articles for them in between working as a fulltime BBC radio producer and broadcaster. Snowdon agreed, but only after asking to see copies of other articles I had written for the BJP.
He had reason to be cautious. He was frequently attacked by the press, including the photographic magazine for which I wrote. Earlier in his career a BJP critic, Stuart Jones, had torn apart his book London in which he took a wry look at the capital. Venerable events - such as Trooping the Colour, the Chelsea Flower show and the Eton and Harrow cricket match - were viewed with irony: ‘I treated them with a slight sense of ridicule’, Snowdon admitted. The book was published when he was still called Tony Armstrong-Jones before his elevation to the peerage when he married Princess Margaret. It was atrociously printed in muddy litho and the pictures ruined. ‘Mr Jones,’ thundered Stuart Black in the BJP, ‘claims that all the photographs, except those in the section called Posing, were taken without any arrangement and presumably without the victims’ knowledge … isn’t it just as well for the photographer that he was invisible? In many cases, had he not been, would there not have been a great risk that he would have had his face bashed in?
Stuart Black accused the photographer of ‘implied racial prejudice’ and claimed he resembled ‘Peeping Toms’ for taking candids of courting couples. Above all he hated the blurred and grainy images. The London book was ‘a recital of squalors of the Upper Ten and the Submerged Tenth, the whole matched, I feel, by squalid photography.’
Snowdon had reproduced more than twenty pages of those photos in the book I was now looking at, plus scores of other pictures illustrating every aspect of his career. I spent the next half hour studying the book and making notes to add to those I had already prepared. When he returned Snowdon invited me into his studio at the back of the house. It was like a conservatory - a daylight studio at one end and an office at the other.
We sat down at a desk, coffee was brought in, I started my tape recorder and we spent the next 90 minutes talking photography. Apart from the royal family, about which he displayed a tight-lipped reticence, he talked freely and amusingly. At one point he gave a passable imitation of the entertainer Marlene Dietrich. Later he caught exactly the voices of the Poet Laureate John Betjeman and Noël Coward.
Snowdon told me he preferred natural light because he could see what he was doing and it was there. ‘I don’t like electronic flash,’ he said, ‘although I have to use it sometimes and also mix it with daylight. I take it on location, but seldom use it. In my new book there are hardly any pictures taken with flash. This studio here is very small’ - it was about 4 x 6 metres and just over 2 metres high - ‘It’s much smaller than my one in Pimlico. It’s at the back of the house and has walls on three sides. The studio faces west and most of the light comes from the top and is unflattering. It’s like a conservatory and looks onto a garden that has dark walls and ivy, so it couldn’t be worse. I’ve overcome the problem, however, by fixing to the windows plastic sheeting with a scratched surface. This bends the light at an angle and makes it stronger. I like side lighting best and put white reflectors outside to strengthen it. I’ve often taken beauty heads in here for Vogue using just daylight and reflectors.
‘The trouble with daylight,’ he went on, ‘is that it varies in colour, but I try to use that to my advantage. With flash everything becomes more standardised … I don’t like the sharpness and the harshness, even when it’s bounced. I enjoy controlling daylight in different ways. When I designed the studio at the Sunday Times it was just a huge greenhouse with controllable daylight. It had blinds on modules one metre square so you could have either north, south, east, or west light. Or you could open it all up and just have glass. It was very versatile, but other photographers preferred to black it out and use flash.’
The studio had since fallen into disuse and was now filled with machinery.
I asked Snowdon whether he deliberately set out to produce something different when he photographed someone? He said no: ‘To me the most important thing is to get something typical, so that the reader reacts by saying the picture is exactly like the person photographed. I never try to impose my own style, but try to bring out the character and mood of the subject as much as possible.’
Snowdon preferred using small cameras - 35mm, or 6 x 6 cm Rolleis and Hasselblads. He avoided tripods if possible as they tied him down and made for deader pictures. He also avoided motor drives believing you could still miss the moment when it was vital to press the shutter. A great photograph to him was one that moved him to laughter or sadness - ‘to think but not to wince ... What matters is whether the image makes you react ... The eyes are the most important part of the face.’ He admired the work of Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin and ‘the tremendous elegance and style’ of Irving Penn. Also the work of the theatrical photographer Angus McBean, Bill Brandt and the fashion photographer John French. As for
advising beginners … Move in close as possible to the subject and eliminate unnecessary detail. ‘It’s so simple. Many amateurs are just too far away.’
We talked about the many people he had photographed - Alec Guinness, Tolkien, Frederick Ashton, Charlie Chaplin and his disturbing encounters with the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev: ‘When we first met he tended to tear up prints he didn’t like.
“Please don’t do that”, I told him. “I’ve spent hours printing them. You can say don’t use a picture, but don’t tear it up”.’
During the 1960s he began photographing social problems for the Sunday Times - black and white photo essays showing the old, mentally ill, and children under stress: ‘I don’t want to photograph social problems in colour,’ he told me. ‘Colour is something that I use for romantic escapism.’ He hoped the pictures broke down barriers and created a better understanding: ‘I want to persuade people to read the article and provoke emotions, but not shock or horrify.’
We got on famously during the interview. At the end Snowdon invited me out to lunch. Walking down the road we came to a small restaurant. Snowdon ordered a bottle of red wine - he kept topping up my glass - and grilled fish. He had ordered the wine before we decided on the food and it was too late to change. Anyway, who was worrying? Over lunch we talked about photography. And he explained the problems he had organising the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle in 1969 on a budget of £5,000 and dealing with staid officials.
Afterwards we made our way back to the house to find that his wife had arrived laden with Harrods’ carrier bags filled with food. Then back to the studio once more, this time to take portraits. Drawing the blinds in the transparent ceiling Snowdon blacked out the overhead light and covered one wall with a black velvet curtain. Light streamed in from the plastic-covered windows on the left. To strengthen the light and enhance the contrast we carried out into the garden two large white polystyrene reflectors the size of doors and angled them at 45 degrees to the windows.
Returning to the studio I sat backwards on a kitchen chair while Snowdon made final adjustments to the blinds. He then took my place as I set up my Rolleiflex on a tripod. He refused to be photographed holding a camera - as he had earlier in his career - and as he would again later in life. He clutched the panchromatic vision filter instead.
As I was about to start taking pictures he asked: ‘What film are you using?’
‘Kodak Tri-X’, I replied.
‘That’ll be 1/15 sec at F5.6,’ he said.
I took a reading with my Weston Master 5 light meter. Snowdon was spot on. I photographed at a leisurely pace for the next hour and we tried out various poses.
I took more pictures as he worked on a model at his desk. As a joke he put a pair of scissors to his eyes and peered at the camera through the finger holes. More pictures - on the understanding that I was not to publish these while he was still living.
Then it was time to call a halt and return to my BBC job where work was piling up. A taxi was summoned and six hours after I arrived I left with enough material and photos to write two articles for the BJP. Earlier, as we reached the end of our recorded interview I had asked Snowdon what he would like said about him in an obituary.
‘“Photographer” - like it has on my passport,’ was the reply.
Roger George Clark - January 2017
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