An interview with Lord Snowdon from the BJP archives

In the Brick Street studio off Park Lane he joined a staff of 30, working in the darkrooms and finishing rooms and assisting in the studio. Was he ever given a free hand in the studio? “Never. I stood in awe of Baron and did as I was told.
“He was a great photographer, a great gentleman and I admired him tremendously. His real talent was in photographing the ballet but his bread-and-butter work was portraiture.
“There was a standard arrangement of spotlights: one main light high above the camera, one near the camera to fill in the shadows and make the eyes sparkle, one for the hair, one for the hands and one to light the tapestry background.
“There was very little bounced light in those days. The first person I knew who used it was John French, a much underrated photographer. It was he who influenced Donovan, Bailey and Duffy, who came ten years later. Anyway, I left Baron after six months because I was impatient.”
No 22 Pimlico Road, with its elegant Georgian door, is now one of the fashionable antique shops spilled out of Chelsea. When Armstrong-Jones took it over in 1952 it had been an ironmonger’s shop. He bought the door from a scrap heap, tore the shop’s inside apart, then planned, sawed and built it into a studio with a darkroom and sitting room at the rear. There was little room for a bed so he slept on top of his bookcase.
Two years later, when the cellar became vacant, he went through the floor, lowered a ladder into its dingy depths, then further indulged his love of DIY by turning it into an elegant basement apartment, cautiously reached by the narrow spiral staircase he designed.
During those productive Pimlico years, this energetic young photographer, in black sweater and black leather jacket, was a key figure among the Espresso arty set, drumming up business with a mixture of charm, cheek, an inquisitive interest in people, and above all, with a distinctive emergent talent that could be seen in Picture Post, The Tatler, Country Life, Queen, Vogue, The Sketch and The Express.
Debutantes flocked to the studio: budding beauties with an ambition to get into The Tatler and an ability to look alike. So Antony Armstrong-Jones went through the growing pains of new gimmicks, new angles – sometimes throwing yards of tulle or cellophane around his sitters while shooting from the top of a step-ladder – and made a new lighting system.
“I had to get away from copying Baron. I wanted daylight- daylight has always been important to me but there was no window in the studio. So I made a big aluminium box, six feet by three, filled with sixty 100W bulbs covered with tissue paper.
“It was a directional light source simulating daylight which could be hung from the ceiling or moved about. It folded up and fitted into the back of my car. And I found it useful in theatrical work, giving me an area in which people could move about without looking lit.
“In the early fifties I was going night after night to the Cafe de Paris, photographing cabaret artists from the balcony. Marlene Dietrich gave my first important sitting there one afternoon on the empty stage. I wanted smoke in the picture but as there wasn’t enough from her cigarette I had three people under the piano puffing out cigar smoke. I returned at 3a.m. with the contact prints which she carefully examined.
“’All right my dear boy,’ she said [here Snowdon’s voice dropped to low seductive tones]. ‘I like my face in this-a-one but I like the smoke in that-a-one.’ ‘But Miss Dietrich,’ I said, ‘these pictures have to go to press at nine o’ clock. It’s frightfully difficult and I really don’t know how to do it.’
“’My dear,’ she said, ‘all you do is put the negative of my face in the enlarger and shade this part back with your hands. All right? Then you take the negative of the smoke and print that one, shading the other bit. You have four hours so go along and do it.’
“I followed her instructions and she was absolutely right. She must have liked the photograph because years later she used it on a record sleeve.”