An interview with Lord Snowdon from the BJP archives

In the mid fifties, experimental drama in the theatre became complemented by eye-stopping displays outside it. The little old production stills, dramatically lit, heavily retouched, were suddenly ousted by big grainy blow-ups, bringing the movement of the play to the streets and the name of Armstrong-Jones to the fore.
“Although I have deliberately tried to make patterns with grain, and grain was taboo then, my theatre stills were grainy because they happened to be very large prints blown up from 35mm negatives, and because I often had to push the film. When I was employed to take photographs for a particular play my heart was in it. I wanted to make people get off the buses and buy theatre tickets.
“It was as much fun designing a display outside the theatre as taking the photographs. Sometimes I experimented with action shots during the performance. Sometimes I took the cast outdoors and had them act out a situation in the mood of the play, which didn’t please the set designers.”
Vogue snapped him up and directed his inventive eye towards fashion. And seeing that clothes were for living in, he would turn a sitting into a running, a leaping, a dancing, or even a soaking. Dressed to kill, the model would be perched in a tree, on a scrap heap, hanging from a crane, slipping on a banana skin, or up to the neck in water.
“I wanted to get away from those staid set pieces of stylised fashion. Fashion photography was much more haphazard then. You worked with an editor who got the clothes together, but there was no hairdresser and the model applied her own make-up.
“Clothes never fitted so you used bulldog clips at the waist and Scotch tape at the hem. All those silly pictures I took people hanging upside down, slipping on banana skins, well, I was young and wanted a bit of light relief.”
Editors must have appreciated pictures that looked fresh and original? “If you think they were fresh, that’s nice. But editors more likely appreciated that I was bonkers.”
When he hung his first exhibition, Photo Call, at Kodak House, turning the show room into a maze of grainy blow ups, Kodak’s could have broadly agreed with Snowdon’s self-assessment. Out were the customary rows of black-framed squares, and in was a set of enormous photomurals enlarged from 35mm negatives.
Portraits and landscapes mingled with the world of fashion, advertising and theatre, and a leaping ballerina, 19ft high, seemed curbed only by the height of the ceiling. Variety and versatility was one thing, but to Kodak, grainy images was another.
“The day before the opening I was summoned before the Board of Directors, who said, ‘We at Kodak make high quality fine grain film and we don’t wish to see our film promoted in this way.’ I told them not to worry because I’d taken it all on llford film.
“But they insisted I take a portrait on fine grain film with one of their plate cameras. All their photographs came out blurred so they used mine taken with a Leica still on llford film.”
1958 saw his first publication, London, a book of photographs showing the many facets of London life. He considers it “amazingly outdated” now. It has touches of nostalgia – a railway platform in steam, Lady Docker in ermine – but the flow of London life through Harrods, Sotheby’s, the Royal Ballet, the Stock Exchange, strip show, coffee bars and pubs, has hardly changed. He used his Leica to catch everyday situations as they happened, and the results were a foretaste of the more serious documentary work to come.
Antony Armstrong-Jones’ much publicised skill as a portraitist enabled him to cast his net widely among the famous. Ultimately it reached royalty. In response to the photographer’s request, the Duke of Kent drove to Pimlico for a sitting. The portrait was published and the Palace was pleased. Within two weeks the Royal Family were his sitters. And within four years they were his in-laws.
Royal wedding bells in 1960 were not the death knell of Armstrong-Jones’ career. As consort to HRH Princess Margaret he would be the supporting background figure at her official engagements. As Earl of Snowdon he would spread his patronage widely over the arts and the charities while seeking appropriate outlets for his talents.
He took an unpaid position at the Design Centre and a long-term crusade to improve the standard of industrial design in Britain. One of his more well known creations was the London Zoo Aviary, for which he did some of the pipe work.