An interview with Lord Snowdon from the BJP archives

While viewing the exhibition, British Photography 1955 to 1965 at The Photographer’s Gallery, I felt it represented the most exciting period of creative photography in our time. Would he agree?
“I never saw the exhibition and I’m not sure what was in it. Certainly there were exciting things going on for me, thanks to Picture Post, Queen and Harper’s. I was absorbed in theatre things and in loosening up fashion. The sixties brought the Sunday Times colour magazine, giving me space for serious features.
“Being a supplement it didn’t have to sell on the news stand so it didn’t need a glamorous cover. It had solid worthwhile features as done on the continent and in America. We never had this in our country except for Picture Post and Illustrated, which were gone by the sixties. Now magazines won’t give the space for such features.”
Did he ever go to photographic exhibitions? “Not often. Occasionally I’ll go in quietly on my own if there are few people about. But I’d rather see photographs in magazines than in galleries.”
Now that we have a splendid gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum permanently given to photography, if the V&A can accept photography as an art form why can’t Lord Snowdon? “I think that old masters of painting and sculpture would be shocked to see photography given equal status with their work. I’m all for archives where photography can be discussed out loud rather than in reverent whispers in a gallery.
“Look, this is art.” He eagerly held up a poster advertising the Oliver Messel Exhibition. “You really must see this at the V&A.” This exhibition, currently on view until 30 October, is drawn from a collection of designs, model sets, costumes and photographs which Britain’s most active and influential stage and film designer, Oliver Messel bequeathed to his nephew. Lord Snowdon.
So many photographers, past and present, have studied painting and seen their work aligned to it. Would he not agree that the painter and the creative photographer have much in common, a trained eye, a fertile imagination, an appreciation of form, composition, light and shadow?
“Other photographers may perhaps see themselves as artists but I still don’t think photography is an art.”
But what of multi-media artists who use both the brush and the camera? Is David Hockney less of an artist when he switches from painting and drawing to photography? “Perhaps we should stick to the medium we handle best. If I try switching to drawing I make a mess of it. Let’s go into the garden.”
Nature had minimal interference on that patch of green, but then it would be difficult to picture Lord Snowdon tending herbaceous borders. Its focal point was an elevated stone head of Michelangelo’s David before a semi circle of foxgloves.
“Look!” he said, gleefully pointing to it. “That’s what life is all about. Romantic escapism.” Would he rather not catch the dramas of real life? “I like both.”
We left escapism for the practicality of his workroom, viewing some experimental colour transparencies taken of his personal assistant. With photography largely gone over to colour, particularly in portraiture and illustration, did he regret the waning interest in black-and-white?
“Yes, why not. I don’t really see a face in colour. I see its shape. Most faces I photograph, apart from the eyes, are either pink or yellow. I’d much rather work in black-and-white for almost everything. In illustration we’re only conned into colour to sell the advertising space – flogging the baked beans is important to the magazine.
“It’s different if you’re photographing someone within a colourful environment or if you are doing beauty heads. I’ve just done another book called Sittings 1979 to 1983 which is mostly in black-and-white and quite a lot of it done in this tiny studio.”