An interview with Lord Snowdon from the BJP archives

Since his withdrawal from public life has it been like a return to the lifestyle of Pimlico? “Things haven’t changed very much because I’ve always worked at home. Except when I designed a studio on the roof of the Sunday Times, a huge greenhouse with movable blinds, giving controlled daylight from any direction. When it was hired out to other photographers they pointlessly blacked it out and used flash.
“This studio here is even smaller than the Pimlico one and the roof is ridiculously low. There I had no daylight; here I have daylight but from the wrong direction. So I’m back to square one.”
Then where? He cannot tell. Australia last year, Germany last week, France next month – he makes no plans beyond saying yes or no to a job. His butterfly life alights on a sitting, a foreign assignment, a book, lives only for the moment and will not be pinned down; neither to a specific branch of photography nor to a style or technique within it. His speciality is not to specialise.
He says that from any batch of photograph you could never pick out Snowdon’s and that if he forges a recognisable style he has failed. But one common factor underlying Snowdon’s work is a keen sensitivity towards people. Observing them in their pursuits, pleasures or problems his approach is always sympathetic, never sardonic.
He reports on life, not indiscriminately, but by selecting the moment that moves or challenges. His respect of personality becomes most tangible in portraiture, where he has surely achieved greatness. His expressed fear of photographing people seems curious until perceived that a Snowdon sitting in an awesome commitment.
First there is the homework, gleaning all available information on the client. After the meeting there is the thawing-out process, extracting characteristic gestures and expressions. He notes that their poses, quips and set expressions are masks to cover shyness, which he must gently strip away.
The theatrical touch lingers on, and in seeking appropriate props and settings, his penchant for “truth and simplicity” is sometimes offset by his feeling for the dramatic. All this pays off in [his] celebrity portraiture, which clearly bring out the sitters’ personality traits; Noel Coward’s satirical humour, Joyce Grenfell’s whimsicality, Graham Greene’s writ eyed earnestness, Peter Ustinovs wistfulness, and hundreds of others which, although not clearly bearing the photographer’s stamp, emerge as compulsive, vivid memorials to the sitters.
Snowdon has been in the mainstream of photography for as long as some of us can remember. Yet we can hardly call him an Old Master when he is 53 and looks 45. And in twenty years from now he will probably still be the same natural bohemian, with the same boyish enthusiasm and immaculate Etonian courtesy.
Thank you so much for your interest in my work.”