The photo credit reads “ Snowdon” – one name only, like Madonna or Prince or Cher. For decades he was as famous as his jet-set subjects, which were many and varied because the Earl of Snowdon, the commoner formerly known as Antony Armstrong-Jones, was a prolific photographer.
His career began in 1952 taking pictures for Tatler magazine and, in his photographic autobiography Snowdon (1979), he recalls earning his living taking a half-dozen rote debutante and corporate portraits a day. After his marriage to the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, his promising career as photographer turned him into a royal one, in both senses, and a second title role: as the longest-running portrait photographer relationship with the British Royal Family.
Armstrong-Jones, who died at 86 on Friday, became the first Earl of Snowdon after his 1960 marriage to Margaret. He was already a fashion and society photographer with a few indelible portraits, such as a top-hatted Marlene Dietrich materializing from curls of smoke at the Café de Paris (1955), to his credit. His new inner-circle status led to a new and (relative) informality in the royals’ official photographs, although with their generic abstract backdrops some early sittings admittedly still resemble high-class Sears portrait studio output.
The onetime aspiring architect also composed careful and arresting images, such as a swan-necked Margaret half-bathed in shadow (a decade later, his androgynous portrait of David Bowie is much the same treatment and pose), as well as irreverent ones: Another portrait of his wife shows her grinning in full makeup, up-do and glittering tiara as she bathes before a night out (1962). It was taken from his seat on the toilet and for wit, he does not crop the reflection of his foot in the mirror in the final print.
No wonder their glamorous and hedonistic lifestyle in Swinging London earned him the moniker “the first royal rebel.” More mischief: Noel Coward, a cat among the Trafalgar Square pigeons; Bowie in Snowdon’s own garden posed as garden statuary and a peek-a-boo naked Bob Hoskins draped over the rattan chair that obscures him.
Snowdon remained on good terms with the royals and their association continued after his 1978 divorce from Margaret. His subsequent official royal images include those most familiar: Lady Diana Spencer’s first official engagement portrait in 1981, as well as one for the Queen and Prince Philip’s diamond wedding anniversary postage stamp. Another artfully composed photograph of the Waleses at a country picnic in 1992, for example, is like a Gainsborough painting, complete with chestnut horse in the background.
Most of Snowdon’s subjects were pop-culture royalty and inhabited the world of design and performance (wide-eyed Salvador Dali, diminutive Azzedine Alaia and Vita Sackville-West) and in this he was inspired by his favourite uncle Oliver Messel, a portrait painter and later, theatrical production designer. Of these hundreds of actors, musicians and dancers, a playful Vogue series of Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland stands out, as does the Shirley Bassey album cover. His status bestowed even more buzz on emerging talent when he photographed them, such as actor Rupert Everett seen through moody windowpane reflections (1982) or upstart young playwright Tom Stoppard attempting to ride a broken bicycle frame (1967).
One of best ever images of Laurence Olivier is Snowdon’s, too, as the deluded, fading, music-hall comedian Archie Rice in the film adaptation of The Entertainer, complete with unsettling rictus grin. In an interview marking his 80th birthday, the shutterbug recalled his sittings technique, which in something of a departure from many portrait photographers pointedly consisted in not creating rapport with his subject. “Taking photographs is a very nasty thing to do.” (That must be what’s behind the stark Terence Stamp, imperious and cloaked in velvet.)
In 2012, after a small fire nearly destroyed his Kensington archive and studio, one of Snowdon’s daughters, the magazine editor Frances von Hofmannsthal, catalogued his work and set up Snowdon Archive. She has since been active introducing his work to a new generation with regular exhibitions and gifts of prints to the National Portrait Gallery.
Armstrong-Jones also recently collaborated with Swedish fashion company Acne Studios on a book of portraits, Snowdon Blue, with a collection inspired by the frequent appearance of his subjects in blue shirts – Ian McKellen, Serge Gainsbourg. It’s a practice he adopted because, he says, it is “anonymous and yet kind of uniform. It is like a simple backdrop that leaves us to focus on the sitter’s face without being distracted.” The most iconic among icons, his private sittings of Diana, Princess of Wales, show her with mussed hair and wearing a blue button-down.
Much of Snowdon’s enduring success can be attributed to his range rather than his status – he adopted the style to fit the assignment, whether crisply composed or impressionistic and arty, or spontaneous street photography born of good luck. An impromptu snap by Armstrong-Jones in Venice, 1956, for example, captures actress Jacqui Chan (his girlfriend at the time) literally turning the heads of uniformed passers-by. Outside the confines of the studio, he had good timing and a good eye, stemming from his lifelong activity as another sort of “society” photographer, cataloguing injustice, ills and the ordinary with documentary reportage images of market workers or mental-illness wards (often for the Sunday Times Magazine).
On assignment to photograph J.R.R. Tolkien in 1971, Snowdon found the author’s Bournemouth home too banal a setting and suggested the pair go for a walk. In the woods nearby he perched the author among exposed tree roots on the slope of a hill. Their knobby texture gives the impression that Tolkien’s own spidery illustrations of labyrinthine Shelob’s Lair are undulating out beneath him.
If this young royal generation’s budding photographer, the Duchess of Cambridge, can take any lessons, it’s that living in aristocratic social circles bestows access. Half of her talent will be what she makes of hers.