In order to celebrate a major gift of photographs from Lord Snowdon in 2013, the National Portrait Gallery has put together a small display of some of his photography portraits. Snowdon has given 130 original prints in total, including many of his most iconic photographs and several of them are included in the display of 40 photographs.
Lord Snowdon was one of the most versatile photographers of his generation. Just at ease with royal portraiture as he was with fashion photography, or capturing life in theatre and ballet.
The informality he injected into this often stuffy line of work brought life both to his sitters as well as the photographs. So successful he was in this that he was credited with ‘enlivening’ Vogue, and that’s a great description to the effect he has in all his photographs – you feel life in the sitters, you sense their character.
Famously Snowdon married Princess Margaret in 1960 but he had been photographing the royals for some years prior to this. A couple of his famous royal portraits are included in the display – from a young Charles and Anne playing together to their parents in full royal dress in one of the grand rooms in Buckingham Palace.
A stand-out portrait from his non-royal work is a sensitive bare-faced image of David Bowie. Stripped of all and any of his various personas and make-up, Bowie stares out towards us, an enigmatic look in his eye. It works because Bowie has controlled and manipulated his image so profoundly that this stripped back shot is quite arresting.
But Snowdon also captured less familiar figures such as Anthony Blunt, who was a double agent. He worked initially in MI5 before becoming director of the Courtauld Gallery during the Cold War, yet all the while he was passing secrets to the Soviets wo recruited him just after the war. Snowdon photographed him just as the secrets were about to break in 1963 but there’s no hint in Blunt’s face as he eyes a Picasso painting through a photographic slide.
A favourite for me is a shot of Margot Fonteyn in the rehearsal room. She is in conversation with her choreographer as other ballet performers practice in the background. It’s a wonderful snapshot of the relationship between dancer and choreographer.
National Portrait Gallery, London to June 21, 2015
1. David Bowie by Snowdon, 1978 Copyright: Snowdon/Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd
2. Nell Dunn by Snowdon, 1982. Copyright: Armstrong Jones
3. Vita Sackville-West by Snowdon, 1961. Copyright: Armstrong Jones