Lord Snowdon sat proudly in his wheelchair, surrounded by friends and family — especially his daughter Frances — as well as two rooms full of his photographic work.
From shadow portraits in profile of his royal nephew and niece, Charles and Anne, in 1956, through eccentric author Vita Sackville-West in her gardening boots in 1961, to a profile of David Bowie in 1978, Snowdon’s images at the National Portrait Gallery celebrate a book of his work, Snowdon — A life in View, edited by Frances von Hofmannsthal and published by Rizzoli.
I am proud to have made a small contribution to this new book – visual and literary — put together by Frances with intelligence, dedication, patience — and love.
The shortest – and pithiest – comment came from Graydon Carter, of Vanity Fair, who called his subject “a tinkerer, a diarist, a rake, a prince, an earl and a crusader” — his tart words accompanying an image of Snowdon in profile by Robert Mapplethorpe, taken in 1979.
On the fashion side, Grace Coddington talks about the early years at Vogue, when she was photographed by Snowdon in 1959. We also see the work he did for the magazine and the images of designers: a young Alaïa or Alber Elbaz; a joyous Gianni Versace; and a flamboyant Galliano. They show how close the photographer remained to the world of Vogue.
Tom Ford, inevitably, brought sex into the equation, describing “Tony’s twinkle” and the man he had a crush on when he met him in the Nineties (but would have had a “full-on obsession” if they had met up in the Sixties).
Accompanying Ford’s comments are dashing photographs in the studio, in Australia, in Venice and driving a car with his wife, Princess Margaret.
Viscount Linley describes his father as “the only man I know who enjoyed smoking so much that he bought a second-hand lawnmower for the single reason that it had a cigarette lighter in it.” A 1977 photo shows Snowdon and tractor at work.
Among so many important contributors, I was pleased and proud to be asked by Frances to sum up the importance of the Permanent portfolio created between 1985 and 1990 to show the timeless, undefinable clothes created by Japanese designer Issey Miyake and photographed by Snowdon.
Here is some of what I wrote in the Rizzoli book:
“Snowdon’s arresting images showed a variety of people, all famous in their own fields, wearing clothes that did not fix them in date or place, nor pervert the body. From architect Tadao Ando, through singer Joan Armatrading, to the late British sculptor Elisabeth Frink, the actress Maggie Smith, and the ballerina Antoinette Sibley, this was an extraordinary group of artistic individuals whom [Issey] Miyake dressed and Snowdon photographed to bring out the depth of each personality. The garments framed the face, shown without artifice or vanity, at the still depth of each personality.”
To me, those Miyake clothes are as relevant now as they were a quarter of a century ago.
Issey Miyake added his own comment to the Snowdon book, saying that it was a great joy to work with the photographer whose “perceptive eyes capture beautifully and deeply the essence of the clothes along with the nature and humour of the sitters”.
In the fleeting world of journalism, I don’t often have a chance to stand in a still, small circle in a churning world. Issey and Snowdon gave me that exceptional moment.