That's what occurred to me last night when I got my copy of this week's New Yorker and turned to page 83 to read Joan Acocella's very nice piece about Agatha Christie and the art of the detective novel. As one of the millions of people who have at one time or another over the past 80 years become avid Christie readers--she's the best-selling novelist in history--I was eager to contemplate her particular contributions to the who-done-it. But ultimately I was less intrigued by Acocella's article than I was by the portrait used to open the piece. Here was the Queen of Crime, at her home in Devon in 1974, two years prior to her death at age 85, dressed immaculately in a blue dress set off by a tasteful necklace, comfortably sitting in the center of her place in the world, looking back at me with eyes that seemed to understand all the entertaining possibilities of evil that might exist in my mind. The photograph was by Lord Snowdon (credited to Camera Press/Retna).
Over my years as a photo editor, I must confess, I never exactly "got" Lord Snowdon's pictures. I understood that he is considered one of the important portraitists of 20th century. I knew he was born Anthony Armstrong-Jones, that he married Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, after which he was awarded the title of 1st Earl of Snowdon, that their marriage became a miserable battleground inhabited by two philanderers until its ultimate collapse in 1978. During those years he also became a sort-of court photographer of the English race--from the peers and the privileged to the mere culturally iconic.
His work was alway much more than competent, in my eyes, but I never thought of his portraiture as a brilliantly revealing force or as a willful act of artistry (as Richard Avedon's certain were). In place of edge, I felt I was getting only access. After seeing the Christie portrait, I started rethinking my attitudes about the requirements of great portraiture and about the imagery of Lord Snowdon in particular. So I've put together five reasons for admiring the photographs he's made.
1. Agatha Christie, 19 74
If portraits can be said to ever reveal the essence or soul of a subject, they do it in quiet, subtle ways. An image gives us a super-detailed view of a surface, and our minds need to do make the connections and draw the conclusions about what a person is like inside. (Luckily, evolution has made our minds very good at that kind of thing.) All this is not to say that photographers don't help us along, in all kinds of ways. Every creative choice made--set design, clothes, camera and lens--is a way for a photographer to make his or her case to the viewer about a particular subject. (Ironically, in this profile Snowdon says he likes to make his subjects ill at ease in order to achieve a certain intensity in the final image.) Here is a quaint old lady who could sit at a desk and imagine people doing in each other with poison, knives, guns, clubs, and other weapons. I was so seduced by the color and elegance that I missed the mayhem in her eyes until my second or third viewing of the picture. I like portraits that explode like little time bombs.
This is one of Snowdon's best known images, and I suppose we must conclude from it that his relationship with Princess Margaret was a roller-coaster of attraction and loathing. Here, the camera captures the attraction, and Snowdon's understanding of what it means to be a princess--a real one, not the Disney kind. Recent biographies have made it clear that both partners in the marriage cheated, that Snowdon once left a note for Margaret to find that listed the things he hated about her, that the Princess once referenced his non-royal background by pointing out that he used to word "material" to describe cloth--while upper class voices, or "U-speakers" as Nancy Mitford termed them, would call it "stuff." And yet here all the camera sees is loveliness. How many photographers can make a portrait that exists as both history and illusion?
I'm thinking that one of the reasons I never found Snowdon's work particularly interesting before was because of it Englishmess--by and large it was all about people who didn't quite exist on my radar. But actresses like Helen Mirren don't have cultural borders. Except that she is entirely English and, some years after this picture was taken, played the role of Snowdon's former mother-in-law. What I find interesting here, besides Mirren's famous bust, is how absolutely different this picture is from the two that preceded it in this list. What I took for a lack of style was, in all probability, a purposeful lack of singular style...which is in itself a singular achievement.
Long after his marriage to Margaret ended, Snowdon remained a trusted photographer of England's royal family. I can't imagine a photographer with a greater understanding of the late princess....and what I like about this portrait is the sense of sympathy he brought to it. Question: Do all great portraits need to be sympathetic? I imagine so; otherwise, all we'd need are the paparazzi.
5. Vogue, 1957
I just noticed that all the reasons I have listed here to love Lord Snowdon's photography show women...may we assume he had a special affinity for them? I include this image because it is not a portrait, because as a fashion photo it is particularly joyous, and because the woman in it is elegant but not fastidiousness. It's like Snowdon saw princesses wherever he looked. Snowdon not only existed within a particular universe, he inhabited it and kept filling it out, adding detail to it. Though he may never have wanted to create an identifiable visual style of technique, he did created a realm of imagination that is his own. I find that reassuring but still invigorating, though I am not now nor will I ever be a U-speaker.