R.I.P. Lord Snowdon


Sad to hear of the passing of Lord Snowdon. I can’t say I was his friend, though perhaps I would like to have been. We did spend a couple of days together as Queen (the rock group) and portrait photographer, and it was very memorable. I knew of Lord Snowdon from when I was quite small. As Anthony Armstrong Jones he had married the very glamorous Princess Margaret, in Westminster Abbey, in top level splendour, televised in colour (!) and celebrated throughout the land. Somehow it caught my imagination, gave me a thrill, to the point where I pasted a picture of the handsome couple in my personal photo album. It was a fairy-tale. Shy handsome commoner weds beautiful royal princess. Much later I realised that Tony Armstrong Jones, now Lord Snowdon, was a dedicated artist, a gentleman photographer in true Victorian style, and that his world had stayed quite separate from the Royal Family he had married into. I believe he had a Victorian sensibility in more than one way. A Gentleman, certainly, and a man of independent means, he did not need to take photographs to earn a living. It was his art. And in the details of his practice, too, he adhered to early traditions of photography. He believed that the essence of a sitter for a portrait was to be revealed only in natural light.

Well, this is what he told us, when the four of us found ourselves at his house, our mission being to find the elusive ‘Group Shot’ – a four-fold portrait of a Rock Band, for the cover of an album. Now this was around 1981, about 35 years ago. So the portrait of this session in my mind is a little faded. But Snowdon was a delightful, thoughtful, modest and gentle man, given to pausing to ponder, in his walking around the room, with a slight limp, a relic from a childhood illness, as he looked at us, planning his shoot.

I’m sure Roger has better recollections than I, but I seem to remember us sitting around a little awkwardly, sipping coffee, discussing what we were trying to achieve. I don’t believe we had any preconceptions at all … the four of us hadn’t had the chance to confer beforehand, and I think on this occasion we didn’t have a plan. We assumed that this accomplished photographer would bring a fresh approach. We’d done a lot of this kind of session, of course, over the years, notably with George Hurrell, iconic Hollywood portraitist, and Mick Rock, who had pulled off a very memorable diamond format four-shot on a black background, which not only graced the cover of our early album Queen II, but, brought to life, became the shot that everyone remembers from the Bohemian Rhapsody video some years later.  

Snowdon told us that he didn’t want an overriding theme – he didn’t think we need to ‘try so hard’.  He said he wanted us naturally filling the space, and he was absolutely insistent that the lighting would be natural too … only the daylight which pervaded his studio, again, Victorian style – more or less a glass-house. He would not use any artificial light. Now I may be wrong about this, but I seem to remember we talked so much and drank so much coffee, that time passed and the light started to fade. Anthony took some test shots on his large-format camera (no 35mm for him) and wasn’t happy. So he said something like … “I know what to do now, but we missed our slot. I’m not going to use studio lights – I want the quality of daylight in this shot. Can you come back tomorrow?” Strangely enough we could. And then it was all very quick. He took a few solo shots of us singly (I wonder where they are ?) And then went for the cover shot of the four of us. I think he only took a couple of dozen shots, very much like we’d seen Hurrell do. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew when it was in the bag – even though he couldn’t verify that on the spot. The developing of the negative had to be done, and prints made, before anyone could see the result.

So we said our goodbyes and left – and … that was it. The picture we wanted arrived a couple of days later, and it was perfect for what we needed – nicely balanced in composition, with all of us looking quite decent; understated, a little formal, yet not stiff, and beautifully lit by Nature herself, with a little help from Lord Snowdon.

The album ? It was to become the biggest selling British album in History – Queen’s Greatest Hits.


We decided to mount the picture in an unusual way. Inspired by the first Superman Film, we skewed the photograph as if it were mounted flat on a piece of glass spinning through space. So our faces are distorted by perspective. Years later, for the re-issue for Universal Records, we decided to ‘undo’ that distortion, and on this cover you see Snowdon’s picture exactly as it was taken. Pure ! I like that version best. As Snowdon himself might have said … it wasn’t trying too hard.

Greatest Hits - original

You won’t find this stuff on Wikipedia, of course. In the anarchy of the Internet based information, anybody can contribute stuff as long as they are citing someone who said it previously ! So the entry as I just looked at it is a ripe mixture of fact and inaccuracies – they don’t even mention who took the cover photograph. Who will write history ? Well, certainly not me … with my memory weaving its own spells at this distance. But History was certainly made in those fleeting moments when we were privileged to enjoy the company of that fine gentleman, Snowdon. RIP


© brianmay.com