Lord Snowdon passed away January 13th at age 86. Here, artist and filmmaker Michael Roberts remembers working alongside the photographer amidst the swirling fashion scene of 1980s London.
London in the mid-’80s—and the fashion scene was too cool for school. Extravagant dressing up, a clubland pallor, and an unshakably superior attitude were the rules, along with an unstated fashion credo declaring anything of commercial intent to be little more than a sellout.
And, yes, more authoritative than the tablets of Moses in those days were the pages of London’s style bible, The Face. For me, 1985 also marked a return to England and a renewed position at the iconoclastic society magazine Tatler after a stressful New York interlude on the glitteringly resuscitated monthly Vanity Fair. Stressful not least because, back then, Vanity Fair was barely known and when one rang Hollywood to see if Tom Cruise might consider a posing for a cover they assumed you were calling from the more famous lingerie company of the same name.
Reacquainting myself with London after an 18-month absence, I was initially surprised by what an elitist hotbed of creativity the city had become. Not elitist in that genteel Gosford Park/Downton Abbey way but in a theatrical, self-glorifying style with café society dressed to kill by day or night in “look at me” attire. Enter American Vogue. Or to be more precise, enter American Vogue in the shape of its unsinkable fashion editor Polly Mellen. Having picked up on London’s hot new sartorial vibe, she was now impatient to import that heat to her pages in a British fashion shoot. She was also set on who she wanted to style it. Me.
So, Polly swept through London Fashion Week with me, her faithful sidekick, in tow. And while she whooped and thrilled over each outré outfit (this was the famous season when, during the Galliano show, a catwalk model threw a dead fish into the front row), I made mental notes of the clothes that best suited the scenario forming in my head—a multi-layered narrative involving new-wave British aristocrats in tottering stately homes wearing the clothes of tomorrow, steeped in the styles of yesteryear. Ironic? You bet. But by then the pretensions of London’s fashion scene were slyly rubbing off on me too. Assuming she would be ending up with a more straightforward series of fashion pictures, Polly clapped blithely on. The fact that I took no notes during the shows particularly impressed her. “I always remember the good clothes,” I told her sniffily, warming to my role of haughty English fashion know-it-all. Then, still beaming, she flew out, leaving me to get on with it.
With the recruitment of Lord Snowdon, the photographer and former husband of Princess Margaret (the Queen’s younger sister), adding the final level to our teetering layer cake of ironies, we were ready to shoot. Except we weren’t. Instead of trudging off to a series of damp stately homes, Snowdon elected to shoot everything in his London studio, which was the size of a small shoebox, so there were backcloths to be painted. In one instance I even motored off to his old school, Eton College, to take a Polaroid of the cloisters, which was subsequently painted up into a 12-foot square canvas facsimile. Then there were the dead flowers.
I had worked with Snowdon once before at the country house of his mother, where he turned the estate’s potting shed into a temporary photo studio. And in that shed, strung from the rafters were, I remembered, bunches of dried flowers destined for pot pourris or wherever else dried flowers are destined for in rambling country piles.
Suddenly this idea assumed maximum importance. I would scour London nurseries, flower shops, and interior design emporiums for deceased blooms. Dried flowers would signify the withering of the old order as it gave way to the new. Dried flowers would be the key to the story behind the shabby chic of our country house images. Dried flowers would be our ‘Rosebud’ à la Citizen Kane—albeit a rosebud much desiccated and shriveled.
Unfortunately, as we soon discovered after filling the cramped little studio with them, along with dried flowers inevitably come clouds of dust. And irritated sinuses. And attacks of sneezing. The photo session progressed in fits and starts, while our subjects came and went in fits of hacking and coughing. Mascara tramlined down pale English faces. Makeup was applied and reapplied. And because our subjects were not professional models but the languid daughters of the landed gentry, they complained and complained. And as Snowdon was generally on familiar terms with their mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles, he sympathized with them. Their discomfiture was soon seen as the entire fault of that beastly American Vogue (all glared my way) and their ghastly ideas (more glaring in my direction). The dust eventually subsided at the session’s end while I, the apparent villain of the piece, was now in a sulk not greatly alleviated by Snowdon asking me to look through the contact sheets with him to help choose the final photographs.
With all great photographers, this is a particular honor. It shows they have faith in your judgment and trust your eye. Unfortunately, it also means having to distinguish between one frame and another on contact sheets that often look exactly the same. Snowdon’s photos in this instance, were a little like those games called Spot the Difference, whereby only the tiniest detail is altered between images.
In the game, a painting might shift along a wall or a vase change its hue. In a Snowdon photograph, the fingers on a hand might slightly uncurl or the weight shift almost indiscernibly from one leg to the other. But usually, once the subject was posed, she was fixed like a mosquito in amber. This was especially true of his lordship’s photographs of aristocrats because, that being his milieu, Snowdon knew exactly how they should properly stand or sit. This meant that even someone like Lady Teresa Manners, chosen for our photo spread because she fronted a punkish band of blue bloods, wasn’t allowed to slouch like a pop person but was shot sitting as erect as a dowager in the iron grip of an Edwardian corset.
In the event, the photographs were duly dispatched to New York City—and greeted with a thunderous silence. Weeks went by. Then word filtered back from Vogue H.Q. The images were thought too dark, too gloomy, too stiff, too over-styled. The dead flowers presented a particularly stubborn sticking point, dead being a word not happily embraced by glossy magazines with regards to anything as light and charming as a fashion shoot. In short, the absence of American good cheer was proving too much for American Vogue. The photographs were out. Then in. Then out again. Five months on, the photos miraculously appeared, by which time London’s fashionistas had careened even further along the road towards unrestrained costumery and full-time party gear. It was a destination that would leave me increasingly cold, although it did feel temptingly ripe for satire. Pomposity, entitlement, a hedonistic disconnect with life—these were prime fashion targets to prick. All of which, in retrospect, I can now recognize in the images I helped concoct, far more than the fashion moment I wished them to be.