|Hayley Atwell & Matthew Goode, Toronto, 2008|
I WAS HALFWAY THROUGH THE NEW SEASON OF THE CROWN when I remembered that I'd once shot Matthew Goode, the actor who plays Tony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who married Princess Margaret and became Lord Snowdon. Goode, coming off of Downton Abbey, makes a star turn playing him as sexy, mysterious and dangerous, shagging his way through several scenes with Margaret and others, most dramatically in Snowdon's dim and sinister Pimlico photo studio.
Thanks to my oldest daughter getting me hooked on the show, I was primed for the return of The Crown, but having a photographer as a major character (as a bonus, Cecil Beaton appears as a minor one) couldn't help but amplify my interest. With his stygian shooting space and rich aura of charisma and rebellion - accessorized with a vintage Triumph motorcycle - Goode's Snowdon is probably the best advertisement for my trade since David Hemmings in Blow Up.
Most of an episode is taken up with Margaret and Armstrong-Jones and their mutual seduction, much of their initial meeting being a discussion about portrait photography, followed by a photo shoot. That shoot, played out in the dim light of his studio, is meant to contrast Snowdon's audacious, edgy shooting method with the obsequious deference of Beaton during an official portrait session with Margaret just a few scenes previous. I can't remember the last time that the style and aesthetics of portrait photography played such a key part in a historical drama.
Poor Beaton comes in for a beating in the show, dismissed by Snowdon as "a disgrace" and played for comic effect, reciting corny odes to the monarchy and England as he stands next to his big view camera, a minor courtier full of deference for the establishment, unlike the dismissive young Snowdon. It's an unfair caricature, but I'll always be first in line to defend Beaton, who was so important in making me see the art of portrait photography.
|Hayley Atwell & Matthew Goode, Toronto, 2008|
The Crown also exercises considerable license with facts and timelines. The sensuous, glamorous portrait that Snowdon takes of Margaret during their first session together wasn't actually shot until years later, after they were married. Even more puzzling is a scene where Snowdon, engaged in a friendly menage a trois with a married couple, is reminded that he'd said that Margaret had "thick ankles and the face of a Jewish manicurist." The real Armstrong-Jones might have said this, and it might have been true of the actual Princess, but it certainly doesn't apply to Vanessa Kirby's onscreen Margaret.
Most annoying of all - at least for photographers - is Snowdon taking the princess into his basement darkroom to see the results of their shoot. He walks up to the enlarger holding his loaded Leica and a moment later is making a print. A generation who takes for granted that photography is an instant art won't notice, but as someone who has spent a lifetime sum of literal weeks souping film, it had me spitting.
Quibbles aside, Goode is fantastic as Snowdon, a man whose immense confidence and talent blind him to the certain trauma that he's about to bring upon himself and a woman wholly incapable of enduring real pain. I photographed him almost ten years ago for the free national daily, together with Hayley Atwell, who was co-starring with him in an entirely unnecessary movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. (The 1981 Granada miniseries starring Jeremy Irons was the definitive version, for either large or small screen.)
The shots aren't anything special - a competent snapshot of a pair of actors toying with the chemistry they developed on set, like a party trick they learned together. Much of my work for the free national daily was like this - merely competent, exercised with no particular concern with style or lasting quality. I was shooting to fill a hole either one or two columns wide in a layout, if it ran at all, so the most I concerned myself with was sharpness and exposure and a clean graphic that wouldn't clutter up already busy newsprint pages.
If I cared about future re-use or resale I might have pressed Goode and Atwell for individual shots, though that would have tried the patience of publicists who saw portrait sessions as something dispensed with in seconds, if possible. Goode met my camera lens with the clear gaze of a man resigned to being handsome; the intervening years have lined his face and chiseled his features even further for his turn as the seductive Snowdon. Rediscovering this shoot with a prompt from his role in The Crown only makes its perfunctory nature seem like a missed opportunity - one of many.