Photographing the Pope etc

Yesterday on Radio 4’s Front Row (its close to the start of this audio clip) I heard a ten minute interview with Lord Snowdon, born in 1930 and still working approaching his 80th birthday next Sunday. Although it’s customary in some photographic circles to knock him – and he was certainly born with a silver spoon in his mouth – I think it’s hard to look at some of the pictures, particularly his earlier work, and not be impressed.

My favourite book of his work continues to be his 1958 ‘London’, published when he was still just Tony Armstrong Jones and could write “I use a very small camera, little apparatus, and no artificial lighting at all” and got himself into the soul of London.  After that there were still some good pictures but perhaps his mind was on other things.  In the interview he mentions two photographers who he admires, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn, and the influence of both men is fairly obvious in particular pictures.  It was Penn that for me ruined his vision, but then I’m not a Penn fan (though I admire his technique.) If you are a fan of Penn – or more open-minded than me – you can see Irving Penn – The Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 6 June 2010, and it does make you realise that Snowdon never quite managed to join the same league as the master.

But the interview with Snowdon is well worth listening to, and includes his account of the picture that got away, when he spent days in Rome trying to photograph the Pope, and when he finally did get to see the man as he emerged from a helicopter, wasted the precious seconds going down in a deep bow rather than getting on with the job, and by the time he had got up the Pope had gone.

© 2010, Peter Marshall

I’ve never tried to photograph the real Pope, but the other Sunday there was a demonstration against his planned visit later in the year, with not only a ‘pope’ but also some nuns – three of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who were rather more colourful than the real thing.

© 2010, Peter Marshall

There are a few pictures I quite like from the event on My London Diary though some perhaps don’t quite come off. I liked the idea of Peter Tatchell’s megaphone speaking directly to the pontiff, but the light was fading fast and getting everything right and just the right amount of unsharpness in the robes and mitre was tricky. It didn’t help that I needed to be slightly behind Tatchell and most of the time his head was turned away and I had to wait and catch moments to get a good profile.

It took quite a lot of attempts to get a usable frame, not least because I was shooting at  1/30 s or slower with the lens at around 50mm, and some were not sharp on Tatchell’s face. As he finished talking I rather kicked myself for not increasing the ISO – a couple of stops more would have given me 1/125 and made the job much easier – and with the D700 the results would still have been fine.  It’s easy to forget you can do this when the light gradually fades, one of the big advantages of digital over film.

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