Vintage News | Norman Parkinson: the photographer who made fashion glam

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Norman Parkinson with Frankie. French Vogue 1983. Taken from Portraits in Fashion, Norman Parkinson by Robin Muir. Published by Palazzo.



Over the half-century he was taking photographs, Norman Parkinson produced some of the most memorable fashion images and portraits of our time. The British photographer, who died in 1990 aged 76, was one of Vogue’s star contributors, and enjoyed a relationship with the magazine that lasted four decades.

Jerry Hall and Grace Coddington were among the models his images helped to propel to stardom. His unique contribution to the field is part of the grand survey of Vogue’s fashion photography at the National Portrait Gallery this month (alongside work by Cecil Beaton, David Bailey et al), and the focus of a boutique show at Eleven Fine Art in London’s Belgravia. 

‘Norman Parkinson changed the face of fashion photography’, says Eleven’s owner, Charlie Phillips. ‘He transformed it from something staid and static into something exciting and glamorous.’ Parkinson’s flamboyant style of shooting, which took fashion out of the studio and into the fresh air and real life, captured a spirit of spontaneity that changed the way we look at clothes.

‘I wanted to take the scent-laden atmosphere out of photographs,’ he once said. Described as ‘a bit flash’ by his rival Cecil Beaton, ‘Parks’, as he was known to Vogue staff, was never shy or retiring. From the beginning, he cultivated an ‘exaggerated personal style,’ says National Portrait Gallery curator Robin Muir.

His eccentricities included a large white last-days-of-the-Empire moustache and Victorian smoking cap, made all the more striking by the fact he was 6ft 5in. Muir, who met Parks in the foyer at Vogue House when he was assistant editor of Condé Nast books in the mid-1980s, says, ‘He was very gallant, but I got the sense he was acting the part of the Gentleman Fashion Photographer.

'He was the antithesis of Irving Penn [who never wanted his sitters to feel relaxed in front of the camera]. Instead, he lavished charm on his subjects. He wanted them to enjoy the experience – that’s how he got his photographs.’

‘I used to have such fun with him,’ says Twiggy, who posed for Parkinson many times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. ‘Those eccentricities made him a delight to be with.’ She was so taken with him that, in 1978, pregnant with her daughter Carly, she chose him to take her picture. ‘I have them framed at home,’ she says. ‘They’re among my most treasured photos.’

Born Ronald William Parkinson Smith in 1913, the middle son of a barrister, Parkinson learnt his trade at the studios of Speaight and Sons, court photographers of New Bond Street. In 1934, aged 21, he opened his own studio at 1 Dover Street, Piccadilly, with another ex-employee of Speaight, Norman Kibblewhite. The pair combined their names to call the enterprise the Norman Parkinson Studio.

Having been weaned on Speaight and Sons’ staid portraiture, Parkinson went rather wild, luring debutantes to his studio with promises of a ride in his four-seater tourer. However, the partnership didn’t last more than a few months and, when Kibblewhite upped sticks, Parks carried on by himself, adopting the business name as his own.

It was in Dover Street that his work came to the attention of an editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, who stumbled across it while visiting another photographer in the same building. Once on their payroll, the magazine was keen he photographed outdoors, which initially filled him with horror.

He soon got used to working away from the comfort of the studio, though, and by the late 1930s was as likely to be found in Le Touquet in northern France as in London’s Hyde Park. Parkinson observed that, in the mid-1930s, ‘Most photographers showed women standing in scintillating salons with their knees bolted... I never knew any girls with bolted knees.

‘I only knew girls that jumped and ran. So I started to photograph these girls. Everyone said, “How bold!”’

His tenure at Vogue began in 1941, aged 28, following a stint as a war pilot – ‘doing reconnaissance, that sort of thing,’ he would claim, although the details of his actual contribution remain vague.

However, his work for Vogue, chiefly a series of rural vignettes describing what was going on in the British countryside, ‘was vital to the war effort,’ says Muir. ‘At the time, lots of magazines folded because of paper rationing, but Vogue was allowed to survive, and actually given extra paper, because it was considered good for morale.

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