Five Decades in Style
Norman Parkinson is one of the very few names in the history of 20th century photography whose career never stopped adapting to the times. Parkinson was not only an ever evolving power house, but also an icon who revolutionized fashion photography. Those who knew him and were lucky enough to collaborate with him often speak of his charm, impeccable taste, eccentricity and keen eye. A quintessential British photographer, Parkinson’s career danced through five decades, always remaining in style.
The Birth of Norman Parkinson
Norman Parkinson was born in London in 1913, with the birth name, Ronald William Parkinson. His photographic journey began at the age of 18, when he began an apprenticeship with the noted court photographer, Richard N. Speargut at his firm. During his apprenticeship, he mastered the techniques of studio photography. In 1934, Parkinson opened his own studio with another young photographer, Norman Kibblewhite. Merging Kibblewhite’s first name with his last, Norman Parkinson was born.
He began receiving commissions from magazines such as The Sketch, The Tatler and The Bystander, and started photographing celebrities including Vivian Leigh. One day while visiting another photographer in Parkinson’s studio, Joyce Reynolds, the then-editor of Harper’s Bazaar, saw Parkinson’s landscape photographs from Italy pinned to a wall. Entranced, Reynolds commissioned Parkinson to shoot two models posing in hats in Green Park. This was the beginning of a long and close relationship between the photographer and the British edition of Harper’s Bazaar.
Norman Parkinson’s career ascended to new heights when he moved to Vogue in the 1940s. It was a time when air travel became more accessible after the World War II. Which allowed Parkinson to take his editorial stories from the studio out into the real world. While using the world as his studio, he also began using color film, which added a new dimension and dynamism to his images. His photographs caused a revolutionary effect in the world of fashion and photography as Parkinson allowed the models to move freely in the real world, photographing them against striking backdrops of exotic locations around the world.
A Fresh New Perspective
Wenda in Tobago, and Wenda and Ostriches, South Africa, are two examples for Parkinson’s unorthodox take on creating stories that brought a fresh new perspective into the arena of fashion. In a 1977 interview he said;
“I really enjoy taking people and that’s why my fashion photographs do look a little different because the girls in them are people.”
Contrary to the traditional fashion photography of the times that perceived women as simply mannequins for couture designs, Parkinson made the girls live. He wanted his models to look like they actually owned the clothes, and wanted his images to be believable with models moving in their natural habitat. One of his biggest influences was the Hungarian sports photographer Martin Munkacsi, who captured the speed and movement throughout the 30s. Speaking of the limitation of studio photography he said;
“Most photographs showed women standing in scintillating salons with their knees bolted. I never knew any girls with bolted knees. I only knew girls who jumped and ran.”
The statement perfectly summarizes the style of ‘action realism’ Parkinson introduced, one that is a crucial source of inspiration for photographers and editors today.
The fashion photography of Norman Parkinson presents a masterful understanding of light and color, while composing layered images to create authentic stories. The layering comes into play as we typically see the subject in the foreground, with another visual element in the background. His purposeful choice of including a backdrop from the location was one that wasn’t necessarily aimed to distract the viewer, but instead give a glimpse of the culture, the atmosphere of the story, and add further depth and dimensionality.
His three photographs, The Art of Travel II; Traffic, Ivy Nicholson in New York; and Young Velvets, Yound Prices, Hat Fashions III all have the subjects centrally staged, with the backdrop of the location in the background. Parkinson’s fascination with the outdoors also allowed him to take advantage of natural light. On location, he would often also light the foreground with flash to fill in the shadows, which gave Parkinson further control over light, and truly bring out the rich colors of the specific surrounding. The laid back atmosphere during the photo shoots allowed models to be at ease, which is evident in the light-hearted nature of the pictures.
A long time collaborator of the photographer, Grace Coddington said that Parkinson,
“created these pictures that we still look at today and loving for their looseness and movement – they’re never stationary. The model isn’t necessarily rolling around with laughter, but there is always a lot of joy and that’s down to the fact that he was a funny man, charming, and he made them feel comfortable.”
Adding a Sense of Glamour to Fashion
Ever evolving, Parkinson’s career was always a reflection of the changing times. He became the Associate Editor and Contributing Photographer to Queen Magazine, the star publication aimed at the emerging youth market. Parkinson had a keen eye for what was new, for new faces and locations that continuously kept pushing fashion photography forward. Throughout his career, Parkinson was given many honors, including being made the Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1968, as well as being awarded the CBE by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1981. The spontaneous, charming and elegant photographs of Norman Parkinson defined and era in fashion, and added a sense of glamour to the way fashion was presented. His inventive photographs are considered to be some of the most memorable fashion and portrait imagery of the 20th century, and continue to influence visual story telling today.