Book Review: Norman Parkinson, Portraits in Fashion

Norman Parkinson
Norman Parkinson by Trevor Leighton, National Portrait Gallery

"The unrivaled portfolio of one of the 20th century's great fashion photographers is examined in this survey featuring dazzling original prints from Parkinson's own archive From his first outdoor fashion shoot in 1935, Norman Parkinson's moving pictures taken with a still camera brought glamour and inventiveness to fashion photography. He set the New Look against the New York skyline, Quant dresses in swinging London, and Calvin Klein and Krizia in exotic locations from Tahiti to Tobago. If a girl looks like a model, she is not for my lens, said Parks. He wanted energy and individuality, and found it in women like Wenda, the willowy actress he married in 1947, Celia Hammond, Jerry Hall, Iman, and Appollonia van Ravenstein. Parkinson's long association with Vogue and his numerous assignments for Harper's Bazaar, Queen, and other international magazines brought him fame and recognition--in return he gave the fashion world ineffable style and unforgettable images." Publisher's blurb.

For myself, it was Norman Parkinson's fashion shoot in India in 1955 that first caught my eye. The use of brilliant colour, the careful attention to detail, the sumptuous textiles combined with Parkinson's unique talent for creatively positioning his subjects and the secondary characters who populated his photographs.

What people forget is that Norman Parkinson invented the outdoor fashion shoot.

Looking with a contemporary eye, the exquisite composition comes through immediately. And such colours! They range from muted palettes of pastel to brilliant   One of my favourite photographs is of the model Anne Gunning, dressed in subtle cerise mohair coat, walking while an elephant and attendants resplendid in fuchsia ceremonial regalia stand in the background. It was reported that Diana Vreeland, Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, declared, “Pink is the navy blue of India” after seeing prints of the shoot.

Anne Gunning, Outside the City Palace, Jaipur, India, 1956.
© Norman Parkinson

In my opinion, every aspect of the composition above shows a master at work. Similarly, the use of complimentary colours, space, exposure, and dynamism - the lady is walking - are Parkinson trademarks. For the modern viewer it is worth bearing in mind that this photograph was shot on transparency film. There was no digital colour manipulation involved. No pixel level editing. Parkinson shows his control of every aspect of his craft.

Presenting a muted palette of pastels Norman Parkinson echoes pre-Impressionist "plein air" French Naturalists such as J.B. Carot and, of course, Monet's own 1872 "Impression, Sunrise."
All images © Norman Parkinson

With an exuberant confidence in colour, working for Vogue gave Parkinson carte-blanche to invent and then re-invent his genre of fashion photography. One year after the India shoot Parkinson was in London where he had a Rover 10 S painted pink for a Vogue cover-shot.

Marie-Hélène Arnaud, Vogue cover, 1957
© Norman Parkinson

I would argue that Parkinson's best work was done in the 1950's and 1960's. Which is an odd statement since his technical skills and experience would have increased over time. Perhaps his work in the 1950's was an expression of  widely felt relief from the austerity and rationing of the war years. Perhaps it was the daring that he brought to fashion photography in the 1960's which had been studio bound up until Vogue began to receive, and encourage, Parkinson's foreign folly's. His wit and imagination shine through much of his work but it was in the early days that he took classic composition and stirred in his own blend of innovation.

Melanie Hampshire photographed in 1963.
© Norman Parkinson

The 1963 photograph of Melanie Hampshire stretched out in a dress that encapsulates the sixties illustrates Parkinson's flair for composition. Since when did a model lie down for a photo-shoot? Notice the symmetrical framing, the balance of exposure to capture sky and the white of the dress, and the dynamic bowing of the model's body that gives energy to the foreground in what otherwise is a dramatic landscape photograph. Norman Parkinson, landscape photographer?

It wasn't just daring and innovation that propelled Parkinson to the top of his profession.

The photographer's own sartorial impression of what he felt a creative photographer should look like made an enormous impact on the general public. There was a flamboyance in the way that he dressed. Portraits of the man himself were always entertaining. They conveyed an exuburant sense of humour. And still, to view Parkinson's photographs is a lesson in pain-stakingly careful composition, an imaginative and, for its time, innovative use of movement.

© Norman Parkinson Archive / Iconic Images

Parkinson recruited his wife and son for the editorial photograph above. Note the artful arrangement of chairs, and the subversive foreground, a cat licking cream from a plate. And what is that book on top of House and Garden magazine?

Parkinson managed his own image carefully, and with wit, style, and panache.
© Norman Parkinson
© Norman Parkinson Ltd., courtesy of Fiona Cowan

Norman Parkinson was an inspiration to many British photographers who after the Second World War lagged behind their continental contemporaries. By the end of his career, Norman Parkinson was one of British fashion's most celebrated, innovative, and widely known photographers with an impressive body of work.

Later known as "The Guv'nor," Ronald William Parkinson Smith was born in London in 1913. After leaving school at 18 he worked for three years for a high society photography studio before setting up his own with a friend, Norman Kibblewhite in 1934. It was called "Norman Parkinson."

Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion illustrates the breadth of The Guv'nor's work from the 1940's to the time of his death. As a photographer for leading fashion publications Norman Parkinson had social access. Many of his most famous photographs are included within the book, sitters & models who are a roll-call of mid to late twentieth century British and American society; Audrey Hepburn, The Beetles, Jerry Hall, Montgomery Cliff, Queen Elizabeth II, and so on. Yet it was his flair for detailed composition, his insistence on using outdoor locations and the addition of a dynamic element that suggested movement and energy, which made his work distinctive.

Nonetheless, the origins of Norman Parkinson lay firmly in portraiture and it was something he would refer to in later interviews. He was oft reported as saying he was a craftsman, not an artist. This approach appears to be born out by the technical excellence of his work. Yet there is no denying his sympathy with art and eye for composition whether in an elaborately staged fashion shoot or what might at first look to be a simple portrait.

Jerry Hall photographed for Vogue.
© Norman Parkinson

Norman Parkinson's photographs are brilliant. Quad erat demonstrandum, "Portraits in Fashion" is inspirational. Though I did hear that there is a trove of 500,000 photos taken by Norman Parkinson which haven't made their way into the public domain yet. In this context, "Portraits in Fashion" should be considered an integral part of the success, and the business of, a large number of limited edition prints of Norman Parkinson's carefully curated ouevre.

Perhaps one day the beneficiaries of the Norman Parkinson estate might give us a deeper view into that vast treasure in a "Portraits of Fashion II?" I would love to see more.


Parkinson’s photo of Adele Collins wearing an Otto Lucas velvet toque for British Vogue, November 1959, was allegedly a reference to "The Corn Poppy" by the Dutch artist Kees van Dongen.
Book TitleNorman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion
AuthorRobin Muir
PublisherPalazzo Editions LTD

Copyright: All photographs on this page are copyright of Norman Parkinson and his legal beneficiaries.