Icons of Photography: Norman Parkinson

Norman Parkinson was born, as Ronald William Smith, on April 21, 1913, in Putney, south west London. He always described himself – and probably saw himself – as being of humble origins. In fact, he was the son of a barrister and went to the elite private school Westminster – though a rich aunt may have paid the fees. Right through his life, he was a very tall man who felt small. Always, he called himself a ‘snapper’.

He rose to become – or fell into being – the royal family’s photographer of choice. If his finest invention was himself, he also took some pretty good pictures. New York, New York, his snap-like shot of a young, exuberant couple on Brooklyn Bridge, is – deservedly – a best-selling poster image, a life-affirming portrayal of young(ish) love. He had, in the words of Veronica Horwell, ‘a fresh eye for real ambience’.

He started out in the almost Edwardian traditionalism of Mayfair portraiture, taking nice pictures of nice gels. At 21, he set out on his own, opening a studio in 1934 and giving himself a nom de camera – the Parkinson is from one of his father’s names and the Norman from a business partner who soon disappeared.

He quickly found work for the English edition of Harper’s Bazaar and the society and current affairs sections of Bystander, a weekly magazine which later merged with Tatler. Portraits of society beauties and boulevardiers, reportage in Welsh pit towns, visual celebrations of moderne machines and architecture: Parkinson did them all. He’d try any new stylistic innovation that came along. Modernism, mannerism, action-realism, he’d give them all a go.

What stood him apart, though, was his fashion pictures. His ambition, he said, was to ‘unbolt’ his models’ knees and make ‘moving pictures with a still camera’. He wasn’t the first to take models and clothes outdoors but he did it with a new and distinct flair and drive, using a wide range of styles, tonal palettes and compositional tropes.

For the rest of his 56-year career, he was a jobbing commercial photographer, and honest about it. ‘A photographer without a magazine behind him is like a farmer without fields,’ he said. He was never much of an original but he regularly brought an individual take – and wit – to the innovations of others.

What he was exceptional at, though, was turning a desiring – if only obliquely sexual – eye on posh Englishwomen. Class is what quickened his pulse – and Vogue’s, too, for many years. He started working for English Vogue in 1941 and moved on to US Vogue in 1949. Fed up with austerity, he’d written to its art director Alexander Liberman asking for a job.

His post-war images for Vogue are the ones that established his name and career. It’s a Brief Encounter world, yes. But there is a future world in his pictures, too – one which prefigured the driving life of 1960s fashion photography (and photographers). There is a fairly clear line between him and Bailey and Bob Richardson. Their work, that is. Their life and manners were quite foreign to someone of his social aspirations and affectations.

Those post-war pictures of his showed women dressed in twin sets and pearls or waisted suits and feathered hats – but photographed in the street, on a housing estate, looking through a rugby scrum or sat next to a flat-capped farmer at a shove-hapenny table in a country pub. If that last image has an air of Lady Chatterley and her rough-thumbed lover, it’s given added piquancy by the fact that the model is Wenda Rogerson, Parkinson’s third wife and favourite subject — and by the reaction of some Vogue staffers who said none of their readers would be seen in a public bar, let alone with a farm worker.

Generally, though, the sexual element is more coded in his pictures. A model staring down at a street urchin’s discarded toy gun. A pram, perhaps abandoned, alone in a fog. He once said of women: ‘They are more courageous, more industrious, more honest, more direct.’ Which perhaps makes sense of an unremarked oddness in his pictures. It’s a rare Parkinson subject that looks the camera straight in the lens. Particularly, he can’t bring himself to look his female subjects in the eye. Not always but often enough for it to mean something. It’s as if his models have freed themselves from our gaze which, accordingly and paradoxically, leaves us free to devour them, unwatched. Peculiarly, he never ever photographed his model wives except for publication.

Like so many love affairs, his and Vogue’s ended in separation and recrimination. He resigned in 1959 and high dudgeon, bemoaning the magazine’s socially downward direction. The fall-out from this fall-out was so acute that there was not a single picture of Parkinson’s in 1979’s Vogue Book of Fashion Photography. Only in recent years has he been readmitted to the ‘Valhalla of Vogue’ princes.

He had a surprisingly good 1960s, managing the social and visual upheavals with warmth and panache, but his later work is professional at best. His attempts to ape Guy Bourdin are embarrassing. He did come to life, though, when he took a 19-year-old Jerry Hall to Russia. That he chose to splash red all over the pictures was a seemingly clunky reference to communism (a nod to Bourdin, too). But he did it with naïve brio and wit. Jerry Hall in a scarlet swimsuit, cap and high heels posed as if about to dive from the top of a Soviet plinth into the surrounding shallows: simply irresistible. Bryan Ferry certainly thought so, taking her as both girlfriend and rock-crawling cover star of Roxy Music’s Siren album.

Parkinson was a charmer. For Vogue’s Grace Coddington he was ‘the father anyone would want to have’. But he was touchy and tetchy, too. When Vogue art director John Parsons made a different choice of pictures than Parkinson himself wanted, the photographer tore Parson’s choices apart with his bare teeth. Another Vogue veteran, Polly Devlin, wrote that he was mean and selfish – yet his pictures were ‘all soft and dreamy’

Towards the end of his life, he became that sad thing, an English character, promoting his own brand of sausages and achieving fame as a royal photographer. He was described as ‘the Queen Mother’s favourite photographer’. Oh, how the heart plummets. His dreary flattering and chasing of the royal family can be forgiven for one picture, though. It’s of Princess Anne at 19, in white on a big black, galloping horse. The power and forward motion of the big black animal. The princess’s open mouth and heavy breasts rising with the rhythm of the horse’s stride. For once in a Parkinson photograph, the true messiness of desire breaks the surface. If a cat may look at a king, so may a photographer stare at a princess, longingly, lustfully.

When he appeared on Desert Island Discs and was asked to chose just one record, he picked Grace Jones’ version of La Vie En Rose. A disco track by a model self-reinvented as a diva and performing a song whose title is best translated as ‘a life seen through rose-tinted glasses’. How very Parkinson. Through a lens, optimistically.

He died on the job, on February 15, 1990, while photographing Malaysia for the American magazine Town & Country.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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