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 Tabago.
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.
As we celebrate the centenary of Parkinson’s birth today, we thought that we would share with you some insight from writer and curator, Robin Muir:
“His amiability masked a zeal for hard work and despite himself, in the years of his greatest success, his assiduously constructed pictures, whether ‘urbane’ or ‘rustic’, fashion tableau or portrait sitting, tapped into prevalent and almost collective nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. Vogue did much to foster it. Martin Harrison has discerned it ‘as though the “urbane genes” that encouraged his pursuit of the exotic had caused him to neglect his “rustic” roots, the solid foundation which put the ephemeralities of the fashion world into perspective’. But as Parkinson himself intimated, he was no artist, no matter how fundamentally his crafted pictures reflected his era, though he hoped he might be remembered as ‘a tiny Gainsborough or wretched Reynolds’. He considered himself instead as ‘a talented and instantaneous mechanic’. In the 1980s he wished his obituary to read simply thus: ‘He took photography out of the embalming trade, and for a time, the open shutter of his camera was a window to the shimmer of a vanishing England’. Shortly before he died, he made a lengthier, more judicious and entirely typical self-assessment: ‘I’ve never had a monumental idea that I’m a great photographer or a brilliant artist … it has pleased me enormously that what I do with this silly gadget – this silent machine-gun of the twentieth century – has gleaned me a lot of respect. But if I should give rein to immodesty … I have opinions which are fresh and I am a fountainhead of ideas. Since ninety-nine per cent of my photographs are taken outside the studios, I shall have recorded the pendulum arc of over seventy years. I hope people will realise when they look through all these hundreds of transparencies and negatives that I recorded a large proportion of the twentieth century. That is not unimportant’.”
- from his introduction to Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion
It is certainly not unimportant. Parkinson’s images are not just beautiful, they do not just capture fashion, they capture the history of the twentieth century as well. His historic trip in the seventies to Communist Russia with Jerry Hall dressed in red, Ann Ford captured amid a 1960s street party, Princess Anne’s wedding to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973 – the list of events he captured that are important to social history could go on and on.
In her foreword to the book, Iman reflects on what makes Parkinson’s images so memorable. She says that they are “marked by the most extraordinary sense of charm and knowing – you can see it in the eyes of the people immortalized in his photos… The personality of his best work is the reason those images still speak to us today.”
As we walked through the centenary exhibition at The Octagon in Bath last week we passed one of Parkinson’s most humorous images, a black and white photograph of an elderly gentlemen squatting on a child’s toy car. Two women already looking at the image burst out laughing. “That’s brilliant,” they said. His images, although most definitely capturing certain periods of time – the austerity of 1940s Britain, the vibrancy of the 70s and 80s – the personality that shines through them ensures that they remain timeless.
The year is 1977, David Bowie, thirty years old and at the height of his fame, sits for Vogue’s championed photographer Norman Parkinson. Together they create a shot that reflects Bowie’s latest album cover for Low. The reddish-orange hue, the pose and Bowie’s steely gaze are captured perfectly.
Fast forward 36 years and we are celebrating both the centenary of Norman Parkinson’s birth and yet another new era for David Bowie.
In 1977 Bowie was growing tired of his rock star lifestyle. He had been through the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane years, released 11 highly successful albums to date and had just finished touring and recording with Iggy Pop. He was searching for, as Paolo Hewitt writes in Bowie: Album by Album, ‘a new musical voice’. Parkinson, like his sitter, was also embarking on new changes. His time with Vogue was coming to an end and he was beginning to work with new material, experimenting with the vibrant, saturated colour that is reflected in his portrait of Bowie.
In his introduction to Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion, Robin Muir defines Parkinson as a ‘flamboyant fashion photographer and an enlightening, sometimes incisive, portraitist’. Terence Donovan considered him ‘the first successful English heterosexual fashion photographer’, whose ‘fluidity of style never deserted him’. These words would perhaps not seem out of place in a description of Bowie. Both men it seems were similar in more ways than one and they both have a strikingly similar trait to reinvent themselves as the times change. Parkinson, like Bowie, was constantly striving to achieve something new and exciting – it is a trait that has made both men so respected in their careers and allowed them to survive decades in the creative world.
Parkinson’s seventy year career is being celebrated in style with exhibitions at the National Theatre, Chris Beetles Gallery and Bath in Fashion Week. Bowie, with four decades already under his belt, shows no signs of stopping (even with his recent ten year hiatus) and a new album brings his music to a new generation while sympathetically pleasing his original fans. The upcoming V&A exhibition, Bowie Is, has been the fastest-selling exhibition the gallery has ever had – all this a testament to men who have contributed so much to British culture.
Find out more about Bowie: Album by Album by Paolo Hewitt
Photo © Norman Parkinson/Norman Parkinson Archive
Palazzo Editions have teamed up with the National Library of Australia to produce a new title by the award-winning artist Robert Ingpen, illustrator of Palazzo’s Children’s Classics series.
Looking for Clancy tells the tale of one of Australia’s best-loved historical figures, A. ‘Banjo’ Patterson, and marks what would have been his 150th birthday.
Take a look at our press release below or find out more about the book.
Review by RFBikerScout on YouTube
“If you enjoy his [Spielberg's] films you will really enjoy this book.”
Find out more about Spielberg: A Retrospective, available now.