The father of modern fashion photography defied description; even his name wasn’t what it seemed. Norman Parkinson was born Ronald William Parkinson Smith in Putney, south London, 100 years ago. He was brought up in a suburban semi and sent to Westminster School. He reinvented himself to escape his resolutely middle-class upbringing. Like Cecil Beaton, he wanted to be something grander than he really was.
Fashion photography creates fictional worlds with pictures and he was not only able to do that with his camera but also develop a new persona: this Norman Parkinson figure who sported a handlebar moustache and had the air of a faded Home Counties colonel. He became as much a personality as the people he photographed.
Photographers were treated with slight disdain when Parkinson started in the 30s – a hangover from the Victorian era when being photographed was a time-consuming, irritating business. He was a tradesman that came through the back entrance. Parkinson gave the impression he was a bumbling, gifted amateur on the same wave-length as his subjects. He wore this strange fez and would say: “I know nothing about how these photographs happen. I just put my magic hat on and these wonderful things appear in the lens.” It sounds rather camp and silly but in fact what he was doing was very clever, very disarming.
Parkinson’s legacy is that he refreshed British fashion photography. It was a staid, studio-bound exercise until he took his models out into the streets, into the open air. So whereas Beaton would construct elaborate sets and photograph his model within the controlled white walls of the studio, Parkinson was much more spontaneous, much freer: models ran around uncontained and chance played a part in his photographs.
It was a breath of fresh air running through British fashion photography. He was also a rarity in the sense that he was a heterosexual photographer in an era when fashion photography was seen as a gay milieu. He loved women and that shows in his photographs – and his models’ fond memories of him. Robin Muir
Jerry Hall on the picture that changed her life
He actually had the most profound effect on my modelling career and my life, as far as photographs went, in that his photos launched me into becoming a big model in England and America – and I met my fiancée Brian Ferry because of those photos.
Parkinson had a sense of big spaces. He’d do pictures where there’d be panoramic views. In Russia, we had to be travelling around with Intourist guides and taking our film and “Parks” was worried that they might not develop the film right, so he asked me to stuff some down my pants, which I did. And then he said to me afterwards, “The Russians develop film even better than we did here,” amd we needn’t have bothered.
He was like a young person even though he was quite aged. Everything was a new discovery.
Parkinson on the day he dressed royals
I wanted to think of a picture that would be historic. Princess Margaret had it fixed up so that after church on Sunday the Queen also would be there. I know when they turn up after church, somebody will be in puce, somebody will be in polka-dot and the whole trouble with historic pictures is they’re killed by the fashion.
I bought a lot of beautiful blue silk in New York and said, “Would Miss Lillian [a seamstress at Norman Hartnell] make me three capes that button up at the back?” It was a wonderful picture to see them all buttoning themselves up. Princess Margaret was a good ally, and the Queen Mother enjoyed it. The Queen’s all right about it now. I think she felt outnumbered and a little bit embarrassed at the time.”
I’ve been fortunate because that large house at the end of the Mall has occasionally beckoned me in to take some snaps, which I’ve enjoyed. It makes you work very fast and with tremendous cunning. You know you may have got 20 minutes; you’ve got to get your snaps and get out fast. I’ve enjoyed those very much and as a challenge. You know you’ve become, by someone sticking a pin in you, a moment of history.
Arena: aka Norman Parkinson is on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC4
See Parkinson’s photographs at two free exhibitions until 12 May: Mouvements de Femmes by Norman Parkinson at The Octagon in Bath and Norman Parkinson’s Century of Style at London’s National Theatre
Robin Muir is the author of Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion
Image © Norman Parkinson Ltd/ Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive.