Tuesday 23 April 2013

English Gent, English Genius

No, this isn't a post about my darling husband, (though of course he's a genius), rather one about the supremely talented English fashion and portrait photographer Norman Parkinson who was the subject of a brilliant Arena documentary on BBC Four last Sunday night 21st April - the centenary of his birth.

Norman Parkinson Self Portrait

With a career spanning 50 years, which is considered unprecedented for a photographer, 'Parks' as he was known, was the true English dandy and gentleman whose love of women and the way they moved, resulted in some of the most iconic images in fashion photography from the 1940's through to the 1980's.

Jerry Hall

In his early career, working as a portrait and fashion photographer for Vogue from 1945 to 1960, Parkinson revolutionized British fashion photography by taking his models outside of the confines of the studio and imbuing his images with a humour and wit hitherto not seen in fashion photography.

Parkinson's wife Wenda

His beautiful wife Wenda was one of his earliest muses, and she was more than happy to push the boundaries of conventionality to get a groundbreaking shot.

Wenda Parkinson

His portraits of her are equally beautiful. Jerry Hall says of them: "I love the pictures he took of his wife, Wenda. They’re beautiful in that sort of “1950s-perfection” way, but something about her seems very intelligent and special."

Wenda Parkinson

As times changed, Parks embraced the Swinging Sixties, working for Queen magazine and found new muses in Celia Hammond, and Nena von Schlebrügge, Uma Thurman's mother:

Parkinson & Celia Hammond

Celia Hammond US Vogue cover

Nena von Schlebrugge

Nena von Schlebrugge

Yet he never allowed himself to get stuck in a decade so by the time the 70's came along with all its swagger and glamour, he was ready for Jerry Hall and her Amazonian beauty:

Jerry Hall Montego Bay

Jerry Hall & Antonio Lopez

Hall and Parkinson became life long friends and she credits him with not only kick starting her career in the US and the UK but also with introducing her to Bryan Ferry - apparently one look at Parkinson's photos of Jerry and he was hooked - it's not difficult to see why...

Jerry Hall

However, perhaps one of the most fruitful collaborations Parks ever had during his lengthy career - he went freelance from 1964 - was with Grace Coddington, US Vogue's inimitable Creative Director, who started life as a model before moving into the world of fashion editing, thus working with Parkinson both in front of and behind the camera.

Grace Coddington

In the Arena documentary Coddington talks of Parks with great affection and recalls how an inaugural trip they made to Bird Island, the Seychelles, triggered her love of narrative fashion, where the images tell a story, which in turn brings an extra edge to the shoot, lifting it from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Bird Island - The Seychelles

Coddington has been doing this ever since. She says that her eye was trained by Parkinson, who advised her never to fall asleep in a car as she would miss the potentially inspiring views out of the window and she considers him her number one mentor to this day.

Parkinson with Grace model Andrea Holterhof. Photo: Chuck Zuretti
Bath in Fashion 2013 is celebrating the centenary of Parkinson's birth with an exhibition entitled 'Mouvements de Femmes' curated by Roland Mouret from April 13th-May 12th, and Vogue's Sarah Mower has written an excellent birthday tribute which includes an excerpt from the Arena documentary. (It's being repeated on Wednesday so catch it if you can). Without doubt, Norman Parkinson was a flirt, a dandy and a true genius, never without his lucky hat, and (as he modestly used to call them) his "snaps" are an enduring testament to his vision and his artistry. Happy Birthday Mr. Parkinson, your fashion legacy is alive and well.

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