Norman Parkinson – “Parks” to his friends – was one of fashion photography’s great storytellers. Stories and fantasies were at the heart of both the man and his work.
Irving Penn described his pictures as “like remarkable stills from a film of an interesting life.” And towards the end of his life, talking about the Brighton Pavilion (his favourite building), Parks told The Observer magazine:
George IV was a great eccentric and an enthusiastic man, full of fantasy. If you are going to be an artist of any kind – even a photographer – you have to major in fantasy.”
Eccentric, enthusiastic and fantasy are all words that sit comfortably alongside the name Norman Parkinson.
Norman Parkinson – the man
He’s born Ronald William Parkinson Smith in 1913 in London. In 1934, age 21, he opens his own studio with fellow photographer Norman Kibblewhite, calling it Norman Parkinson – a combination of two of their given names. Kibblewhite leaves shortly afterwards and Ronald Smith becomes Norman Parkinson.
He cuts a striking figure. For starters, he’s over 6 feet 5 inches tall, which means he stands out from the crowd, literally, and has a bird’s eye view of his subjects. As if that’s not enough, he further draws attention to himself by the way he dresses. He recalls that back in the 1930s:
I had the mistaken idea around that time that I was a bit of an artist – an idea that I have attempted to dispel over the past forty years – and dressed even more outrageously than I do now. I affected sandals, rather a lot of leather and suede, and a mid-calf length cape affair, made from blood-red Harris tweed. … On my head I wore a peaked cap that Locks had made for me. Aware of my interest in fashion, when my father died he left me the hounds-tooth trousers that my grandfather was married in. A peculiar bequest you will rightly say, particularly if I mention that, for reasons known only to my grandfather, the moth had entirely devoured the crotch.
Norman Parkinson’s flamboyant dress sense evolves over time but never leaves him. For example, the Kashmiri wedding hat presented to him in 1957 by Sultan Wangnoo becomes the first in a long line of signature headgear. He is, as his tailor, Mr Wyser of Wyser & Bryant observes, “a man who wants to be noticed.” So, even across a crowded room, your attention is drawn to the commanding figure with a military-style moustache and eccentric get-up. You can’t help being intrigued. Who is this man? Is he a bit up himself? Is he worth getting to know or better stay clear?
The moment he opens his mouth, your doubts evaporate. He’s well spoken (not surprising, given he went to Westminster, a posh boys’ school), debonair, witty, charming… He comes across as an English gentleman through and through. Jerry Hall, one of the models he “discovers,” reckons he hams up his Englishness but… “In fashion no one cares about the truth as long as it’s a good story. Everyone just wanted things to be fun and exotic.” That suits Parks just fine.
He’s been a photographer ever since he left school, though during the 1940s he’s had a go at combining it with being a gentleman farmer in Worcestershire in the West Midlands of England. He’s discovered that photography, and specifically photographing beautiful women, is his calling, and there are limited opportunities for that on or even from a farm.
Not to be deterred, once he’s established himself as a leader in his field and feels secure personally and professionally, he makes his home in Tobago. There he farms pigs and creates the Porkinson Banger – served on Concorde and marketed as the world’s first supersonic sausage. To get to work as a photographer, all he has to do is hop on a plane. No problem.
So what’s it like going on a shoot with him? Well, he’s quite a ladies’ man and he’s adept at weaving a spell to bewitch his models into entering his world of make-believe. No one is more aware of that than Wenda Rogerson, the subject of some of his most famous shots and the love of his life, whom he marries in 1951. Writing in Photographs by Norman Parkinson, the monograph that accompanied his 1981 one-man show at the National Portrait Gallery, she observes that:
Every sitting – however seemingly mundane – is capable of holding within it the magic he is always striving to find. Brought up in an age when fairy-tales were still read aloud to children by the warmth of the nursery gas fire, he has never lost his belief in magic. Indeed he talks about the existence of gremlins in his camera. The princes and princesses, the good and the bad fairy, appear, a little disguised, from the filed recesses of his imagination again and again.
And on another occasion:
Parks has got a little bit of hypnotism about him. Women will do anything for him and he loves their company, adores them…
If that sounds a bit airy fairy, his friends and colleagues are pretty much unanimous in remarking on his sense of humour – being around Norman Parkinson is a blast. For him taking pictures is a pleasure, not a stress. He also has a great sense of spontaneity and adventure. According to Jerry Hall:
Parks was up for anything – he was like a young person, even though he was quite aged – everything was a new discovery for him, which was exciting because you felt that you were collaborating, you felt free. I was so excited when I was working with him; I would go to bed thinking, what will I do tomorrow?
Finally, Parks is a great raconteur who comes up with stories that put his subjects at ease and help them understand what he wants to get across in his shoot. Jerry Hall again:
…there’d always be a story. I enjoy a story, too, and you’d always have to have it in your head. So when I was sitting on Marie Antoinette’s bed, it was all about it being a ghost of Versailles. He just had a way of making you feel very confident and alive and special. There was such a connection. I think part of what made his pictures so amazing was that he had an idea he’d worked out in his head, something slightly poetic, and he also had an intensity of focus and all the technical ability
Bottom line – Norman Parkinson is a highly skilled technician, whose art conceals art. He can create the most complex images with scarcely any apparent effort. He’s charming, entertaining and inspirational. He has a wonderful wit and imagination, a clear vision for each shoot, and a steely determination to go with it. In short, when he goes on an assignment, he knows what he wants and he knows exactly how to get it, come what may. There’s an iron fist inside that velvet glove.
Norman Parkinson – the photographer
Norman Parkinson’s career stretches over more than half a century in a field where novelty and originality are at a premium. That’s an extraordinary achievement. Here is a brief overview…
The 1930s. Norman Parkinson begins his career apprenticed to an old-fashioned portrait/court photographer. These are the days of the Season, when debutantes queue at the gates of Buckingham Palace to be presented to the King. Within a few years, Parks has his own studio and is working on commissions from Harper’s Bazaar. His remit is to emulate the work of Martin Munkacsi in the magazine’s US edition – to develop a more photo-journalistic style of fashion photography by shooting his subjects informally, in movement and outdoors. This in contrast to the prevailing style, as embodied by the likes of Cecil Beaton and George Hoyningen-Huene. He soon discovers this is his metier, on one occasion suggesting that:
A studio is like an operating theatre. You go there to get a part of yourself removed.
The 1940s and ’50s. During World War II, Norman Parkinson spends most of his time working on a farm in Worcestershire. He does take some photographs for the Ministry of Defence, for example of the Women’s Emergency Land Corps harvesting and fruit-picking for the war effort. Apparently, he is also employed by the Royal Air Force as a reconnaissance photographer. And he finds time to work on fashion assignments for Vogue (he jumps ship from Harper’s Bazaar), capturing his models in rural settings that evoke a nostalgia very much in keeping with the wartime mood.
After the War, the sense of poetry, romance and whimsey in his photographs finds a receptive audience in a nation sick of privation. His practice flourishes and through the fifties he makes yearly visits to New York at the behest of Alexander Lieberman, US Vogue’s art director. His sense of adventure also leads to him becoming one of the first fashion photographers to take advantage of jet travel and exotic locations.
The 1960s and ’70s. In 1960, Parks is recruited by Jocelyn Stevens, who has just acquired Queen and is in the process of transforming it into London’s avant-garde fashion magazine. He’s happy to let Parks off the leash in a way that his erstwhile employers at Vogue were not. With more freedom to push the boundaries and produce quirky and original work, Norman Parkinson is reinvigorated, only to return to Vogue in 1965. He continues to shoot editorials, working regularly with the French, Italian and US as well as the UK edition.
The 1980s. In 1978 Norman Parkinson leaves Vogue for the last time, this time to move to Town & Country magazine. The glitzy style of portrait photography he purveys is completely in tune with both the decade and his sitters’ and audience’s aspirations. And he carries on working until his death in 1990.
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
That’s the official narrative, as Parks constructed it and as it appears, give or take, in most of the biographies and monographs. But Norman Parkinson is a slippery, elusive figure. It’s not easy to disentangle the facts from the fabrications he weaves around himself, particularly his past.
There are hints that what he reveals about himself may not be the whole story, that there may be another lurking under the surface. As ever, what’s not said is as interesting and potentially revealing as what is…
- Parks’ accounts of his childhood and growing up are vague and various. Is it simply that he decided at an early stage that in order to succeed as a photographer he needed to fabricate a more appropriate name and back story?
I didn’t see how anyone could make a business out of being a high-flying photographer with the name “Smith.”
- He barely mentions Norman Kibblewhite, another product of the Speaight studio, whose particular contribution to the partnership was his experience in film lighting. Who was he, why did the two men part ways and what became of him?
- How and to what extent did Norman Parkinson manage to avoid active service during World War II? There’s little evidence (at least that I’m aware of) for his assertion to an interviewer that:
I used to do quite a lot of ﬂying, doing reconnaissance, that sort of thing. Quite a lot of stuff I did ended up in magazines for the French resistance.
- His first two wives, Margaret Banks (whom he married in 1935) and Thelma Woolley (whom he married in 1942), are pretty much airbrushed out of his narrative – neither appeared in his memoir, Lifework, or in his entry in Who’s Who. What’s the story there? The 1939 Register (a survey carried out to ensure the Government had an accurate record of the population, mainly with a view to issuing ration books), lists Ronald W P Smith as a farm labourer living with Thelma G Wooley. We catch a glimpse of them bombing through country villages in a hilarious report in the 31 October 1939 edition of the Gloucestershire Echo of a court case at which Parks was found guilty of speeding. Margaret was aware of her husband’s infidelity. As reported in the 21 January 1941 edition of the Birmingham Daily Gazette, when she filed for divorce…
The wife’s case was that in June 1939 her husband made a confession of his feelings towards a woman who had sat for him as a model. He left home five days later and Mrs. Parkinson-Smith now alleged that he and the other woman had lived together at Bushley, near Tewkesbury.
- Was his marriage to Wenda as blissful as he paints it? The relationship clearly got off to a fabulous start with their collaborations and his adoption of her son by her previous marriage. But Parks clearly had an eye for the ladies and he would have had plenty of temptation and opportunities to get involved. So, was he as devoted and faithful to Wenda as he appears? After all, he had previous. And there are rumours that latterly she took to the bottle – that would hardly be surprising, given her husband’s long absences away from home. Was this cause or effect?
- Was he quite so laid-back as he would have us believe? Clearly he could be wonderfully engaging, marvellous company. But there are also reports that he was perfectly capable of throwing a strop and did so on various occasions. On one such, he used his teeth to rip apart some colour transparencies that John Parsons, Vogue‘s art director, preferred to the ones he had selected.
The closer you look, the more the narrative frays around the edges, begins to unravel. And the more the questions arise.
Parks – the English Avedon?
Norman Parkinson’s and Richard Avedon’s careers run alongside each other from the 1940s through the 1980s. Avedon, not someone given to lauding his peers, writes of Parks:
There are very few photographers who remember that photography can be an expression of man’s deepest creative instincts. You are among those who have never forgotten.
Parks and Avedon make for interesting comparison. Both have something to prove, but whereas Norman Parkinson is relaxed, Richard Avedon is uptight. And there’s no doubt that at first glance, the two men and their work seem to be poles apart:
- With a few exceptions, Norman Parkinson is content to focus his creative powers on fashion and portraiture (the latter beyond the scope of this piece). While Richard Avedon makes his reputation in fashion photography, he grows to look down on it as a way of financing the work he really cares about – work that reveals a dark world-view and raises serious social issues.
- In his portraits, Avedon relentlessly seeks out what he sees as the truth behind the outward appearance. Expect anything but flattery. The results can be devastating, not least for the sitter. Parks likes to show people at their best. His portraits are devoid of malice:
If you have the responsibility of using your lens to record people for history, do it well. Everybody can look a little handsome, a touch beautiful – record them that way. Don’t destroy them and make them look hideous for the sole purpose of inflating your own photographic ego.
- Avedon sees himself as an artist with a capital A. He’s determined to raise the status of photography. Contrast that with Parks’ attitude:
There’s an awful lot of guff talked about photography, isn’t there? I mean, you consciously downplay it all the time, is it an art or a craft or a trade? It’s a trade.
But there are also some striking similarities:
- Both become fixated by the opposite sex and observe them almost voyeuristically from a young age. Avedon grows up in a female household, surrounded by women. Towards the end of his life (in an unpublished manuscript in the Norman Parkinson Archive), Parks reveals that among his earliest memories are those of women glimpsed through a fence next to a mulberry tree in his grandfather’s garden. In almost Proustian fashion, he remembers watching the girls next door…
…with loose dresses and a minimum of underclothes, running fawnlike everywhere. In the summer dog days I could see them lying around on the lawn … the gurgling, throaty laughter. I had a spy-hole on the world, which has fuelled my inspiration to this day. I photographed the memory of those well-observed weekend girls.
- Avedon and Parks are both renowned for taking their models out of the studio and onto the streets and capturing them as if living their lives rather than posing as professional models.
- They both remain at the forefront of their art (or should that be trade?) for decades. Though Avedon is undoubtedly more of a trailblazer, Parks is never that far behind. He has a sixth sense of the zeitgeist and how he needs to evolve, chameleon-like, to keep up with changing times and fashions.
- They both combine editorial work with lucrative advertising assignments – Parks’ decision to make his home in Tobago is largely down to his desire to reduce the tax he has to pay on his advertising earnings. And they both move restlessly to and fro between magazines, notably Harper’s and Vogue, latterly forsaking those two for editors more in awe of them.
- One senses that both are insecure individuals (but, to be honest, insecurity pretty much comes with the territory). Avedon, with his turbulent childhood and problematic relationship with his father, comes across as the more angst-ridden. But Parks has a strong need to escape his boring, lower middle class background, to create a back-story for himself (a brand, if you like) in tune with his chosen line for work.
- Both men are inveterate storytellers, equally skilled with words and images and accomplished at bending the truth to suit their purposes. Norman Parkinson observes that “The best photographers are the biggest liars.” While in Something Personal, Norma Stevens recalls that:
Dick [Avedon] would sometimes make merry with the facts – he even joked that if he ever wrote an autobiography he would call it Here Lies Richard Avedon. He said, “There is no truth, no history – there is only the way in which the story is told.”
A final word on Norman Parkinson
The most perceptive and eloquent tribute I’ve come across is by Iman, one of Parks’ favourite models, writing in the introduction to Robin Muir’s monograph:
Capturing life – energy, mood and spirit – is a talent reserved for the world’s most gifted photographers. No matter how beautiful a person may be, their photograph won’t shine unless the maestro behind the lens communicates with them, teases them, emotes with them. Photography is a collaborative process – like a dance – and Norman Parkinson was like Fred Astaire.
Want to know more about Norman Parkinson?
There are many excellent Norman Parkinson monographs, including:
- Sisters Under the Skin by Norman Parkinson
- Would You Let Your Daughter by Norman Parkinson
- Photographs by Norman Parkinson by Terence Pepper
- Lifework by Norman Parkinson
- Parkinson: Photographs 1935-1990 by Martin Harrison
- Norman Parkinson by David Wootton, with an essay by Robin Muir
- Norman Parkinson: A Very British Glamour by Louise Baring
- Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion by Robin Muir.
Online, you can find the Norman Parkinson Archive at Iconic Images. There are also various articles. Norman Parkinson: the photographer who made fashion glam by Lucy Davies in The Telegraph is a good starting point. And there’s a great interview in which Jerry Hall talks to Nicola Roberts about her memories of Parks in Norman Parkinson: legend behind a lens in the FT. Or you can watch Parks being interviewed by Mavis Nicholson in 1977.