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.
Other topics you may be interested in…
Richard Avedon was one of the all-time-great fashion photographers. For decades after his emergence onto the scene in 1946, he was a dominant influence on the industry thanks to the energy, imagination and willingness to take risks that he brought to his work.
Fashion was where Avedon made his name. It was also his undoing – at least in his own mind. He came to regard it as “merely” commercial, whereas what he really wanted was to be, and be seen as, a serious artist. So he turned his attention to portraiture, using fashion commissions to fund his endeavours.
But such was Avedon’s reputation in the field of fashion that despite all his efforts it continued to dominate his image for most of his career.
Avedon – fashion and portraiture, two sides of a coin
At first sight, Avedon’s portraits seem to be the polar opposite of his fashion work. A distinguishing characteristic of a typical Avedon fashion shot is its energetic high spirits. By contrast, what distinguishes many Avedon portraits is the bleak, unflinching, often inquisitorial dissection of his subjects’ vulnerabilities. His portraits are rarely kind, let alone flattering. More than occasionally, they shock his subjects.
But look more closely and you’ll discover a dark seam of existential angst running through Avedon’s fashion work too. He’s all too aware that beauty can be isolating and that it fades. You can see that in the expression of Dorian Leigh as she looks at herself in the mirror in a photo taken in 1949 at the beginning of Avedon’s career. Pathos is more to the fore in his 1955 shot of Dovima with Émilien Boulione and a clown. But nowhere is his existential angst more explicit than in In Memory of The Late Mr and Mrs Comfort, a harrowing editorial for the November 6, 1995 issue of The New Yorker.
In an interview quoted in Avedon Fashion 1944–2000, he traces the underlying anxiety in his fashion work back to his experience as a boy growing up in a home dominated by women:
I watched the way in which they prepared themselves to go out, what clothes meant, what makeup meant, what hair meant, what men meant. That anxiety was a very important thing that I tried to work into the magazines. And very often they [the photos] were rejected.
Avedon – the great storyteller
Another common denominator between Avedon’s fashion and portrait studies is drama and stories. Throughout his life, he never passes up an opportunity to go to the theatre, the ballet and the movies. He’s also an avid reader. All this helps to provide inspiration and fuel his own creativity
The stories are most evident in his fashion editorials, especially the iconic series of images he creates for Harper’s Bazaar to showcase the Paris collections, and which in the process help transform the image of the city after World War II. In A Woman Entering a Taxi in the Rain, an article published in the November 8, 1958 issue of The New Yorker, Winthrop Sargeant remarks:
His leading lady must always be involved in a drama of some sort, and if fate fails to provide a real one, Avedon thinks one up. He often creates in his mind an entire scenario suggested by a model’s appearance. She may be a waif lost in a big and sinful city, or a titled lady pursued in Hispano-Suizas by gentlemen flourishing emeralds, or an inconsolably bored woman of the world whose heart can no longer be touched – and so on. Avedon models play scene after scene from these scripts, and sometimes helps out by actually living an extra scene or two. The result is extraordinary for its realism – not the kind of realism found in most photography but the kind found in the theatre.
The mood of those shots might feel improvised, but the shoots themselves are far from spontaneous. They take a great deal of preparation: research into locations, sketches of proposed shots and test photos. On the day, Avedon coaxes and cajoles his models into the personas and poses he has in mind, chatting to them, joking with them and, crucially, telling them the stories he wants them to act out. He’s a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and inspiration and he won’t take no for an answer.
Hiro, once upon a time an assistant of Avedon, says:
Dick was the most brilliant of all the flashes that illuminated my professional path. His impatience was an inspiration in itself. The preparation he made for each sitting, the perfectionism – sharp, like a scalpel. And then the way he directed. His personality, which helped him clinch every shot. His timing. This man created the modern woman – the Avedon Woman.
In Avedon’s portraits, the drama is in the eyes, faces and expressions of his sitters, usually accentuated by ascetic, plain white backgrounds. More often than not the drama is dark, and not just by coincidence. Before the shoot, Avedon researches his subject and forms a view of what he wants his portrait to convey. And he seems inexorably drawn to his sitter’s vulnerabilities and failings – the skull beneath the skin.
He’s fond of telling a story of how he took his celebrated photo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The challenge: find a way of getting them to drop their guard – the happy, smiling “Ladies Home Journal cover faces” they would present for their portrait in contrast to the expressions he’s seen as he stalked them at the casino. He wants his portrait to reveal their “loss of humanity.” When he turns up at their NYC apartment for the shoot, he notices their pug dogs, which they adore. So he sets everything up, gets the couple into position and says, “If I seem a little hesitant, a little disturbed, it’s because my taxi ran over a dog.” Both of their faces drop, he clicks the shutter and catches the expression he’s looking for.
It turns out that this story might itself be made up. Either way, it gives us an insight into the store Avedon sets by stories. It also illustrates another aspect of what Avedon is like and how he captures images like no others – he is an arch manipulator, charismatic and ruthless, who knows what he wants from a shoot and also how to get it.
That applies not just to individual shoots but also to Avedon’s legacy and the brand he is determined to create for himself. He’s perfectly prepared to edit his archive, destroying photos that don’t fit with the narrative he wants to create for himself. And when he talks about his experiences, it’s not always clear where fact ends and fancy begins. Indeed, according to Norma Stevens, his studio manager:
Dick 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.”
Avedon – the Hollywood connection
Not only do many of Avedon’s fashion shoots seem to come straight out of a movie, they even inspire one. Funny Face is based loosely on the exploits of Avedon and his first wife, Doe, played by Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Avedon is retained as a consultant for the movie, revealing some of his working methods, providing tips on lighting and on Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe, and creating title credits and backgrounds plus a montage of freeze-framed fashion.
Funny Face and Avedon’s work as a stills photographer for The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959) bridge his fashion and portrait work, with one of his greatest portraits being of Marilyn Monroe lost in thought.
For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s – she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.
On a lighter note is Avedon’s virtuoso shoot – witty, stylish, extravagant – with Marilyn for the Christmas 1958 issue of LIFE magazine. The idea is to recreate the images of five stars from different eras. With his interest in theatre and the movies, this is right up the photographer’s street.
In every age the entertainment world produces an enchantress who embodies the fancies men dream by – the places they might have visited with her, music danced to with her, suppers shared with her. In the Gay Nineties, it was Lillian Russell, 160 opulent pounds of curvy Victorian womanhood. Then it was Theda Bara, representing all the women who came bursting from their stays in World War I with predatory eyes and heavy make-up into the new freedom. Afterward there was Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow. Heiress today of the fabled five is Marilyn Monroe. On the following pages, in a stunning feat of re-creation, Marilyn impersonates her predecessors in their most enduring images.
The images here are scans of vintage black and white prints sent to a Hollywood producer, whereas the published versions are in colour.
Avedon – fashion photography’s great innovator
One of the things that makes Avedon such a key figure in fashion photography is his ability to stay ahead of the curve. Fashion is by its nature so ephemeral that few photographers manage to remain current for more than about a decade. Avedon, almost uniquely, manages to evolve his approach to tap into the zeitgeist and reflect the changing times in which he lives. Perhaps that’s because he sees it as an important aspect of his remit.
I believe that the photographer’s job is to record the quality of the woman, of that moment he is working… Our job is always to report on the woman of the moment. The way she lives, the way she dresses. Our conception of beauty changes and is always changing.
Almost from the off, Avedon is pushing at the boundaries, getting his models to act rather than just pose, using blurred movement and soft focus when sharp focus and detail are what’s expected. According to Winthrop Sargeant, that was just the beginning:
The model became pretty, rather than austerely aloof. She laughed, danced, skated, gambolled among herds of elephants, sang in the rain, ran breathlessly down the Champs-Elysées, smiled and sipped cognac at café tables, and otherwise gave evidence of being human.
Some Avedon admirers date the turning point in his style from a celebrated photograph he made for Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, in which Dorian Leigh was shown bursting into laughter while throwing her arms around the winner of a French bicycle race. The picture created a sensation in the profession, since embracing sports heroes and laughing had not previously been thought suitable activities for fashion models, and the extent of its influence soon became clear as models began to appear everywhere embracing bicycle riders, matadors, coachmen, and Lord knows what else, in a state of hilarity. Next, Avedon, again a good jump ahead of the pack, started photographing models with handsome young men posing as their husbands, and then—most revolutionary of all—models wheeling children in perambulators or, to make the family scene complete, dangling them in baskets gaily held by the father, too.
It’s not so easy for us now to appreciate quite how startling Avedon’s work is for people at the time. Over several decades, particularly the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, he helps to define and advance accepted notions of beauty as well as pushing the limits of what’s acceptable in a fashion magazine (for example, his photo of Countess Christina Paolozzi topless in the January, 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar). Landmark shoots include:
- Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1959 – China Machado, the first non-Caucasian model to shoot the collections and feature on the cover.
- Harper’s Bazaar, September, 1962 – inspired by the coverage of Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton, the autumn collections shot as if by paparazzi and laid out like a pulp magazine.
- Harper’s Bazaar, December, 1963 – Rebecca Hutchings, the first black model to appear in the magazine.
- Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1965 – set in Ibiza, an editorial implying a ménage à trois.
- Harper’s Bazaar, April, 1965 – a far-out mash-up of pop culture, space age and high fashion shot and edited by Avedon and billed as “a partial passport to the off-beat side of Now.”
- The New Yorker, November 6, 1995 – In Memory of The Late Mr and Mrs Comfort, a dark and satirical fashion editorial starring Nadja Auermann and a skeleton in a tale of decadence and death.
Avedon – his achievement
The second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st were a time of social, political and cultural change. Avedon’s fashion work as well as his portraits are a commentary on those decades, probing and revealing what power and wealth, confidence and vitality, deprivation and helplessness look like and what they do to people – a unique legacy of penetrating and iconic images.
This piece is mainly about Avedon as a fashion photographer, but that’s not the half of it. Additionally, he created a whole series of influential advertising campaigns, the most notable of which starred 15-year-old Brooke Shields modelling a pair of Calvin Klein skin-tight jeans. He branched out into film and video. He initiated ambitious and important projects – In the American West is a great example. He ran a sizeable studio, which among other things acted as a kind of academy, training and inspiring generations of photographers. And through his exhibitions and books he helped raise the status of photography to challenge that of painting and sculpture in the minds of curators, collectors and the public at large.
Few photographers have the determination, the courage and the insightfulness to challenge themselves and their sitters to the extent that Avedon did. That is at the heart of his greatness.
Want to know more about Avedon?
Your preferred search engine will offer you many online sources of information and images.
Here are four videos and a handful of books worth looking up:
- Avedon Fashion 1944–2000 by Vince Aletti, Carol Squiers and Philippe Garner is outstanding for both the images and the accompanying essays.
- Richard Avedon: Made in France by Judith Thurman presents a collection of images made in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar during the 1950s, reproduced to the exact scale of the engraver’s prints made for Avedon, uncropped, on their original mounts, with all of the artist’s notations on both front and back.
- An Autobiography: The Photographs of Richard Avedon is a major retrospective of images chosen by Avedon himself. There is hardly any text.
- Norma Stevens’ and Steven Aronson’s biography, Avedon: Something Personal is a compelling and insightful portrait, laced with reflections on the great man by people who knew and worked with him. Bear in mind, though, that many of the details are disputed and it’s inconceivable that the author remembered her conversations with Avedon verbatim.
- Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers by Michael Gross provides a context in which to assess Avedon’s achievements in the field of fashion photography.
Other topics you may be interested in…
In the mid-1940s, Gene Tierney seemed to have it all: beauty, talent, success. By age 25, she was a major star and had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Ten years later, she was on the verge of being admitted to a series of mental institutions.
How did such a tragic fall from grace come about? And what can we learn from it about Gene Tierney and the treatment of mental health in mid-20th century America?
Gene Tierney – beauty, talent, success and more
Gene Tierney comes from a loving, well-to-do family and goes to school in Switzerland as well as in the US. Her father is an insurance broker with clients in Hollywood. In 1938, he packs his wife and children off to California. During a studio sightseeing tour at Warner Bros, 17-year-old Gene is spotted by director Anatole Litvak, who invites her to make a screen test. She’s offered a contract but her parents forbid her to sign.
She returns home determined to become an actress and help the family out financially, now that her father’s business has fallen on hard times. And determination is what it takes:
In my circle you finished school, married a Yale boy, and lived in Connecticut. … I wanted to be an actress. Nothing else mattered. I suppose that thousands of girls of my generation talked that way, and some of them meant it, but most wound up as carhops or returned home to marry their boyfriends.
With her father’s help, she embarks on a career as a stage actress and in double-quick time makes it to Broadway, which quickly takes her back to Hollywood, as revealed in a 1941 interview with Screenland:
Columbia originally brought me out, after two minor roles in Broadway attempts. I was a scared-to-death seventeen then. I wandered and wondered about the Columbia lot, a mystery to everyone including mother and me. There was no rush to take portrait sittings, to pose in the latest fashions. Eventually I was cast in a picture, opposite Randolph Scott. … On my second day, way back three years ago, I was unceremoniously taken out and Frances Dee took over the role.
I was A Failure … I did what I could to grin and bear it. I was fat, so I dieted. I studied dancing. And when option time came I got the axe, anyhow. I’d come to Hollywood, fizzled ignominiously, and was fated to be forgotten. Only I’m stubborn. Ask mother and dad! I declined to Fade Out. At almost eighteen I knew I could make the grade with a studio.
Back on Broadway, she gets a break in the critically acclaimed The Male Animal, as a result of which she features in LIFE, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. More offers from Hollywood drop through her letterbox and she ends up signing for Twentieth Century-Fox, whose founder, Darryl F Zanuck, a notorious womanizer, hails her as “unquestionably the most beautiful woman in movie history.”
Learning from her previous abortive stay in Hollywood, this time her contract stipulates that Twentieth Century-Fox must immediately find roles for her and put her to work. In her first 12 months she complete three movies, the most important of which is Tobacco Road. At which point the studio’s publicity machine swings into action.
I was turned over to the studio’s top publicity woman, Peggy McNaught, and a photographer named Frank Powolny. Soon Peggy had me posing for Frank’s camera at the beach, at poolside, in nightclubs, on the set, and in the studio gallery. She lined up interviews and pushed me for fashion layouts in magazines and newspapers.
Over the next few years Gene Tierney appears in a succession of films including Sundown and The Shanghai Gesture (1941) Rings on her Fingers (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Laura (1944) – the role for which she’s best remembered to this day. Co-star Vincent Price would later remark:
No one but Gene Tierney could have played ‘Laura.’ There was no other actress around with her particular combination of beauty, breeding, and mystery.
As an aside, in the first instance Laura was to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian and he commissions his wife Acadia, a popular Hollywood artist, to paint the portrait of Laura, which plays such an iconic part in the movie. When Mamoulian is fired, his successor Otto Preminger decides that the portrait lacks mystery. So he sends Gene to pose for Frank Powolny, chooses one of the shots from the session and has a blow-up made and lightly brushed over with paint to create the desired effect.
The following year, Gene Tierney is nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). In spite of this, her Hollywood career is dogged by poor reviews, with critics seemingly resentful of her privileged background and striking looks – as if those advantages preclude or negate talent, determination and persistence. Suffice it to say that her performance in Leave Her to Heaven will lead Martin Scorsese to observe that, “Gene Tierney is one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era.”
Her experience working with Ernst Lubitsch on Heaven Can Wait is revealing of her attitude to her work and her colleagues:
Lubitsch was a tyrant on the set, the most demanding of directors. After one scene, which took from noon until five to get, I was almost in tears from listening to Lubitsch shout at me. The next day I sought him out, looked him in the eye, and said, “Mr. Lubitsch, I’m willing to do my best but I just can’t go on working on this picture if you’re going to keep shouting at me.” “I’m paid to shout at you,” he bellowed. “Yes,” I said, “and I’m paid to take it – but not enough.” After a tense pause, Lubitsch broke out laughing. From then on we got along famously.
By the time her mind crumbles, and her career with it, Gene Tierney has appeared in more than 30 movies.
Gene Tierney – a series of unfortunate events
For all her success in front of the camera, behind the scenes and under the surface Gene Tierney is going to pieces. Her plight is horribly reminiscent of William Blake’s poem, The Sick Rose:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
A series of setbacks undermine Gene’s self-confidence and leave her increasingly fragile and vulnerable.
In 1940, she meets fashion designer Oleg Cassini at a party given by their mutual friend, Constance Moore. The two of them hit it off immediately. On 1 June 1941, they elope to Las Vegas where they get married in a private ceremony. Gene’s parents are horrified when they hear what she’s done and all but disown her.
Twentieth Century-Fox and the Hollywood establishment generally are similarly disenchanted. Even a favourable interview in Screenland three months after the event refers to “tempestuous Tierney”, “the climbing Count” and their “madcap marriage”.
Oleg has been working as a costume designer – notably on on Veronica Lake’s wardrobe for I Wanted Wings (1941), Gene’s for The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Rita Hayworth’s for Tales of Manhattan (1942). But for the next five years the studios treat him as a pariah. The couple are pretty much totally reliant on Gene’s earnings, which puts the marriage under strain from the off.
Then Gene finds out that her father, “who taught me that honour was everything” and who has been acting as her agent via a company called Belle-Tier Corporation, has been siphoning off all her earnings to prop up his failing insurance business. Everything has been lost. It also turns out that her father has been having an affair with one of her mother’s friends. The close relationship between father and daughter is at an end.
In March 1943 Gene discovers that she’s expecting a baby. She decides to use her break to do some volunteer work at the Hollywood Canteen – a patriotic gesture and a good source of publicity for a rising actress.
In June, she falls ill with rubella (German Measles), with fatal consequences for her unborn child. In October, when she gives birth, prematurely, her daughter requires a complete blood transfusion. Daria is also deaf and partially blind. Oleg and Gene decide to take the little girl home with them and raise her as best they can.
A year after Daria’s birth, Gene is approached at a tennis party by a fan who smiles and asks if she recognizes her. She tells Gene she was in the women’s branch of the marines and met her at the Hollywood Canteen:
Did you happen to catch the German measles after that night? You know, I probably shouldn’t tell you this. But almost the whole camp was down with German measles. I broke quarantine to come to the Canteen to meet the stars. Everyone told me I shouldn’t, but I just had to go. And you were my favourite.
Around this time, it is becoming apparent that Daria is also fatally brain-damaged. In the end, her parents admit defeat and send her to an institution, where she will spend the rest of her life. With all the stresses and strains, their marriage is on the rocks. Oleg has an affair. The couple split up.
Gene meets and falls for future US President John F Kennedy. But when he hears that she has asked Oleg for a divorce, he tells her over lunch in New York that he can never marry her. Her response: “Bye, bye, Jack.”
Oleg and Gene are divorced in 1952, and she takes up with Prince Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth’s ex, whom she met in Argentina the previous year while making Way of a Goucho. It’s the same story as with JFK – there’s no way his family will countenance their marriage so the relationship goes nowhere.
Gene’s bouts of anxiety and depression finally come to a head in 1955 when she is working on Left Hand of God (1955) with Humphrey Bogart:
I was so ill, so far gone, that it became an effort every day not to give up. … I knew that if I got through the picture I had to get myself to a hospital. I learned later that a sister of Bogart’s had been mentally ill. He recognised the signs, went to the studio bosses and warned them I was sick and needed help. They assured him that I was a trouper, was aware how much had been invested in the film and would not let them down. They suggested that Bogart be kind and gentle. He was nothing less. His patience and understanding carried me through the film. We did not know then that he was himself terminally ill with cancer.
The studio’s response is telling and likely pretty typical. Their primary concerns are with ensuring the commercial success of their movies, hushing up inconvenient truths and providing sanitized versions of their stars’ lives for public consumption. Don’t imagine that Gene Tierney is alone in struggling with mental health issues. She’s in good company – Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland are three other cases in point. Mental health continues to be an issue for film stars and other celebrities to this day, as revealed by an article in Marie Claire to mark World Mental Health Day 2017.
Mental health issues seem to have run in Gene’s family. In Self-Portrait, she mentions her maternal aunt in this context, so she’s likely to have been predisposed to anxiety and depression. Her autobiography begins with her nadir in the spring of 1957:
It is a terrible thing to feel no fear, no alarm, when you are standing on a window ledge fourteen stories above the street. I felt tired, lost, and numb – but unafraid. I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to take my own life. I cat-walked a few steps away from the open window and steadied myself, to think about it. The fact that I could no longer make decisions was why I had gone to the ledge in the first place. What to wear, when to get out of bed, which can of soup to buy, how to go on living, the most automatic task confused and depressed me.
Gene Tierney – a mid-20th century mental patient
Gene Tierney is courageous in speaking out about her struggles with severe bouts of depression, a taboo subject for most of the 20th century. Over a period of six years, she is admitted to three different mental hospitals and has a total of 32 electric shock treatments:
I knew nothing about electric shock therapy, and I don’t think the doctors at the time knew much more. It was then considered a scientific breakthrough, although opinion was divided about the potential for long-term harm. The treatment was developed in Italy in 1938. Doctors soon began to use it to treat schizophrenia and cases of severe depression.
An electrode was attached to each temple and an alternating current of eighty or ninety volts passed between the electrodes for a split fraction of a second. In the early days of this therapy, the moment of violent seizure often produced fractures and dislocated bones. The use of muscle relaxants solved that problem.
When it shocked its victims into some measure of sanity, it seemed to do so by inducing a temporary amnesia. It triggered a physical feeling that was comfortable and benign. You can hardly be depressed over something you no longer remember. The results often were so dramatic that helpless people could soon manage everyday things that once seemed intimidating.
But even more than electric shock treatment, Gene fears the cold pack:
To me, the cold pack was the worst indignity of my confinement. It was not meant to be cruel or inhuman or to punish you. The cold pack was simply one of the ways of rearranging your mind, of shocking you back into sanity, or so the doctors hoped. When my time came, I felt only that I had been dehumanized.
I was wrapped from the neck down in icy wet bedsheets, my arms strapped to my sides. It was like being buried in a snow bank. Tears poured down my cheeks as the minutes ticked away. I couldn’t move. I lost the feeling in my hands and feet. My mind was in a panic.
Eventually, she starts to get a grip on herself:
When I accepted my handicap, my doctors told me, “Now you are going to get well, because you know you have a weakness.” But it took me four years to face the truth. Up to then, I committed myself to treatment because I thought my family felt I should, and I told myself I was pleasing them.
Her exit interview is like something out of Kafka:
I was beginning to respond, to open up, to examine the disappointments in my life: my father, my marriage, the helplessness I felt when I had to give up Daria.
Early in August of 1958, I was told to appear before members of the medical staff for an interview. If I passed, I would be released to my family. I was dressed neatly and quietly, without jewelry, in my own clothes. I felt pale and edgy, like a young girl applying for her first job. I was applying for my freedom.
I sat behind a two-way glass. The doctors could see me, but I could not see them. I found it disconcerting, hearing these disembodied voices. My nerves were so keyed up that I remember nothing of their questions or my answers.
Gene is lucky insofar as she can afford to stay at some of the best institutions around at the time. In 1963, Richard Avedon will visit a state-run establishment – East Louisiana State Mental Institution, Jackson, Louisiana. His photos are a harrowing reminder of what it was like for less well-off individuals with mental-health problems.
In the UK, most of the old asylums have been closed down but some of the buildings survive as ruins, eloquently and evocatively documented at Abandoned Britain. All well and good, but now there’s almost nowhere to go for those who need help and many of them sleep rough on the streets.
Gene Tierney – a kind of redemption
Gene Tierney will struggle with her demons for the rest of her life. That won’t prevent her from appearing in minor roles in a handful of films during the 1960s and one movie historian will remark that:
Gene Tierney returns to the screen after 7 years absence undergoing psychiatric treatment, which probably included recovering from endless caustic comments from Bosley Crowther throughout her career. He never had a nice word for her, ever… I wonder if she just rolled her eyes at every NY Times review. Crowther just relentlessly had it in for her no matter what she did. She must have snubbed him at a party as a starlet.
In autumn 1958, she had met W Howard Lee, a Texas oilman, then about to divorce none other than Hedy Lamarr. On 11 July 1960, Gene Tierney will marry Lee in a small ceremony in Aspen. He will stick with her through her ups and her downs until his death in 1981.
Want to know more about Gene Tierney?
The two books on which this piece is based are Self-Portrait by Gene Tierney with Mickey Herskowitz and American Legends: The Life of Gene Tierney. There’s an article by Ben Maddox about Gene Tierney’s recent marriage to Oleg Cassini in the September 1941 issue of Screenland, available at the Media History Digital Library. Another article in the 29 September 1958 issue of LIFE magazine is about Gene Tierney’s return to Hollywood.
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