A century after his birth, Norman Parkinson’s remains a pivotal influence for fashion photography
London’s Southbank National Theatre is currently exhibiting photographs by legendary British photographer Norman Parkinson. The ‘Century of Style’ exhibition organised to mark the centenary of his birth covers many aspects of his critically acclaimed career spanning from the 1930s until his death in 1990.
Regarded as the godfather of modern fashion photography, Norman Parkinson pioneered the styles of many of the images we see in fashion magazines today. Featured in publications including Vogue Magazine and Harper’s Bazar his photographs helped define the look of British fashion, style and culture for most of forty years.
Norman Parkinson was famous in his time for the elegance and glamour he brought to his work. Proclaimed as one of the true visionaries of fashion photography, he pushed the boundaries that art, bringing the models out of the studio, for the first time photographing in exotic locations, using unusual backdrops, unexpected props and creating surprising juxtapositions. His creative work initiated in the 1930s contributed to the direction taken by Fashion photography during the extraordinary period that followed the Second World War.
Before Parkinson, fashion models were often shown and treated as object, usually photographed in studios, they appeared still, studied and ultimately cold. Parkinson however, only shot in natural light and took still shots while the models were moving, leading the way for ‘action realism’ – a photographic style that endures today. He once said, all the girls had their legs bolted together and I thought, I don’t know any girls who live like that. My girls do this: they run, jump walls... His photographic style has since gone on to define fashion photography.
There is no doubt that Parkinson remains a pivotal influence on subsequent generations of fashion photographers. Following in his footsteps the likes of David Bailey and Brian Duffy in the 1960s – both of whom created their own flavour of fashion photography – remain debt to Parkinson for the pathway that he had quite literally illuminated before them.
Parkinson photographed some of the world most iconic, famous and beautiful personalities of the 20th century, including Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardener, Elton John, Vivian Leigh, and Parkinson’s wife, the stage actress and model, Wenda Rogerson.
The images of her he created perhaps best define Parkinson’s highly original approach to fashion photography. By photographing Wenda wearing a Simpson’s suit, cashmere sweater sets and sensible shoes – and posing her with an open umbrella by her side in the fog near Hyde Park Corner for instance, he managed to create iconic images of the lingering sophistication of post war London – images that have the astonishing ability to look at once cool and warm, elegant and jaunty.
The photographs exhibited at the National Theatre in London – in both colour and black-white, most digital reproductions – are hung in relatively large formats. They are therefore viewed in a different setting and size to what was intended i.e. on the pages of fashion magazines. They are not the original prints often shown in specialised galleries. This however, doesn’t detract from the quality of the images – in fact, it gives the viewer the opportunity to stand back, observe and really appreciate the composition and aesthetics of each photograph.
Although the surrounding of the exhibition, one of the foyers of the National Theatre is arguably an unusual space for such an exhibition, it is well-conceived and well presented, celebrating some of fashion’s most iconic images taken by arguably the greatest fashion photographer of modern times. Parkinson’s work will no doubt continue to inspire fashion photographers and fashion campaigns for many years to come.
Upper Ground, Southbank, London SE1 9PX
Admission cost: Free