Lifework: Norman Parkinson’s Century of Style / Reviewed by Helen Trompeteler / 08.05.13
April 2013 marks the centenary of the birth of Norman Parkinson, and the free retrospective exhibition Lifework at the National Theatre until 27 May, celebrates a career which forever changed British fashion photography. Born Ronald William Parkinson Smith, he was apprenticed to court photographers Speaight & Sons, before establishing his own studio at 1 Dover Street in 1934. At this time he first displayed a characteristic self-invention, changing his name from Ronald Parkinson Smith to briefly Ronald Parkinson, before finally, Norman Parkinson. Arranged chronologically by decades within a simple single hang layout, the exhibition draws together some 80 images from Parkinson’s extensive archive. The second photograph encountered of Pamela Minchin modelling swimwear for Harpers Bazaar (1939), Parkinson’s main client throughout the 1930s, shows her leaping from a breakwater onto a beach at the Isle of Wight. The image demonstrates the influence of Martin Munkacsi’s ‘Action Realism’, and the photographic qualities of movement and spontaneity for which Parkinson would become celebrated. Writing in his photobiography Lifework (1984), Parkinson explained: “I was trying to make moving pictures with a still camera”. A significant aspect of Parkinson’s work not shown is his photojournalism, his numerous photo essays included on the mining community at Merthyr Tydfil, Wales for The Bystander (1937).
In 1941, Parkinson received his first commission from British Vogue, and his long association with the magazine continued until 1978 (apart from a five year break in the 1960s), when a dispute over copyright ended this relationship. Exhibited highlights include portraits of Augustus John (1951), Jean Seberg on the set of Otto Preminger’s film of Saint Joan (1957) and his first colour study of Jean Shrimpton (1960) for the magazine. At Vogue with his wife Wenda Rogerson, whom he married in 1947, Parkinson made his most enduring fashion images including those shown of her modelling a Molyneux evening dress posed with a Silver Ghost Rolls Royce (1950), and fashions at Hyde Park (1951), and Nairobi for ‘The Art of Travel’ (1951). As the exhibition continues, we witness Parkinson’s increasingly exotic and ground breaking locations, including India, Russia and the Caribbean (Tobago was his home from 1964.) Group portrait ‘The Young Look in the Theatre’ (British Vogue, 1953) shows emerging actresses within a gym frame upon which Parkinson hangs upside down. A reference to Irving Penn’s 1947 portrait of Vogue’s ten most famous models, the photograph demonstrates Parkinson’s skill at deconstructing the formal conventions of his predecessors, with unusual settings and his humorous persona.
In 1960, Parkinson left Vogue and joined Jocelyn Steven’s Queen as associate editor, working alongside art director Mark Boxer. Lifework uses minimal interpretative text; one introductory panel and short image captions. This decision is arguably a disservice to the visitor when reaching Parkinson’s mid-career, as this break with Vogue and the significance of his experience at Queen is never explained. His portraits for the magazine, such as of Adam Faith (1962), helped define the personalities of the Sixties. He also enjoyed a new freedom to experiment with his fashion photography, perfectly illustrated by Greeced Lightening (Queen, 1963), for which he used a panoramic Widelux camera to dramatically depict Melanie Hampshire posed on top of a mountain near Kalabaka. ‘Fashion Designer and Model’ (Queen, 1961) depicting designer Roberto Capucci leading a model through Florence station also shows a new level of informality, influenced perhaps by an emerging tradition of modern British photojournalism at this time.
Parkinson’s masterful control of colour was identified as early as 1951, when art director of American Vogue Alexander Liberman included his work in The Art and Technique of Colour Photography. Painterly references frequently imbue Parkinson’s photography, and both aspects sublimely combine in master work After Van Dongen (1959), a fashion portrait of Adele Collins wearing a red velvet toque by Otto Lucas, thrown out of focus by his deliberate focus on a background of distressed brocade. The exhibition closes focusing on Parkinson’s achievements in colour portraiture during the 1970s and 1980s, including as a royal portraitist, a role which began in 1969 with the official investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. Exhibited works include his famous ‘Blue Trinity’ portrait of the Queen Mother, the Queen and Princess Margaret, wearing blue satin capes by Hardy Amies (1980). Parkinson’s later portraits arguably lack the energy of his earlier work, with sitters such as Elton John (1977) and David Bowie (1982) shown in the context of the studio or home, and couples such as Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall (1981) and Tom and Miriam Stoppard (1980) shown in close up. From 1975, Parkinson worked for American periodical Town and Country, and it is these last commissions, such as his study of Iman with Lucas Samaras sculpture Stiff Box No. 12 (Town and Country, 1982) which most often echoes the dynamism of his best work.
In his lifetime, Parkinson cultivated the myth of a photographer who trusted the ‘magic of the camera’. Wenda Rogerson wrote in 1981: “He never lost his belief in magic. Indeed he talks about the existence of gremlins in this 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.” However this is deceptive and the exhibition Lifework conveys Parkinson’s absolute control of form, composition and colour, even when creating the most apparently fluid of images. For visitors discovering Parkinson’s work for the first time, or long term admirers of his work, there is much to enjoy in this exhibition, staged within a space centred on event hospitality. However with the provision of more considered in-depth text, the visitor’s lasting experience would have been a much deeper appreciation of Parkinson’s legacy.
National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX