Caught and framed

Caught and framed

Fashion photography

Norman Parkinson is known as ‘The Godfather’ of British photography for nothing. With names like Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret Thatcher on his portfolio, he was as much a personality as those who posed for him. Monideepa Sahu remembers the iconic photographer.

Once upon a time, fashion photography meant formal posed shots of models in rigidly staged studio settings. In the 1940s, British photographer Norman Parkinson arrived like a gust of fresh spring breeze, and revolutionised this straight-laced world.

Following the lead of Martin Munkacsi at Harper’s Bazaar, Parkinson swept his models out of static, constraining studios and took them to the vibrant outdoors.

He ushered in, for the first time, a sense of playfulness and action realism in fashion photos. This original innovator dazzled the world with his impulsive and often humorous style, taking great pains to imbue his images with a sense of spontaneity.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Norman Parkinson continued a long association with Vogue, and took up assignments for Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country and other international magazines, earning worldwide recognition. He was official photographer for the British royals on several momentous occasions, and was elevated to Commander of the British Empire in 1981.

Over 60 years ago, when foreign travel was difficult, prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to ordinary people, Parkinson carried out photo shoots in exotic locales such as Egypt, Africa and India. It’s difficult to believe that these vibrantly appealing photographs were taken nearly 60 years ago. Parkinson’s concepts and approach continue to be used even today.

A contemporary fashion shoot along Parkinson’s line would not have the same impact, nor be taken as original and serious art. Today’s images usually follow his pioneering concepts as a successful formula, rarely attempting major innovation. Parkinson and his team took time and pains to travel, seeking out unusual backdrops and compositions. His photographs in India were essentially a single shoot, but it was a far cry from today’s whirlwind shoots.

Varied backdrops

Parkinson traversed the entire subcontinent, seeking out backdrops as varied as the Taj Mahal, Mahabalipuram, Kashmir and a marketplace in Aurangabad. He never followed a successful formula. Each image is unique, with imaginative and amusing flourishes. 

Parkinson’s photographs reflect a sense of studied eccentricity. The juxtaposition of disparate elements can border on the madly preposterous. But they are never disjointed, and Parkinson manages to lend stylish charm and urge viewers to take a fresh look at both the exotic backdrops and the glamorous models sporting luxurious high society clothes.

In one image, model Anne Gunning wears an expensive pink mohair coat as she poses daintily beside a richly caparisoned royal elephant in the Jaipur Palace. Another model in high fashion clothes looks natural and relaxed as she poses before the Mysore Palace. Beside her is a young local girl, her bright magenta dress and impish grin lending a dash of spontaneous vibrant fun to the scene.

 Model Barbara Mullen blends in surprisingly with the backdrop of intricately carved stone pillars of a Delhi mosque. A snake charmer sits in the foreground, playing his bean intently to a swaying snake. Regarding his visit to India in 1956 for British Vogue, Parkinson said, “For some of you the feature may be a golden holiday presentation; for others, we hope it may be as rich as though you had been there yourself.”

He presented the wonders of the world, until then the exclusive preserve of the rich and powerful, to everyone. The excitement, romance and broader appeal of exotic locales merged with images of glamour and over-the-top luxury in many of Parkinson’s images. 

Mundane locations

Parkinson did not confine his shoots to exotic locales. Some of his iconic images are taken in the most mundane locations, showing that opulent settings are not essential to show off high fashion clothes or build an atmosphere of playful intrigue.

Even a narrow, featureless alley in London works beautifully as a backdrop in the Vogue, 1958 shots of Nena Von Schlebrugge modelling Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection for Christian Dior.

Another classic image is of his wife and model Wenda Parkinson posing in front of a rustic British barn with a thatched roof. The grim expression of the cow peering out of the window contrasted to the glamorous Wenda watching it with apprehensive yet mischievously twinkling eyes, create a priceless effect.

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Parkinson himself cut a flamboyant figure, which could not remain anonymous behind the lens. ‘Parks’, the moustachioed, dapper fashion photographer, was as much a personality as those who sat for him.

His impeccable professionalism, enchanting manners and practiced eccentricities reassured the uneasy sitter and disarmed the experienced. Parks reinvented himself for each decade of his career, from his pathbreaking spontaneous images of the 1930s, through the war years and the Swinging Sixties to the exotic locations of the 1970s and 1980s.

Parkinson modestly saw himself as a craftsman and not an artist. Humour was a key element in many of his photographs, and he did not hesitate to direct the fun at himself.

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