Fashion through a Legendary Lens

Sometimes it is possible to stumble across an image that you simply cannot look away from. The vibrant colours, the beauty of the subject, the setting and the overall composition - these elements can lock your gaze until you realise many minutes have passed since you first looked at it. You completely forget where you are.

This is how I remember feeling when I first saw this photograph, taken by Norman Parkinson for the cover of Vogue in 1957.  It still has that effect on me now.

Norman Parkinson was a preeminent British photographer who went on to create a dazzling portfolio of the most elegant and creative images the fashion world has ever seen. Born in 1913 in London, he was apprenticed to a portrait photographers, Speaight and Sons Ltd., and then by the age of twenty-one had opened his own studio with Norman Kibblewhite.

Shortly after, he worked for the British edition of Harper's Bazaar from 1935 to 1940, and then served as a reconnaissance photographer for the Royal Air France over France during the Second World War.

He went on to contribute to many established publications throughout his successful and illustrious career, including Queen magazine, where he was contributing editor for four years. From 1945 to 1960, and in perhaps the most recognised and successful strand of his career, he was employed by Vogue as a portrait and fashion photographer. It was a perfectly compatible relationship and one that spawned so many iconic images.

In 1963, Parkinson moved to Tobago although he made frequent returns to his native London, and worked as a freelance photographer until his sad and premature death in 1990. He was known as a charming, funny and very clever man. He never took a photograph without wearing his lucky Kashmiri wedding hat and often appeared in his own photos.

Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue, described Parkinson as her mentor after first meeting him on a Vogue shoot in 1971 in The Seychelles. She stayed friends with him until his death in 1990 and said that 'Parks was the father anyone would want to have.'

Parkinson also took his subjects out of the confines of his studio and into the real, and very beautiful outside world. Arguably, some of his most recognisable work comes from his photo shoot for Vogue in 1956, when the magazine opened up India for its readers nearly a decade after its independence and displayed the unimaginable beauty of this exotic location. He photographed models Anne Gunning and Barbara Mullen and produced sumptuous compositions with dazzling reds, pink and magentas that dazzled.

The beautiful images even had an impression on Diana Vreeland, Editor in Chief of US Vogue who commented 'How clever of you, Mr Parkinson, also to know that pink is the navy blue of India'.
An exhibition of Parkinson's work in the form of original vintage prints is now being held at M Shed gallery in Bristol until 15 April 2012, appropriately entitled An Eye for Fashion, 1954 - 1964. This will be the first time some of the images have been displayed in public.

Angela Williams, who worked as his assistant in the early 1960s and a successful photographer in her own right, has carefully catalogued and researched the archive to preserve his great legacy.

Norman Parkinson revolutionised the world of British photography and the wit, warmth and elegance of his work still lives on today. He had an unwavering appetite for fashion and location photography and the also legendary Irving Penn considered his photographs as 'remarkable stills'.

I still get lost in these remarkable stills. I hope you will too.