Words - 20th Century Greats - Norman Parkinson


20th Century Greats series (2000)

Norman Parkinson, CBE (1913 – 1990)

Continuing his evaluation of 20th century greats, John Chillingworth relates the larger-than-life and times of the highly professional, but incurable romantic who when asked, quietly admitted, “I suppose I had some success – people seem to enjoy my snaps and I enjoy taking them”.

The working life of photographic doyen, Norman Parkinson bridged the period in twentieth century photography, between the post-Victorian portraitists, the media ‘jack-the-lad’ age starting in the ‘60’s and far beyond.

At eighteen, despite a London public school education and a strong interest in art, ‘Parks’ – as he was later affectionately known – knuckled down to an apprenticeship at Speaight and Sons, court photographers, of Bond Street.

At the time, his inventiveness and enthusiasm were not considered to be ‘quite nice’ by the dignified proprietors and he was asked to leave!
Undeterred, by the tender age of twenty-one, he had opened his own portrait studio in the heart of London’s fashionable Mayfair.

Portraiture was the bedrock of his income, but he soon attracted the attention of editors of magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and The Bystander. As well as providing society portraits, he met the publishers’ demand for photography in what is now called reportage style, with great gusto and imagination.

The celebration of beauty was the ‘trademark’ of his work for fashion and society magazines, but he was equally able to create compassionate, socially responsible images, like his 1937 picture story of a South Wales mining community, following the visit of Edward VIII.

He also created photographic essays on the British Armed Forces, as a sometimes light-hearted contribution to the pre-war recruitment drive.

A charming enigma
To many fellow professionals at the time, he could have seemed to be a well-bred enigma. Abandoning wartime London, Parks spent the war years with his time divided between farming in Gloucestershire and reconnaissance photography for the RAF.

Stepping back onto the media scene, he developed the somewhat flamboyant, lanky, laconic character that was to charm the UK and US editors of Vogue, Queen, Life, Elle and many others. His photography was as free, assured and endearing to women as his vibrant personality. They could actually see the clothes on the models he photographed!

What’s more, magazine art editors were inspired by his creative individuality. For them, his running, jumping, standing still ideas had endless variety and timelessness.

Somehow, the images he presented laid themselves out on the page, whilst their fun, spontaneity and consummate good taste hid the professionalism and genius behind their production. Put another way, Parks had more than style - he was and remains a one-off!

However, fashion photography was only a part of his professional profile. His post-war environmental portraits, unlike the current ‘getting away from the subject’ variety were penetrating, sympathetic and close-up.

The Royal round
A studio photographer, who made the great escape into the real world, Parks was always keen to avoid ‘getting stuck’. The aura he created, as a tall, elegant balding figure was of the archetypal Englishman.

Conversely, when working he would occasionally wear outlandish attire and his headgear was particularly distinctive.

His sense of fun, too, extended beyond his photography, evidenced when on one occasion many years ago, driving down The Mall, a battered Morris Traveller, loaded to the gunwales with lighting equipment and with Parks in the passenger seat, drew up alongside me.

We greeted each other and a long arm extended to squeeze an old-fashioned horn. It emitted a sound like an elephant breaking wind. A few yards further on, the vehicle turned into the tradesman’s entrance of Buckingham Palace. I marvelled and went respectfully on my way!

The informality and style of his images of royalty contrasted dramatically with one of his favourite homilies. “Don’t listen to what they are saying – photography is not an art”.

© Copyright John Chillingworth