The National Portrait Gallery has put up a dozen or so photographs by Norman Parkinson to accompany the publication of Portraits in Fashion,[*] an overview of his contribution to fashion photography, the category to which the greater part of his work belongs. He began as a court photographer, taking pictures of debs, but pretty soon went to work for magazines. In particular, the Bystander and Harper's Bazaar in the 1930s, Vogue in the 1940s and 1950s and on through the 1960s and 1970s, Queen in the 1960s and the American Town & Country in the 1980s. The style of each magazine, each decade, was reflected in his pictures. In the 1930s the model is the focus of an abstract pattern in black and white; forty years later, in the 1980s, Donald Trump in black tie sits on Mrs Trump's golden lap and waves a champagne bottle as the pair gleam and glitter smugly against the skyline of New York. Most photographers, even fashion photographers, during those decades built reputations by making images which resemble one another - one kind of light, one way of printing in black and white, one attitude to the model. Parkinson did fashion the compliment of following where it led. The look of his pictures reflects the feel of the magazine they were taken for, the look of the time, as much as any attribute you can identify as specifically his. He never took photography, or himself, quite seriously. Those whose work is more easily recognised have a more secure place in photographic history. Where portraits by other fashion photographers (Avedon, Penn) who worked for the same magazines sometimes challenge the subject, Parkinson always aims to please. The big nose and receding chin which characterise some royal faces are, in his pictures, minimised. He was for some time the royal family's photographer of choice.
LRB 23 September 2004 | PDF Download