Unfeasibly thin and eccentrically tall, Norman Parkinson cut through the waters of mid-20th-century fashion with the panache of an ocean-going yacht. He was quite as leggily elegant as his favourite models – Iman, Jerry Hall, Carmen Dell’Orefice – and always as immaculately dressed.
The word polished best sums him up, though he was never more pleased than when people described him as a pig farmer: his very own sausages, Porkinson’s, originated in his Tobago hideaway. This daddy longlegs straddled many worlds, but it is the unconventional wit of his photographs – like this one of Jerry Hall, taken in Russia –that is his lasting epitaph. At the outset of his career, in the late 1930s, he made his mark by taking models out of the studio and photographing them not as icons, but as real women, striding through tower blocks, sitting in country pubs and pushing babies in prams. It was seen as a shockingly unglamorous approach at a time when fashion, still very much about class, was shown on impossibly aloof models in carefully posed, static shots.
Some of Parkinson’s most radical and forward-looking photographs were modelled by Wanda, his wife. She once told a story of being on a shoot with him in Africa. As she sat astride an ostrich, waiting for instructions, something startled the bird and it bolted. Careering past Parky, as he was always known, fearing for her life, she knew that if the shot looked good, her husband would do nothing to stop the stampede. Sure enough, as she flashed past him, she heard him cry: “Marvellous, darling! Can I have just a little more profile?” It was typical of his insouciant confidence that he knew both wife and photograph would be fine. And if, from certain viewpoints, Parkinson’s eccentricity dulled his achievements, there is also no doubt that the man once described as being “attached to all long-legged creatures, particularly racehorses” holds a secure place in the history of 20th-century fashion photography as a result.
(First published August 2004)
Picture Source. Jerry Hall by Norman Parkinson, Vogue 1975