Saturday, 9 March 2013

Norman Parkinson exhibition at the National Theatre

On Thursday night I went to the private view of Lifework: Norman Parkinson’s Century of Style at the National Theatre. The exhibition marks the centenary of Norman Parkinson’s birth, and I was really pleased to be invited as, like Tim Walker, Parkinson featured prominently in my university dissertation all those years ago.

Corbis/© Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

It is a fabulous tribute to a man who is widely considered to be ‘the father of modern fashion photography’, and features work from his lengthy career, right up to his death in 1990. Parkinson was a hugely influential figure, working regularly for titles like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and discovering or helping shape the careers of models such as Nina von Schlebrugge, Celia Hammond and Jerry Hall. He successfully combined the glamour of the fashion world with a real sense of character and humour.

I particularly like his work from the 60s and 70s, when his colourful, vibrant shots took fashion models out of the studio and into the great wide world. Previously fashion photography was very static but Parkinson injected movement into his images by putting models in active poses in exotic locations, or including blurred backgrounds such as a moving London bus – a suggestion of the era’s fast-paced lifestyle.

I also love his beautiful black and whites from the 1940s; elegant and timeless images from an era where glamour was refined and exotic locations were just a dream for the average woman flicking through the pages of Vogue. In addition to fashion editorial, Parkinson shot a host of famous faces over the years, from the royal family and musicians, to stars of the stage and screen.

It would be impossible to pick a favourite image from such a diverse and well-curated exhibition, but I love the use of colour in his shot of Audrey Hepburn wearing a pale pink dress and standing in front of an array of pink blooms. There is also a rather beautiful b&w shot of his wife Wenda under a plane on a Nairobi landing strip, Jerry Hall and Iman looking flawless and the epitome of 80s glamour in Paris couture, and an incredibly endearing portrait of Queen Elizabeth with her mother and Princess Margaret, which strips away the typical formality to reveal an intimate sense of family.

A few of the iconic images that I expected to see weren’t there, but in fact there is something nice about an exhibition that doesn’t just stick to the obvious. Anyway, with a back catalogue as rich and extensive as Parkinson’s, the editing process must have been a real challenge!

What Lifework does so well, is illustrate the way that Parkinson’s work evolved over the decades. He appears just as comfortable shooting in b&w or colour, and moves seamlessly from the traditional to the contemporary. It is a wonderful tribute to an incredibly talented photographer, whose work will no doubt continue to inspire and influence future generations.

The exhibition is free so there is no excuse not to visit! Plus the National Theatre is a great venue to make an evening of it with a good selection of cafes, restaurants and bars.

Corbis/© Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Corbis/© Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Lifework: Norman Parkinson’s Century of Style at the Lyttelton Exhibition Space, National Theatre until Sunday 12 May.


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