In his role as Vogue Magazine’s star photographer, Norman Parkinson saw a great deal of the world: but he saw his work as more than just pretty pictures of pretty people...
Parkinson saw his work more as ambassadorial than commercial: coming from the grim austerity of post-war Europe, he understood that British society needed a glimpse of a more colourful and vibrant way of life. His travels took him to dozens of countries over the course of the 1950’s, and everywhere he went he used his camera to capture pictures of fashion as a means of overcoming national boundaries.
These days, the idea of going to India for a photoshoot isn’t a shocking one: on any given day, thousands of people are 30,000 feet above us, headed for far-off places to use as backdrops... it was a different story in 1956 when Parkinson became the first European photographer to conduct a major photo shoot in Asia. Flights to India were infrequent and far too expensive for the average tourist; only a decade had passed since its departure from the British Empire, and the subcontinent was still widely considered an exotic - almost mythic - land of mystery and intrigue. That is why, when Parkinson’s photographs were published, they immediately captured British readers’ imaginations: they showed a country at odds with its stereotype, one characterised by grace, dignity and an electrifyingly unfamiliar aesthetic.
Parkinson travelled the entire length of India, from Mahabalipuram to Kashmir, selecting locations ad hoc, based on nothing but his intuitive grasp of each spot’s ambiance and individuality. Sparing no expense, Parkinson used colour film extensively - he understood that colour sat at the heart of the Indian aesthetic, and devoted himself to communicating it accurately.
To Parkinson, his work wasn’t about fashion - nor was it even about social commentary, art or his own professional legacy: he considered fashion to be a tool of diplomacy. By exposing the bruised and embattled Europe to a new world, and by using clothing to bridge the gap between the British and Indian aesthetics, he aimed to bring the two countries closer together. I’d say it worked: his photographs show the visual and artistic traditions of two very different countries, unified through design.
Parkinson’s ambition was to provide the people of Britain with a positive representation of Indian culture, while also showing the world the redemptive power of art: a mere decade after bloody conflict separated India and Britain, artistic collaboration united them again.
Here are a few of Norman Parkinson’s breathtaking shots from India, taken from British Vogue’s online archives.
All images copyright Norman Parkinson Ltd / Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive.
- Walker Pappin