As a model in front of the camera, with her flaming red hair, Grace Coddington is a modern day Elizabeth Siddall. Behind the lens, as an editor, she is responsible for creating some of the most iconic fashion photographs of the past 50 years. And there is one photographer who she has collaborated with on numerous occasions, who she holds in particularly high regard – the late Norman Parkinson (or ‘Parkinson’ as she affectionately calls him). “He taught me everything about being an editor, and really keeping your eyes open all the time,” Coddington tells Vogue. “To just keep watching. Keep looking. And take in everything so you can feed that back into your work.”
Coddington’s love of Parkinson’s photographs dates back far beyond their first encounter, to her childhood in North Wales, when she would pore over his magazine shoots. As a new book of his work, Norman Parkinson: Always in Fashion, is published, Coddington shares six of the standout qualities that made him truly unique.
Norman Parkinson had a hawk-like eye for potential...
“Parkinson and I first met in 1959. I was working in a bistro in London at the time and one of the regular customers, Tinker Paterson – a model and artist who was a major part of Parkinson's life at that time – set up a meeting. I didn’t have a book of photos or anything to show him, but he said he didn’t want to see other people’s photos of me and would rather meet in person. Parkinson was really fantastic at finding new faces – he found them in the street, or wherever – and was able to recognise someone’s potential. Anyway, he booked me for my very first job and it was actually a nude shoot outside on his farm in Oxfordshire. I was so excited to work with him that I didn’t really register I would have to take my clothes off. I continued working with him as a model a little – in 1959 I won the young division of British Vogue’s modelling contest and he was one of four judges – but he found much better models than me. We would go on to work together when I became a fashion editor, and that’s when our understanding of each other’s work really began.”
And that hawk-like eye travelled
“Parkinson and I travelled the world together. Perhaps one of the most memorable trips was in 1975 to the then USSR with Jerry Hall for a British Vogue shoot. We were invited by the tourist board and they had guides accompany us everywhere we went, watching our every move. One of the strict rules they imposed was that we had to have all of the film processed before we left the country. Parkinson stayed on an extra week to process the film and on our last night he said, ‘I’m really worried that they're going to damage the film, can you take a few rolls back just in case?’ I was like, ‘No, no, no, Big Brother might be watching and I don’t want to end up in jail.’ But then Jerry said, ‘Oh, it’s fine, I’ll take it I never get searched.’’’
“So Jerry and I get to Moscow airport and we’re seized by the authorites who say they’ve received a tip-off that we’re smuggling out anti-communist propaganda in the form of unexposed film. They went through all our bags and of course they found our contraband in Jerry’s bag. It was the type of film that you seal with an ‘exposed’ sticker once it’s been used, but I reminded them it was ‘unexposed’ film they were looking for not ‘exposed’ and therefore they should give it all back to us. The funny part is when we all got back to London and compared the photographs, the ones processed in Russia were a much better quality.”
He had the luxury of time
“Back then shoots abroad would always last at least two weeks – we really had the luxury of time; we’d spend at least a week on the ground scouting for locations – which meant you really got to see and understand a place. Like finding new faces, Parkinson was amazing at finding narratives in places and could conjure powerful images from almost any given surrounding. He wasn't thinking about something else or the next job, he was always in the moment, completely focussed.
“Nowadays you learn what you can from a guidebook beforehand or from location shots but everyone gets the same thing – everything is done in such a hurry; shoots are crammed into a day and the photographer is expected to produce hundreds of shots – you never get in your own personal view. Parkinson made every place so personal because he looked at it through his eyes, not anyone else’s. That's the biggest lesson he taught me: not to rely on other people's opinions but to forge your own, really explore and look. It's certainly done well for me.”
He was a true original and, for better or worse, ahead of the game
“Quite often these days I will turn up to a job and there will be pictures from shoots I worked on with Parkinson, Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton on the moodboard, and my response is always: ‘I’m not here to redo what has already been done, we did it pretty well back in the day.’ Because of the pace we are expected to work, and the way we swipe through pictures at high speed, photographers are frequently asked to copy something that already exists because they need a proven image that has already been okayed by the client.
“Parkinson was occasionally inspired by artists but he never copied other people's pictures, which is why his photographs are eternally modern. He took an almost reportage approach. After he stopped working with Condé Nast he went over to Town & Country and then I think his pictures became more brash and maybe a little tacky. But that’s exactly what happened in the world; it's all about the Kardashians now, so he was ahead of his time in a way because he loved photographing the lives of the rich and famous. A good picture is a good picture, you can't take that away – it will stand the test of time.”
He was a consistent collaborator
“Parkinson always worked with a small team – aside from himself there would be one assistant, a fashion editor and a model on set and his wife Wenda would always come too and write the travel piece that accompanied the photoshoot. He created these pictures that we’re still looking at today and loving for their looseness and movement – they’re never stationary. The model isn’t necessarily rolling around with laughter, but there is always a lot of joy, and that’s down to the fact he was a funny man, charming, and he made them feel comfortable and in many cases made their careers; Celia Hammond for example.”
He knew how to make people, his subjects, feel comfortable
“Parkinson was really good with people, whether they be movie stars, fashion models, royalty or whatever. I was with him when he photographed Prince Charles for his investiture as the Prince of Wales. Parkinson asked me to come along because, he said: ‘I know he’s going to turn up after playing polo or something and he’ll be red in the face and I don’t know how to deal with that.’ I wasn’t a makeup artist or anything, but I brought along some powder and we spent the day at Windsor Castle. It was a very funny moment – at one point suddenly all these Corgis appeared out of nowhere, apparently the Queen was having tea on the other side of the hedge from where we were shooting, and another time the Princess Royal galloped by on a horse – but it was quite a moment for me to be that close to the future king of England and be powdering his nose.”