Norman Parkinson’s trip to India was an incredible experience for him and for the readers of Vogue. After the austerity of the war and the focus on Europe, Britain was eager to embrace the larger world. Parkinson was part of the wave of photographers and journalists caught up in this spirit of exploration. Newspapers and magazines shook off the frugality of the war years and travel budgets were at last expanded. For British Vogue this meant that Parkinson, who was their star photographer, could go and bring the world back to an enthusiastic audience. Starting in the 1950s Parkinson literally trotted the globe. From South Africa and the Caribbean to Cambodia, Parkinson’s pictures were bursting from the pages.
When British Vogue suggested that he do a major photo shoot in India, Parkinson welcomed it. He instinctively knew that his readers wanted to see not only the fashion but also the country. In the 1950s, flights were still expensive and infrequent, so for many people their window to the world was through magazines and newspapers. For decades photographers had travelled to India and taken topographical images but Parkinson went to India with a different eye. His plan was to take Western fashion and combine it with Indian style. And it worked, the clothes blended beautifully with the surroundings. It was an ideal marriage- the dress, the coat, the outfit, contrasted, yet complemented by, the richness of the Indian architecture and landscape.
In November 1956 when British Vogue hit the newsstands, the fashion world was stunned by Parkinson’s contemporary and fresh look at India. Parkinson had travelled throughout India from the south of Mahabalipuram to Kashmir, and he captured the mood, the ambience and above all the colour. Diana Vreeland, the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar was entranced by Parkinson’s Indian images famously proclaiming ‘How clever of you, Mr Parkinson also to know that pink is the navy blue of India.’
Parkinson’s innate understanding of India and its diversity separated him from other photographers who had travelled there. He had a classical sensibility combined with a truly modern take on the world. He was always a risk taker. His most successful photographs are the ones he took outdoors. Parkinson clearly had a great sense of humor – he would place his models in fun yet crazy situations, whether it was showing a woman jumping on the beach in the 1930s, girls standing on the backs of donkeys in Blackpool or a model hanging from a crane in front of the Old Bailey in 1960.
If one looks at his picture of Anne Gunning in Jaipur in front of the Red Palace, or his photograph of the model in the boat at the back of the Taj Mahal, or the very sophisticated image of Barbara Mullen in the paddy fields, you see this whimsy but you also see Parkinson’s masterful balance – particularly his use of colour and light. Parkinson returned from India stunned by the natural beauty, the magnificence of the architecture, the variety of the landscape and languages but above all else by the graciousness and elegance of the Indian people.
Co-manager, Norman Parkinson Archive
All images copyright Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive.
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