At the National Portrait Gallery

Peter Campbell

The National Portrait Gallery has put up a dozen or so photographs by Norman Parkinson to accompany the publication of Portraits in Fashion,[*] an overview of his contribution to fashion photography, the category to which the greater part of his work belongs. He began as a court photographer, taking pictures of debs, but pretty soon went to work for magazines. In particular, the Bystander and Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s, Vogue in the 1940s and 1950s and on through the 1960s and 1970s, Queen in the 1960s and the American Town & Country in the 1980s. The style of each magazine, each decade, was reflected in his pictures. In the 1930s the model is the focus of an abstract pattern in black and white; forty years later, in the 1980s, Donald Trump in black tie sits on Mrs Trump’s golden lap and waves a champagne bottle as the pair gleam and glitter smugly against the skyline of New York. Most photographers, even fashion photographers, during those decades built reputations by making images which resemble one another – one kind of light, one way of printing in black and white, one attitude to the model. Parkinson did fashion the compliment of following where it led. The look of his pictures reflects the feel of the magazine they were taken for, the look of the time, as much as any attribute you can identify as specifically his. He never took photography, or himself, quite seriously. Those whose work is more easily recognised have a more secure place in photographic history. Where portraits by other fashion photographers (Avedon, Penn) who worked for the same magazines sometimes challenge the subject, Parkinson always aims to please. The big nose and receding chin which characterise some royal faces are, in his pictures, minimised. He was for some time the royal family’s photographer of choice.

There are portraits of real people in the book, but most of the photographs are fashion shots. The title points to a transformation wrought by the venue. When they were published in magazines, the captions would have named the clothes, not the models; here in the Portrait Gallery the anonymous model becomes the subject. The book even has a foreword by one of them – Iman. She says Parkinson was nice to work with, that he was amusing and led the model on, as in a dance. Her job was to work out ‘the perfect retort, expressed through my face, body and movement’.

I make the distinction between ‘real people’ and models advisedly. Drawn illustration and reportage is now so rare that you forget the extent to which cartoonists and illustrators of fashion and fiction once used them. When you go upstairs in the Portrait Gallery you enter an art gallery where models have no place. Compare it with the 19th-century rooms at the Tate: there models are all around you. But while you may know that Elizabeth Siddal sat, or rather floated, for Millais’s Ophelia, her name is not in the title. Artists’ models, like fashion photographers’ models, are assumed to have been so far transformed as to have no personal claim on the image. But a photograph of the sort of real person the clothes were for, or a drawing made from the kind of character the story was about, was no substitute for the more-real-than-real, or at least more interesting or better-looking than real, substitute the model provided. The narrator in Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing’ finds that while the hard-up couple who offer to pose for his illustrations to stories set in high society have been ornaments of country-house parties in real life, they fail as models of themselves. The professional who is not the real thing can play such parts much better.

What was required to model 20th-century fashion? A long, thin body; a symmetrical face with fine but well-defined features. A confident body-consciousness, an ability to make something of oneself in clothes without seeming to ask: ‘How do I look in this?’ A certain impassivity. Enid Boulting with a cigarette in her mouth, photographed in 1950 looking straight at the camera, is an exception. It was regarded as very daring; never before had a Vogue model been shown with a cigarette and no holder.

Then there was the problem of how to dramatise something as simple as a girl in a new frock. One way to make it look extraordinary was to find an unexpected location. In a 1940s photograph Parkinson has Anne Chambers, who models a tight-waisted suit, crocodile handbag and neat bonnet, standing in a grimy alley. She looks down at a toy pistol, doubtless the property of the street kids in the background; in another photograph the same kids, mounted on a stepladder, contrast with another discreet outfit. As time passed, Parkinson directed shoots in ever more distant places. Beaches, temples, waterfalls, with the odd native replacing the street children. Parkinson’s invasions of the worlds of the poor at home and abroad and his exploitation of exotic backgrounds of all kinds first give a frisson of social unease and finally slope off into kitsch in pictures like the one of Anna Andersen, blonde, naked and prone on a tropical beach, straddled by the infant Jake Parkinson, who has been painted gold for the occasion and holds a cardboard Cupid’s bow.

The model’s catwalk strut and the poses she adopts in response to the photographer’s coaxing or chiding, bear little resemblance to any common gait or gesture, but they formalise the flounces, strides, gaucheries and pretty gestures which make up the body language of our time. Or is it of all times? Go upstairs at the NPG and you find you have been made aware in a new way of the poses of sitters in old portraits. In the Darnley portrait of 1575, Elizabeth I sits still as a post. Her clothes are patterned and richly embroidered, the parts – sleeve, bodice, ruff – show their separate identities: little puffs of white undergarments appear through slits like dotted lines which define joins. You see how a woman could untie a sleeve for her knight to wear on his helmet. But did Elizabeth really move like the automaton her clothes suggest? Later in the 1600s, Lely paints a pouting girl one can match with the pictures of girls on the town used to illustrate the animadversions of modern moralists. But is the hoyden mode a constant, or does it sometimes go underground? No formal 18th-century portrait suggests it, but Rowlandson’s drawings do. Did men loll back and lean forward in the 1700s in ways which would have been scandalous in the 1600s, or was their unbuttoned ease a fashion in painting, not in life?

[*] By Robin Muir (National Portrait Gallery, 192ppl, £30, 1855145251)