A photographer has a more dangerous weapon than a gun,” observes Norman Parkinson. “It doesn’t kill—it wounds for life.” No one knows that better than Parks, as the British photographer is called. For a half century he has been firing off his deadly weapon at some of the most famous and glamorous figures of his time. His hunting grounds have ranged from England’s stateliest homes to Greek ruins and Hindu temples, from such far-flung outspots as Tahiti and the Seychelles to Monument Valley, Utah. Parkinson has captured on film a diverse array of stars and stars-to-be—Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, the Beatles, Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn, Elton John, Ava Gardner, Noël Coward, Mick Jagger and Greta Garbo, to name just a few. He is also acknowledged as the mentor and promoter of some of the most stunning models ever to adorn the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, LIFE and Town & Country. Among them: Jerry Hall, Apollonia, Iman and Wenda Rogerson, whom he wed in 1945.
Now a glossy sampling of Parkinson’s works has been assembled in a book, Fifty Years of Style and Fashion (The Vendome Press, $30), to be published this week in the U.S., and in a one-man show also opening this week at Sotheby’s in New York, which coincides with his 70th birthday on April 21.
Besides his credentials as a photographer of movie stars and models, Parkinson is set apart from his peers by a singular distinction: He is one of the British royal family’s favorite photographers. A friend of the Queen and Prince Philip, he is one of the privileged few to be invited to spend weekends with the family. Not surprisingly, Parks has been an unabashed monarchist since his first encounter with the House of Windsor in 1931 when, as an 18-year-old apprentice, he focused a cumbersome studio camera for court photographer Richard Speaight as Speaight took the first official photographs of the baby Princess Margaret.
There are times, Parks concedes, when playing the palace can be, well, a royal pain. Consider his first invitation as a photographer to Buckingham Palace. (His subject was Prince Charles, then 20.) “One day I just got a call that said, ‘Can you come to Buckingham Palace today at half past two?’ Now, whatever way you think Buckingham Palace would do it is the way they do do it: You present yourself at a side door and give your name. They say, ‘Do you have an appointment?’ and they show you into a room and they watch you. They watch to see if your hand shakes, if your nails are dirty, if you’ve washed behind your ears. They ask you questions about your school and, finally, after they finish thoroughly psyching you out, they lift a telephone and say, ‘We have Mr. Parkinson here, sir. I wonder if Your Royal Highness would come down and meet him?’ Then down comes Charles and you chat with him.
“My first sitting with Charles, however, was horrible. He had just played three games of polo and he came in with very red cheeks. So I had to deal with this totally crimson flush in color pictures. In the middle of this, in walked the man who was to fit the Prince’s robes for his investiture as the Prince of Wales. This coincided with the Prince also having to try on his crown, which weighed three pounds and made him very uncomfortable. The crown maker was a very peculiar man with an enormous Great Dane walking beside him. He insisted on carrying the crown around in a battered old tea chest. Anyway, here I am, all set up and ready to photograph with all this going on. By the time I got to the Prince, he was fed up with everything!”
Parkinson has had better luck with most of the royal ladies, including the prickly Princess Anne (page 100), though he has yet to photograph the Princess of Wales. “You see, there’s this thing called bloom. Bloom is a thing a woman carries through virginity, and sometimes beyond it. Bloom is something the camera sees although very often the eye doesn’t. Diana had a tremendous amount of bloom, but it seems to have quickly left her—very prematurely, I think. The Queen and Princess Margaret still have bloom. But then they both have extraordinary skin, even though they still use the most primitive sort of cosmetics. I mean, if their handbags were ever opened, you’d probably find a bar of Pears soap.”
Photographing Her Majesty, allows Parkinson, is always “an exhilarating experience. I mean, one keeps pinching oneself because for the few moments in time that lady takes orders from you. That’s heavy stuff.”
Born Ronald Smith in the London suburb of Roehampton, Parks was the son of “a simple, hardworking father and a mad, half-Italian mother. My father was a barrister who never got a case, so he went into civil service.” At 14, Ronald was packed off to the exclusive Westminster School at Westminster Abbey. “I often prepped sitting in the Coronation Chair, but I did not, as others did, carve my name on it.” Since every mark on his report card (other than art) was a disaster, his father apprenticed him to court photographer Speaight for the unprincely sum of a pound (then $5) a week.
Under Speaight, young Ronald learned his way around a darkroom, how to dolly and focus the big cameras, and how to ingratiate himself with the debutantes who came to the studio with their mothers on summer nights to have their portraits made right after being presented at court. After two years, he went into business for himself.
Success was not instantaneous, but Parks, always a ladies’ man, had a sizable clientele of debutantes, and managed to scrape by. Opportunity struck when the editor of the British Harper’s Bazaar saw some of his photographs and began to use him regularly. At 23, he was off and running. He was also a towering 6’5″, had sprouted a guardsman’s mustache, wore bizarre clothes, and became known around London as an eccentric. Moreover, he had changed his name—”because I couldn’t believe a photographer could possibly succeed with a name like Ronald Smith.”
For the next three decades Parks made photo and fashion history with his sleek portraits of beautiful women wearing high-fashion clothes in exotic locales. “I adore women,” he says with a sigh, fingering the heavy gold necklace he wears, composed of 82 tiny figurines of nude women. “It’s nice to be able to photograph them and make them look just as pretty as, or perhaps even a shade prettier than, they are.”
After the war Parks switched his affiliation to British Vogue, and several years later he added the American edition to his string. Soon he was spending about six months each year in New York. On assignment in 1944, he encountered Wenda Rogerson, a patrician English beauty who was a rising young actress on the London stage. “When I met Parks,” she recalls, “I had on this huge hat which more or less covered my face. He came up and said, ‘So, who’s under that?’ and when I looked up, he said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ ” Wenda and Parks were both married at the time, but they soon divorced their first mates and wed the following year.
Wenda gave up her career for the full-time job of caring for Parkinson. “It’s quite a lot of work, actually,” she says. “Very brilliant people need a lot of attention and a lot of love.” Their marriage has endured 38 years and produced one son, Simon, 37, a Harvard graduate who runs a French restaurant in Trinidad.
Nowadays the Parkinsons make their home on the island of Tobago. He still commutes to London and New York, where he is now one of the principal photographers for Town & Country. His Tobago house is an open-air villa built on a hill on the Caribbean side of the island. The floors are white marble, and the walls of the master bathroom are covered with grafitti scrawled by guests.
When he is in Tobago, Parks is very much lord of the manor, careening around the island in a beat-up blue station wagon, stopping to chat with almost everyone he sees, growing his own produce, operating a thriving pork sausage business, and paying for his gas with his own mandarins. When he is in England or the U.S., he is as busy as ever, although these days he prefers not to photograph models and debs. “I much prefer snapping proper women now—ladies who are wearing their own clothes and their own jewels and standing under their own Sargents.”
Indeed, Parks shows no signs of slowing down. “Every morning I shave the same 17-year-old,” he says. “I don’t feel much older than that. Thank God I have the energy to maintain that myth.”
The Rolling Stones: Five Against the World
I remember that sitting very well. Here were these young men, who discovered drugs, left home, finally came together like a conglomerate against the world and invented the generation gap. And there was I, 50—about the age of their parents. So I’d suggest something and they’d go, ‘Oh, Boss, we can’t do that.’ Finally I just let them run the whole thing. Some years later I bumped into Mick Jagger and he said, ‘Oh, it’s Normie Parkinson. I remember you were the first old fella who was nice to us.’ ”
Koo Stark: Like a Grape Before You Handle It
When she came into the studio I was bowled over by her. She was very different from what the press made her out to be. She is very intelligent. She has all her wits about her. She laughs all the time. In this gray world, that’s not bad. I don’t think she’s beautiful, but she’s very attractive, very vivacious, full of youth. Just like a grape before you handle it. I am an antique gentleman. Men of a certain age are usually attracted to younger girls, and Koo Stark very much falls within this area.
“She was a perfectly relaxed girl. She wants to be a serious actress. With the right vehicle she could do it. Being an actress is really just waiting for a lucky break. At this moment, because of the publicity Fleet Street is mounting, it may be a break for her. If another opportunity comes along, she’ll be standing there at the ready.
“She’s very well read. There are not many references she cannot reply to. That’s the advantage of an American education. An American girl is more fun to be with than an English girl.”
Koo’s sitting with Parkinson was punctuated with one break, for “white wine, Perrier and tired quiche.” Parkinson says they never once discussed Prince Andrew or the royal family. “We don’t talk like that at all,” he says. “She is not a foolish fly-by-night type. She is playing her hand very well.”
The Beatles: Like a Shish Kebab
In those days the Beatles were just out of a cellar in Liverpool. They were sort of like the war—people thought it would be over by Christmas. This scampish fellow in London called Jeremy Banks told me, ‘They’re coming down Wednesday morning and we’ll go and photograph them.’ That day we turned up at this rather scrungy hotel. It was like a school—they all got out of bed, and I just stood them against the wallpaper. When I photograph people with their heads together, I get this feeling of what I call shish kebab. They didn’t know what it was. Finally I said, ‘You’ve got to believe that there’s a metal skewer running through this ear, through that ear, through Ringo’s ears, through Paul’s ears—right on to the end.’ Finally, they understood and we just took two or three rolls, click, click, click.”
Princess Anne: She Comes to the Door in Jeans
Parkinson has snapped Princess Anne on her 21st birthday, at her wedding, and with her children. “I like the girl,” he says simply. “If you find a woman who’s attractive and put her on a really fine horse, the attraction is tripled. To see a horse that is being completely controlled by a woman—well, for me that’s a private bang. And Princess Anne, on a horse, looks as good as anybody.” Parkinson, who keeps a stable of seven racehorses on Barbados, is as keen a judge of horseflesh as he is of thoroughbred women. “Princess Anne is really a very regular girl. You go to her farm to photograph her, and once you get by all the police she answers the door in a T-shirt and blue jeans.” Her strained relationship with the press, the photographer says, is actually the fault of heredity. “Anne is like her father, the Duke of Edinburgh. He softened quite a lot in recent years, so they let him alone.”