Norman Parkinson exhibition shines spotlight on vintage chic

They are wonderful images, stylish, witty and cool. But the photographs also tell the story of how the austere Britain of the 1950s sashayed into those swinging 60s. And, as an added bonus, they could provide tips to those keen to make sure they are on trend for this spring's 1950s-influenced look.

An exhibition of original vintage prints by the British fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, many previously unseen, opens at the weekend.

The images are owned by Parkinson's former assistant, Angela Williams, who worked with the photographer at his studio in Twickenham, west London, in the early 1960s. When he downsized she asked if she could have his working vintage silver prints.

Williams became a successful photographer in her own right, shooting stars from Paul Newman and Audrey Hepburn to Marianne Faithfull and Pink Floyd. But she has spent the past 15 years curating and researching her collection of Parkinson prints.

Sixty of them, spanning 1954 to 1964, have been chosen for the exhibition and Williams was impressed by how contemporary they still seemed. "This era seems very much in vogue – the tight skirts, stockings and high heels. As always in fashion, it comes around again," she said.

After beginning her career as a medical photographer, Williams asked Parkinson for a job. Among her tasks was warming his studio in an old stable block at his house each morning and making his daily eggnog (milk, brandy, a whole egg). Williams argues that Parkinson was an "inspiration" to women. "He documented our transformation in the 1950s and helped show us how to 'be' in the 60s when we were floundering around with our newfound liberation, wondering what exactly had hit us and learning to be independent women.

"Parkinson always claimed he was a working photographer not an artist, but with the passage of time these photographs have gathered substantial artistic and historical significance.

"He was the first fashion photographer to take his models out of the stuffy confines of a studio into the real world, where he captured their natural beauty with realism and wit. There was always a touch of magic in his work; he did not merely document but also influenced the zeitgeist."

After Parkinson sold his house (plus his Berkshire pig farm and racehorse) to begin a new life in Tobago, Williams helped him sort out his possessions. "There were boxes of prints. I asked him: 'Can I have these, Parks?'"

Her favourite images include one of a model in a sack dress posing on a lorry loaded with bags of coal. "Parkinson had an odd wit, a kind wit," she said. "He didn't want to photograph debutantes. He wanted girls with personality who would jump and run."

Williams is also fond of an image featuring the photographer (he often appeared in his own pictures) dashing down a road "like a demon".

An Eye for Fashion: an exhibition of British fashion photography by Norman Parkinson from 1954-1964 runs from 21 January-15 April at the M Shed in Bristol

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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