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Frame academy: A new book celebrates the glamorous world of fashion photographer Norman Parkinson

Standing six feet five in his Edwardian smoking jacket (or his Indian tunic or his favourite pyjama top) and the embroidered Kashmiri wedding cap that he habitually wore while at work, Norman Parkinson always stood out from the crowd. An 18-carat eccentric, born into a middle-class Edwardian family with an exotic history – his mother's grandfather Luigi was an Italian operatic bass who taught Queen Victoria to sing – he spent his career perfecting an image of the English gentleman while mix-and-matching, in his photographs, the homely and the bizarre.

Parkinson took fashion photography out of its monochrome straitjacket. "I'm sure all the best photographers all use black and white," he told World of Photography magazine in 1983, "but I dream in colour ... for me, colour has always held more magic." Look at how dramatically he used colour in his commercial work, such as the photograph of four hat models gossiping on the roof of the Condé Nast building in New York (the hats occupying only a quarter of the image) and you're amazed by his boldness. The picture was taken in 1949, when fashion was almost invariably shot in a studio.

Parkinson disapproved of studios. He started his career, aged 18, in a Bond Street studio, preparing carbon-arc umbrellas and bellows cameras on which the court photographer Richard Speaight could take portraits of European royalty. When he was fired, he opened his own studio in Dover Street, Mayfair, at only 21, and made a living snapping debutantes and society beauties (like the heavy-lidded Princess Dmitri of Russia, with her pet corgi) in the new, gorgeously lit Hollywood style. But his heart wasn't in it. "A studio is like an operating theatre," he'd say. "You go there to get a part of yourself removed."

Encouraged by the art director of Harper's Bazaar UK, Parkinson took to the streets, pavements and countryside after 1936. Pictures of ladies in stylish frocks buying newspapers from vendors, or striding in the country in Jaeger tweeds, proved very popular in the late 1930s. One shot in particular, of the model Pamela Minchin in a Fortnum & Mason swimsuit, a turban and shades, jumping from a breakwater on to a beach on the Isle of Wight in July 1939, caused a sensation. "When I pulled that picture out of the soup, it confirmed for me that for the rest of my life I had to be a photographer," Parkinson told the Sunday Times in 1987. "I was absolutely amazed by the magic of it."

After that, the genie was out of the bottle. For the next four decades, Parkinson snapped models in extreme al fresco, seated on ostriches or Galapagos tortoises, in front of dancing Zulus or hoisted aloft by grinning, black-faced Lancashire miners. He called the technique "action realism". He photographed Anne Chambers, between the legs of a stepladder crammed with children in an East End street, for Vogue in 1948. He took the pleasingly named Carmen Dell'Orefice for Vogue in 1959, in the doorway of a palm-fronded hut in the Bahamas, wearing a fabulous short safari jacket around her 18-inch waist. He snapped the same Ms Dell'Orefice perilously suspended from a crane by one foot and one finger, in front of the Old Bailey in 1960. For a Pierre Cardin hat shoot, he photographed Nena von Schlebrugge (later to be the mother of Uma Thurman) in the cockpit of a helicopter flying dangerously near the Eiffel Tower; the gendarmes were waiting for them as they landed. In 1975, he took Jerry Hall all over Russia, posing her on a fake-marble plinth in Red Square and on the arm of an actual statue in Lake Sevan.

Carmen, Jerry, Iman, Shrimpton, Twiggy, Celia Hammond and Patti Boyd – they all posed for him as he moved from the age of the studio-bound Arriflex to the advent of the digital camera and the supermodel. His own favourite model, however, never changed after he came home from the war. Wenda Rogerson, his third wife, was a 22-year-old Rada-trained actress and part-time model when they met at Vogue's London studio near the Tottenham Court Road. She was wearing a huge hat. "So what's under that?" asked Parkinson. Wenda lifted her face to his. "Oh, it's you," he said. And that was that.

He photographed her lean frame and amazingly rectangular face in a thousand settings, emphasising her very English, melancholy beauty, timelessly elegant in Hardy Amies suits and Aquascutum coats. He snapped her in a cashmere twinset apparently playing shove-ha'penny in a Yorkshire pub. He nailed her slightly irritable beauty in the charming setting of a butcher's shop, with a little sign behind her head saying "Order Your Xmas Poultry Now".

They married in 1947, bought a house in Twickenham and were, by all accounts, very happy for 40 years as he roamed the globe with her, bringing subversiveness and wit to the increasingly sophisticated and hi-tech fashion business, and making a second career manufacturing sausages: the irresistible "Porkinson Banger" which used to be served on Concorde. After Wenda died in 1987, and the house they built in Tobago was destroyed by fire, Parkinson threw himself into work; but instead of fashion, he took to photographing the English countryside, to which he was devoted in his youth and was the first subject of his pictures.

To the end he remained unpretentious about his work. In his last months – Parkinson died in 1990 – he described himself as "an accomplished tradesman" with just "a bit of glass, a black hole and a bit of sensitive material". But he knew he'd made a difference, that he'd changed British people's perception of female beauty and glamour for ever.

'Norman Parkinson: A Very British Glamour' by Louise Baring is published by Rizzoli, priced £40