After climbing the stairs to the Lyttelton exhibition space, I take a moment to observe the first photograph on show; a couple running merrily, hand in hand, on New York’s East River Drive (1959).

Although the subjects (Parkinson’s neighbours at the time) have little in common with the famous faces the photographer would portray in the following decades, the spontaneity of the shot summarises the essence of his lifework.

Norman Parkinson (1913-1990) was one of the 20th century’s most cherished British photographers, and is also regarded (quite rightfully so) as the father of modern fashion photography. During and after World War II, straying away from the formality of his predecessors, Parkinson instilled a new breath to the art of fashion photography.

While stiff stills were de rigueur before, vivacity and spontaneity now took hold. Photo-shoots in exotic outdoor locations and unexpected juxtapositions were also master ideas the British photographer imposed on his time.

Norman Parkinson’s shots for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in the 1940’s and 1950’s were decidedly innovative; innovative in the sense that they were liberating because they freed creativity and imagination, eventually equally as much for the photographer as for the viewer.

Breaking the rules, Parkinson allowed the lens to be unfocused and pictured models jumping on a beach, posing with their backs to the camera or looking pensively out of a window, as in his famous portrait of Maxime de la Falaise wearing a ruffled Dior gown.

He was also one of the first to take his camera around the globe and to place his models in outdoor sceneries, from India to Nairobi. In 1984, reflecting on his early years of fashion photography, Parkinson made this incisive remark: “Girls had their legs bolted together. You only had to take a deep breath and you could smell the burning oil and the incense and the flower decorations and the great tapestries. I thought ‘I don’t know any girls who look like that. My girls do this: they run and jump walls.’”

After the glamorous and exotic shots of the pre and post-war years, Parkinson explored in more depth the art of portrait photography. Insightful and poignant, his portraits unveiled the true personality of his models – rarely will you see such a revealing portrait of Nancy and Ronald Reagan (1960) or intimate shot of the Queen Mother with her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret.

Compiling Norman Parkinson’s best photographs, this retrospective at the National Theatre intelligently covers all aspects of the artist’s lifework.The exhibition runs from the 1st March to the 12th May 2013.

Written by Clémence Duron. Photography Corbis /© Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive.