Terence Donovan




Terence Donovan (1936-1996) came to prominence in London in the 1960s as part of a post-war renaissance in art, fashion, graphic design and photography. The energy of his fashion photographs and portraits, and the force of his personality have assumed in the intervening years an almost folkloric significance. With David Bailey and Brian Duffy, photographers of a similar background and outlook, Donovan was perceived as a new force in British fashion photography.

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Early Life

Terence Donovan was born in East London on 14 September 1936, the son of Daniel Donovan, a lorry driver, and his wife Constance. His education was often disrupted, “I spent most of the war”, he once said, “in the cab of a large lorry travelling round England”. He developed an interest in photography at an early age. At eleven he enrolled at the London School of Photo-Engraving, which he left at fifteen to become a photographer’s assistant. He opened his first photographic studio in 1959 at the age of twenty-two. Influenced by the documentary work of Bill Brandt, whose starkly black and white photo-essays appeared in both magazines, Donovan brought urban realism to his early magazine and advertising work. His backdrop was the blitzed and cratered landscape of his East End youth, observing that here was ‘a tough emptiness, a grittiness heightened by occasional pieces of rubbish rustling around in the wind.’ While his contemporaries Don McCullin and Roger Mayne found this urban landscape conducive to pure reportorial photography, Donovan brought this grittiness to the depiction of clothes.

The Black Trinity

Donovan produced a series of men’s fashion pictures taken on the streets of London for Man About Town, published in 1961 and, for the same magazine a year later, a series of portraits en déshabillé of the young actress Julie Christie in her London flat. The degree of informality brought to both was untypical of the time. This approach was explored regularly in his magazine work and up until the 1990s remained a constant for magazines that sought a Donovan imprimatur.

As Donovan’s reputation grew, and the financial rewards for commercial work increased, his milieu became more sophisticated and efficient. His studio was able to entertain three, occasionally four, sittings a day. By the 1980s it ran like clockwork, which occasionally gave his work a formulaic feel. However, the best examples repeated a mise-en-scène first formulated in the sixties. He had always avoided the vocabulary of exaggerated “high fashion” postures in favour of a visual language taken from the streets and from the girls of his East End youth. This scrutiny of gesture and stance was, in his own words, a “sort of working-class chic” and it remained part of his own vocabulary for almost his entire career.

In 1960 and 1961, again for Man About Town, he contributed two uncharacteristic though influential photo-essays that went on to inform his fashion work. For the first, The Lay About Life, he documented in grimy detail an artists’ collective in Holland Park; for the second, he trailed a West End stripper for a day, from early morning until late at night. Both were downbeat, the latter conveying the pathos and loneliness of a nascent ‘sex industry’ and the former an almost forensic study of British domestic life lived on the margin.

Donovan’s photographs successfully found their way to the pages of less experimental magazines than Man about Town, chiefly Vogue and subsequently graphically powerful ones such as Nova and The Sunday Times Colour Section. The latter was almost an in-house magazine for a generation of British fashion and reportage photographers. It first appeared in February 1962 with a composite cover by Bailey very much in the spirit of Donovan’s cinema verité style. Donovan himself was a contributor to the second issue.

Along with David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan brought a sea change to British fashion photography. The three comprised a “Black Trinity”, according to Norman Parkinson, who found their methodology crude and their pictures at best “unpolished”. Their early success heralded the era of the “specialised hero”, which Vogue and Queen magazines would reinforce and mythologize in print. Donovan’s accredited appearance in a star-studded Bailey fashion shoot, for Vogue in 1961, was an early signifier that photographers were now the equal to television stars, comedians and theatre actors. Later, on screen, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) would strengthen the notion of photographer-as-cultural-icon.

Except for Elle, art directed by Peter Knapp, foreign magazines received Donovan’s informal approach with coolness, and, as he very much depended upon them for a steady stream of assignments, this had to change. Thus, for French and Italian Harper’s Bazaar particularly, Donovan chose a different tactic. He exaggerated almost to the point of parody the hauteur of the high-end glossy magazine. This instinct for the highly colourful, for an “overdone glamour”, existed concomitantly with an economy of style, and both kept him in demand from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Sensing perhaps the inconsistencies in his approach to magazine work, that it was not “pure”, he exculpated himself by maintaining a distance from the fashion world: “Fashion photography is an act of theatre, and I suppose you really have to love it…” But his ambivalent, sometimes querulous, attitude to fashion was pursued in two television documentaries on the twice-yearly Paris Collections.

Donovan’s Legacy

As early as 1962, Donovan and Bailey were hailed as ‘masters of the quick and vivid image’ but, to many observers and collectors, it has become clear with the passage of time that Donovan’s inventiveness continued into the following decades. He consolidated his success as a magazine photographer with a parallel career as a documentary filmmaker and with a body of self-motivated projects, such as idiosyncratic nude work and portraiture, landscape photography and, unexpectedly, the documentation of Judo. At the time, little of this reached a wide audience. However, he established himself as a maker of television commercials and pop videos, including that for Addicted to Love (1985) by Robert Palmer, considered to be one of the most influential and memorable videos ever made. In his later years, he developed a love of painting and exhibited vast abstract canvases inspired by Japanese calligraphy.

Donovan was at work until he died in November 1996. The Royal Family, and in particular Diana, Princess of Wales formed part of the many commissions which he continued to undertake up until his death. He had started preparatory work on the construction of a large studio in West London, while a series of portraits of contemporary musicians for GQ had renewed interest in his editorial work. His last Vogue commission was a portrait of the fashion designers Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro (“Clements Ribeiro”) made just two weeks before he died and published posthumously. Shortly before he died, he was appointed a Visiting Professor at Central St Martins School of Art.

A retrospective exhibition of his London photographs was held at the Museum of London in 1999 and a large-format anthology of his photographs Terence Donovan was published in 2000. In 2012 Terence Donovan Fashion was published, edited by his widow, Diana Donovan, and Donovan’s friend and colleague, David Hillman. His first major retrospective Terence Donovan: Speed of Light opened at the Photographer’s Gallery, London in July 2016.