Terence Donovan: The Contact Prints

In the foreword to Terence Donovan: Fashion, Grace Coddington, creative director of American Vogue, recalls walking into Donovan’s Yeoman’s Row studio as a star-struck young model at the beginning of her career. Having tramped all over London, portfolio in hand, she found Donovan ‘with piles of contact sheets in front of him […] a giant man with an equally giant presence.’ The 22-year-old Donovan was fast emerging onto the British fashion scene having opened his mews studio, close to Harrods, in January 1959 – photographing for clients including Vidal Sassoon, Sketch magazine and The Sunday Times. What is most interesting about Coddington’s recollection is what could be found on the table in front of the young photographer: piles of contact sheets. Many picture Donovan and his contemporaries David Bailey and Brian Duffy as ‘working’ photographers in the sense of shooting ‘about town’ on gasworks, industrial estates or around the streets of their native East London. As such, Donovan’s contact sheets can be counted as an important part of British visual history since they present the editorial, and often censorious, process which closely followed the actual practice of taking photographs.

Contact sheets are made up of small photographs made by laying negatives directly onto the surface of light sensitive paper. Of any print type, contact prints are closest in form to the content captured on the actual negative, since their defining characteristic is that the resulting print remains the same size as the original, rather than having been projected through an enlarger. Highly detailed, Donovan’s contact prints bear the marks of the photographer’s hand, since he would indicate his preference for selected frames from a particular shoot by piercing them with a pen or marking them with a chinagraph pencil. The Terence Donovan Archive holds a number of these unique vintage contact prints together with the original negatives. Since Donovan discarded the contact prints of the frames he did not wish to be used, keeping only those that he felt were good enough to be printed or published, the objects which result provide vital information about which shots he felt were the most successful from the many thousands of photographs taken across a prolific career.

Donovan’s early studio at Yeoman’s Row in which Coddington first found favour was an instant success. Work poured in and Donovan’s style and resourcefulness attracted a range of clients, including leading advertising agencies, designers and lifestyle magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, as well as Queen, Man About Town and later Nova. The contact prints are among a number of early working prints dating from the 1950s and 60s in the archive, and in many cases were produced as part of the development of a magazine or advertising layout in which the image would eventually appear. The rough border and incision marks left by Donovan’s hand on the contact prints go some way towards highlighting the cut and thrust of the fashion and editorial power of post-War London, an insight which is otherwise only offered in the largely textual form of Donovan’s diaries, although these, too, provide a glimpse of the feverish pace of his early working life, and a sense of the overlapping social and creative scenes of 1960s London.

Digital photography and editing processes have in many ways rendered the contact sheet purposeless in contemporary editorial strategy. Nonetheless, a brief look into photography’s recent history undoubtedly places them among the most important working objects to be found in the context of the photographer’s studio. Moreover, the decline in their utilitarian value only serves to reiterate the need to preserve, research and display these valuable objects, either as whole sheets or singular, defining prints. Photography critic Sean O’Hagan cited Henri Cartier-Bresson in his review of a recent survey exhibition of contact sheets in Amsterdam: “It’s all there: what surprises us is what we catch, what we miss, what disappears.” A mainstay of Donovan’s prolific career, then, and the lifeblood of his working practice, the contact prints offer an insight into the meticulous selection process each frame was subjected to and remain testament to the strength of the work consistently produced by the photographer across five decades.

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