Terence Daniel Donovan (14 September 1936 – 22 November 1996) was an English photographer and film director, best remembered for his fashion photography of the 1960s and the video clips he directed for Robert Palmer. No one was better at capturing partly-dressed models in expensive hotel bedrooms. The Alaia-clad mannequins strutting to Robert Palmer’s hit Addicted To Love – for which he was nominated one of Vanity Fair’s ‘Men of the Decade’ in 1989 – seemed to epitomise everything that Terence Donovan represented.
In June 1971, Nova magazine ran “Is There Any Truth in the Rumour?”, three pages of black-and-white fashion photographs by Donovan. The feature was about blazers, an ostensibly uninspiring subject for London’s most adventurous magazine for women.
But Donovan’s photographs, knowing and ironic, made the story a classic of the new wave. Rejecting Sixties zaniness and high colour, he made a set of images which were closer to street documentary than high fashion photography. Models were photographed in harsh black and white, standing in the courtyard of a block of council flats, waiting in front of the post office, sitting on a bleak concrete flight of steps.
The women were beautiful and the clothes classic, but the settings gave the twist to the story. You could say it was a metaphor for Donovan himself, a lorry driver’s son turned celebrity from the Mile End Road. In “Is There Any Truth in the Rumour?”, Terence Donovan was not only revisiting his past, but also paying homage to it, acknowledging the dour and fragile glamour of inner-city London while making intricate comedy at the expense of the haute bourgeoisie.
The famous Julie Christie photographs, 1962
The transformation of East End boy into charismatic Sixties celebrity is an enduring myth of London life. But there is some truth in the cliche. As many photographers from the 19th century onwards had proved, the close- knit streets of the East End, the crowded marketplaces, the expanses of the docks and a remarkable history of deprivation and resilience were inspiring visual catalysts. For those born and brought up there, the overwhelming urge was to escape.
Terence Donovan’s route out was by way of a time-honoured East End profession – the print. After leaving secondary modern school at the age of 11, Donovan signed on for a course in blockmaking at the London School of Engraving and Lithography in Fleet Street. He was fascinated by the world of the press, its speed, its influence and its glamour.
By the age of 15, he had discovered photography and soon afterwards joined the studio of John French, painter, designer and (from the mid-1940s) leading fashion photographer.
Cecil Beaton, by then ageing and somewhat weary of the image-making business, was cautious in his assessment of the new generation of fashion photographers, warning that “often there is a danger that young photographers who meet with wide popular success quite suddenly are pushed further than they can naturally go”. He admired Donovan’s fashion photographs as “strong, stark” and was clearly fascinated by the way he managed to make his young models “look as if they were were wearing soiled underwear”.
Along with David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan captured, and in many ways helped create, the Swinging London of the 1960s: a culture of high fashion and celebrity chic. The trio of photographers ( nicknamed “The Terrible Three” by Beaton) socialised with actors, musicians and royalty and found themselves elevated to celebrity status. Together, they were the first real celebrity photographers.
By 1959, Donovan had set up his own studio. He had learnt much from John French, but was determined to establish his own style and to compete for work in the new markets which were opening up in the soon-to-be-swinging London. Two magazines, Queen and Town, though conservative enough when compared to the later iconoclasms of Nova, were open to new ways of thinking about fashion. In Queen’s Mark Boxer and Town’s Tom Wolsey, the new generation of fashion photographers found enthusiastic supporters.
“It was working for Town,” Donovan told the fashion historian Martin Harrison in 1991, “that really got me started and got me a name.”
For a story on men’s suits published in Town in 1960, Donovan took his model to a gasworks and pictured him against the harsh ironwork and angular structures, juxtaposing the soft and the hard, the luxurious and the evreyday. It was a strategy in picture-making that he would adopt time and time again.
Other, more traditional magazines were soon eager to adopt the new London style. Young editors at Queen and Town moved on to work in the expanding British edition of Vogue, and commissioned Bailey, Duffy and Donovan to make spreads. But the enduring legend of the Swinging London photographer was created not on the pages of the fashion magazine, but rather in celluloid, in that emblematic Sixties film, Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), a peculiar mystery story with a young fashion photographer as its central character. For ever after, in the minds of the British public, every fashion shoot would be seen as an inevitable prelude to sex and every fashion photographer as cool, totally heterosexual and utterly charismatic. As the American critic Owen Edwards wrote in 1973.
Blow Up was one of those fairly ordinary movies that had the good fortune to appear at precisely the magic moment, crystallising the longings of an enormous audience.
In 1974, Donovan travelled up to Manchester to speak to a group of photography students at Manchester Polytechnic. He told the students that, some time before, he had bought three identical suits so that he would no longer have to decide what to wear in the morning. Having to think about his appearance, he said, got in the way of the important things in life. He also advised his audience never to work for an employer, but simply “to find something you want to do, and get someone to pay you to do it”.
Donovan’s biography does not appear in the traditional histories of art and photography. Not until the 1990s did fashion photography assume a cultural importance which went beyond the fashion pages. He moved away from photography and into film production in the early Seventies and became a half-forgotten Sixties hero irrevocably trapped within a myth. Prominent women like the Princess of wales, Margaret Thatcher and the Duchess of York still sought him out in the hope that his photographic alchemy would still work wonders, and usually they were right.
Terence Donovan both challenged fashion photography and took it for what it was, an imperfect, compromised and inevitably comic set of contradictions with which we are endlessly complicit. Donovan knew that there are never any completely new ideas in fashion photography, only a constant recycling and adaptation, a process of finding the image to suit the Zeitgeist, and making us believe that we have discovered something completely new. Secrets shared on a grandly public scale, fairy stories told with skill, comedy and a certain austerity, tarnished tiaras among the East End grit.
Terence Donovan died London 22 November 1996.
Terence Donovan Fashion
Terence Donovan was one of the foremost photographers of his generation–among the greatest Britain has ever produced. He came to prominence in London as part of a postwar renaissance in art, fashion, graphic design and photography, and–alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy (photographers of a similar working-class background)–he captured and helped create the Swinging London of the 1960s. Donovan socialized with celebrities and royalty, and found himself elevated to stardom in his own right, and yet, despite his success and status, there has never been a serious evaluation of Donovan’s fashion work: he allowed no monographs to be published during his lifetime. Terence Donovan Fashion is therefore the first publication of his fashion photographs. Arranged chronologically, and with an illuminating text by Robin Muir (ex-picture editor of Vogue), the book considers Donovan in the social and cultural context of his time, showing how his constant experimentation not only set him apart, but also influenced generations to come. Designed by former art director of Nova magazine and Pentagram partner David Hillman, and with images selected by Hillman, the artist’s widow Diana Donovan and Grace Coddington, creative director of American Vogue, this volume is indisputably a landmark publication in the history of fashion photography.
Terence Donovan (1936-1996) is regarded as one of the foremost photographers of his generation. From the beginning of the 1960s until his death more than 30 years later, he shot regularly for magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. He also directed some 3,000 commercials, the 1973 movie Yellow Dog and numerous music videos, for Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” among others.
Celia Hammond, 1962 Celia Hammond, 1962 Cindy Crawford, 1988 Police Woman, 1983 Nancy Kwan for Britisch Vogue, 1963Twiggy,1967 . . .