Obituary: Terence Donovan

Val Williams
Monday 25 November 1996 01:02 GMT

In June 1971, Nova magazine ran "Is There Any Truth in the Rumour?", three pages of black-and-white fashion photographs by Terence 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.

Nova, which had blazed the trail for an entirely new way of looking at fashion, closed in 1974, but its legend lived on. Less than a decade later, the radical style magazines I.D. and The Face took up the ideas of street fashion photography set in place by the pioneers of the Sixties and continued to take the elitism out of fashion. The studio was out, and the street was in.

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. In his 1973 history of photography The Magic Image, Cecil Beaton dubbed Donovan and his two contemporaries David Bailey and Brian Duffy "The Terrible Three" and described with enthusiasm how the "three cockney boys rushed out of the somewhat staid John French's darkroom and gave a signature to their times".

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 reminiscent of the film L'Annee derniere a Marienbad and was clearly fascinated by the way he managed to make his young models "look as if they were were wearing soiled underwear".

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, coercive, 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. Would-be wonderclickers materialised as if by combustious generation. All of a sudden it seemed that every adolescent shutter-bug with a masturbatory imagination had converged on New York with a light meter in one eye and dollar signs in the other.

The Sixties generation had begun to parody itself. In Peter Evans's text for Goodbye Baby and Amen: a saraband for the Sixties (1969), he compared Donovan and Duffy to

the Parisian Impressionists at the beginning of the century, the artists with an arrogant Bohemian sense of super style, of daring nouveau art . . . Like van Gogh, their pictures emphasised the familiar, the natural, the reality around us; they got their models to pose and to walk and to think like the mods and the rockers, the easy lays, the hard cases and the scrubbers they saw in the East End. They were the illustrators of the life of their time; they brought the simplicity of the streets into the studio with artistic vehemence.

It is unlikely that Terence Donovan, always unassuming, practical and pragmatic, would either have made such grand claims for himself or agreed with such a succession of stereotypes. He saw his use of the everyday and the insalubrious not so much as a challenge to the social order, but rather as a readily available device to make fashion new and exciting. That his photographs looked so fascinatingly exotic perhaps says more about his audience than it does about Donovan himself.

In 1974, Terence 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 expressed a notion of self-reliance and entrepreneurialism which was to characterise not only the group of fashion photographers to which he belonged, but which also sent out important signals to the emerging British photographers of the Seventies.

Terence 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 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.

In 1983, he published Glances, a collection of photographs and fragments of semi-fictional narrative. At the time, it was assessed as chauvinist and at odds with current thinking about women and sexuality. Looking through this book now, it re-emerges as a remarkable and knowing comedy about sexual mores, about gender and about our endless capacity to fantasise the real. It is a satire at the expense of photography, which uses the real world to explore the recesses of the imagination and presents us with our desires, recycled. Opposite one photograph, of a model wearing an unusually revealing army uniform, he writes, "My Aunt Bett used to dress like this; her lips were just as dark". Next to a photograph of the elderly transvestite Bunny Roger, he comments, "During the war he was a major in the Rifle Brigade. He was famous for prodigious feats of bravery, so who can tell about anything?"

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, photographer: born 14 September 1936; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died London 22 November 1996.

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