British photographer Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996) helped redefine fashion photography in the 1960s. Alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan took part in the elaboration of a ‘new vision.’ Youthful, street-bound, unabashedly sexual and decidedly experimental, the images produced by the ‘The Terrible Three’ (as Cecil Beaton would refer to them) reflected the aspirations of a new generation. The unassuming Donovan is perhaps the lesser-known figure of the flamboyant trio.
Curated by photographic historian Robin Muir, the retrospective comprised a large number of fashion prints, magazine copies and portraits, an array of personal objects (Donovan’s studio books for instance) and examples of his music videos (the notorious Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer). The exhibition’s first section covered the 1960s – his early years, from the opening of his studio in 1959 to 1969. The second section straddled four-decades of work from the 1970s to his last, monumental ‘Cool Britannia’ shoot for GQ published just after his abrupt death in 1996.
The series titled ‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel’ produced for French Elle’s September issues of 1965 and 1966 respectively, opened the first section. In ‘Les Manteaux arts modernes,’ a patterned Christian Dior two-piece suit echoes the cubic wall tiles in the background. In ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ a towering model in a futuristic white coat (possibly a Cardin) is given architectural dimensions. Both series play on the formal affinities between clothing and setting, yet they also evoke the disquieting atmosphere of film noir, in the interplay of light and shadow and the sense of angst elicited by emptied urban spaces.
The urban environment was key in fact to Donovan’s early years of experimentation with photography (in later work, he would favor the studio). In 1961, Donovan used London’s Road power station to shoot the latest menswear for British men’s magazine Man About Town. As Rebecca Arnold has noted, the Man About Town series bore references to both 1930s Hollywood gangster films and press photographs of London’s own, East End gangs. In Donovan’s images, the city it seems stood less as the symbol of an upbeat modernity than as an invocation of its dark, if glamorized, underworlds.
A 1974 series titled ‘Dressed Overall’ published in Nova magazine is an example of Donovan’s grittier, documentary-like approach. Shot in Deptford, South London, the series pairs functional, worker-like clothing with the biting atmosphere of a grey London in the midst of a recession. A sort of fictional reportage that verges on surveillance-like shots, it features the model named Ika as she leaves and returns to the neighbourhood’s housing estates. Acutely aware of her obsessive monitoring, she is magnetic in her defiance as she either purposefully ignores or stares back at the camera. The series stages, rather masterfully, a complex dialogue between camera and subject.
If Donovan’s photographs contrasted sharply with the lofty elegance and lavish decors of 1950s fashion photography, the photographer did not eschew colour (and there were plenty of examples on view), neither a sense of playfulness (nor for that matter, fashion photography’s highbrow affiliations). A 1972 series for Nova titled the ‘Heavenly suited’ is a dreamy example of Donovan’s use of colour. But just like his 1978 photograph of a Chloé design by Karl Lagerfeld, these images retain an almost solemn tone in the models’ frank stares and upright postures.
There is something highly appealing and at times almost disturbing (as we are made aware perhaps of our own, complicit gaze) about Donovan’s images and their ability to convey so forcefully a sense of the models’ presence.
If you have missed the exhibition, it is well worth taking a look at Terence Donovan’s images online.
Arnold, R., Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.