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The In Crowd

Culture Watch
Terence Donovan

by Daniel Scheffler

The new book, Terence Donovan: Portraits aims to restore the late British photographer to his rightful place: as an era-defining, genre-busting talent. It’s a stunning compendium of Donovan’s work, starting with his 1960s breakthrough as chronicler of Swinging London and ending in a mid-1990s portfolio that celebrated Cool Britannia, its Blair-era counterpart (Donovan died in 1996). Standout portraits in the book capture Terence Stamp staring out broodingly from the page and channeling the Thomas Hardy anti-hero he played in Far from the Madding Crowd and miniskirt inventor Mary Quant, her crossed arms conveying quiet rebellion. On the cover, a tousle-haired Sophia Loren is caught, seemingly off-guard, staring into the distance.

Donovan was one of a trio of camera-wielding enfants terribles of that era; alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy. These rebellious friends transformed photography overnight when they began working in the early 1960s, at least according to curator Philippe Garner, who also wrote the book’s forward. “They threw out the old rule books with a willful informality that challenged the emphasis in both fashion and portrait photography on social hierarchy or grandeur,” Garner marvels, “For them, it was just as important to make it fresh, animated and sexy.”

The blue collar, rough-edged trio rejected the campy, rarefied precepts of their immediate forerunners, such as Cecil Beaton. Instead, the three of them took models out of sterile studios and posed them on the street; instead of worshipping their subjects, they flirted with them—and for the first time, the women flirted back. “There’s a raw, heterosexual energy that we hadn’t seen before. It’s the start of the empowered woman,” adds Ivan Shaw, photograph director at the Condé Nast Archive. “How did we get to the supermodels of the 1990s, Linda, Naomi and Christy? This is the beginning of it.”

Today, of course, David Bailey is by far the best known of the trio, both thanks to his constant trips to America, and a supermodel-studded love life (he counts Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve and Marie Helvin among his exes). Yet Donovan had distinctive talents that his friends could never match, especially when it came to photographing men. Most lensmen gravitate towards either male or female subjects, but Donovan was adroit at drawing out the essence in both. Donovan often worked for Town, an early men’s lifestyle magazine, which curator Robin Muir calls “the Rosetta Stone of fashion magazines”. “He radicalized the way men’s fashion was depicted, “Muir explains, “by creating wonderful, narrative stories like spy dramas that used London as a backdrop.” Bucking convention by shooting fashion outdoors, conversely he insisted that portraits were instead studio-based. “At the time, those studio portraits were quite radical,” Muir continues, “Until then, if you were photographing a real life person, you went to their house and did it.’ Donovan and his pals, filled with ballsy swagger, insisted that subjects instead come to them.

His aesthetic influence remains palpable today, whether in the intimate, slightly noirish work of upcoming talents like Jamie Hawkesworth or Jack Davison or in the effortlessly breathtaking work for which Mario Testino is known. “It’s all about making it look as if the picture sort of took itself,” says Philippe Garner, “But if you think it’s easy? Just try it.”

 

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