The Asahi Pentax 6x7, then Pentax
67, has been a very successfull medium format camera and is still going strong in the
fashion and glamour pro market, mostly in UK and USA. Thinking of professionals working
with the 67 brings to mind such names as Sam Haskins, Bob Carlos-Clarke, David Bailey,
John Swannell, Terence Donovan... well, the late Terence Donovan, as he left us last
November 22nd, 1996.
Born September 14, 1936, son of an East End lorry driver, the young
Terence left school at 11 with the intention of becoming a chef. He said, "I really
wanted to be a chef, but they wouldn't have taken me until I was 15, so I said I wanted to
be a lithographer, my uncle Joe was one and he was the top bloke in the family ... good
money, you know." So he studied blockmaking at Fleet Street's London School of
Engraving and Lithography, then he worked in the photo department of a Fleet Street
blockmaker where he discovered photography.
Donovan's father died of lung cancer before his only son's career took
off. Consequently, Terence always refused to get involved with tobacco advertising or
allow smoke into his studio. Unlike many who found fame in the 60's, Donovan did not
indulge in wild behaviour, being teetotaler from the age of 25 and a fervent non-smoker.
Donovan's career developed the classical "master-pupil" way:
in the beginning he assisted Michael Williams, John Adrian and the legendary John French
in 1957, who spawned many other fashion photographers, David Bailey included. Then, after
working as a military photographer, in 1959 he had set up his own studio. At 25 he decided
that he didn't want the hassle of deciding what to wear each morning, so he bulk-ordered
identical gray flannel suits, white shirts, black shoes - and never digressed. Not that
common for a fashion photographer, but nothing in Donovan was common.
Working for Town fashion magazine Donovan moved the classical locations
for male fashion from Regent's Park or country houses to the gasworks, juxtaposing the
soft and the hard, the luxurious and the everyday. His pictures were very innovative for
the time - he was shooting grainy pictures long before they became de rigueur. In 1961 his
gangster series anticipated the Bond movies. Donovan said, "It was working for Town
that really got me started and got me a name." He also worked regularly for Queen,
Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. In June 1971 Nova magazine ran "Is There Any Truth in
the Rumour?", three pages of harsh black-and-white fashion photographs about jackets,
photographing models 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.
In the 1960s Bailey and Donovan revolutionized fashion photography in
UK and reinvented the photographer-model relationship. In his 1973 history of photography
"The Magic Image", Cecil Beaton dubbed David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian
Duffy "The Terrible Three". With Bailey and Duffy, Donovan created the visual
component of the London myth of the 60s: having fun, having sex, having money (just
enough), having ambition. They weren't interested in how elegant a model might make the
clothes look, they wanted to show how sexy the clothes could make the model look - a
revolution in thinking as well as in looking. Their work projected the raw, classless
glamour epitomized by Julie Christie, Celia Hammond and Jean Shrimpton. After Antonioni's
movie "Blow Up" (1966) every fashion shoot would be seen as a prelude to sex and
every fashion photographer as cool, coercive, totally heterosexual and utterly
Donovan also photographed celebrities, from Jimi Hendrix to Princess
Diana, and the Duke and the Duchess of York (for their formal portraits). According to his
mate, David Bailey, "He was the first person to make Margaret Thatcher look soft and
approachable." Bailey called him the "Orson Welles of photography", however
he always find time to meet amateurs on many a winter's night at camera clubs. Speaking to
students at Manchester Polytechnic in 1974, he advised: "You don't have to work for
an employer, you have to find something you want to do, and get someone to pay you to do
One of the few photographers to develop all his own pictures, Donovan
retained his sense of darkroom awe at the magic of seeing images he had created appear on
blank paper. Lately Donovan had been critical of young photographers: "I know my job
from the bottom up. These guys don't even know how to load a camera" And then:
"Someone asked me where I got the idea from and I said, I did something rather odd...
I thought of it! It seems to be a rather old-fashioned thing to do."
In 1973, he produced and directed a feature film, a spy thriller called
"Yellow Dog", but it was not a commercial success. Terence Donovan's first book
was the little known "Women Throo the Eyes of A Smudger (TD)", while 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 and about our endless capacity to fantasize the
real. Opposite one photograph of a model wearing an unusually revealing army uniform, he
writes: "My Aunt Betty used to dress like this; her lips were just as dark"
A judo black belt, the "gentle giant" went to Rome in 1995
where he had been shooting some pictures commissioned by an Italian magazine. There he was
mugged by four young men, two with knives. At the end he left them all lying on the
pavement in pain. As he left the scene, a queue of people at a bus stop had burst into
applause. Terence also adopted Buddhism, but did not adhere to all its principles. "I
would happily break a bloke's neck," he remarked, "but I wouldn't swat a
A Donovan shoot was always a relaxed happy occasion, enlivened by his
witty commentaries and jokes. He wanted the people around him to enjoy what they were
doing as much as he enjoyed his part in it. When Princess Di was looking a bit glum for a
minute, he put a £10 note over the lens and said "Recognize a relative?"
Donovan had time for everyone and someone who worked closely with him for years commented:
"He was like a rock for us all, so strong for everyone."
In 1996 Pentax UK chose Donovan as a testimonial for their latest
campaign, advertising both the MZ-5 and the venerable 67 and pushing the message: "If
it's good enough for Donovan, it must be good." After Donovan took his life, a
picture of him with the caption "1936-1996" was published as a last salute to
the man. See that picture published here on previous page.
Donovan was married twice. He is survived by his second wife Diana, a
son from his first marriage and a son and daughter from his second marriage. His eldest
son is the rock musician Dan Donovan - formerly of Big Audio Dynamite and the first
husband of Patsy Kensit.
Terence Donovan was found dead in his Ealing studio in west London.
Scotland Yard said Mr. Donovan was found hanging in his studio after a call from a member
of the public. His family said that he had killed himself after a severe reaction to
medication. It has been said Terence Donovan was suffering from "bleak
depression" as a result of taking steroids to control his eczema.
Despite more than 3,000 TV commercials and rock videos, and the awards,
Donovan lately returned to his first passion, photography. His most recent assignment was
to photograph 20 of Britain's leading men for the magazine GQ. One of them was a
self-portrait. It is likely his work on videos and commercials had taken him away from the
magazine work, which had changed, so his new pictures were visibly dated and
old-fashioned, although technically excellent. This difficult re-entry in his beloved
world of still photography could also have added more depression to him, giving further
explanation to his desperate act. Others disagree with this explanation, telling he was
moving forward with great strides, still being completely ambitious and competitive.
Quiet, reflective and ultimately deeply private, the mystery of Donovan that will remain
for all his friends across the world is why that strength ran out with such a dramatic
lack of warning.
After Terence Donovan's suicide Eamonn McCabe, picture editor of
"The Guardian" wrote: "So the big man has gone, and in a time when
photography takes itself too seriously, so has the fun."