Master Series: Terence Donovan of The Terrible Trio
Grace Coddington, before she became fashion editor to the biggest fashion magazine in the world, American Vogue, was a model in the Sixties. She remembers going on her very first go-see to Terence Donovan’s studio in London, saying he was “a giant of a man with an equally giant presence”. Donovan ended up working with Grace a lot during the early sixties and they formed a friendship that lasted until he died in 1996.
Like Brian Duffy, Terence Donovan was part of the Terrible Three (or The Black Trinity depending on which side of the fence you stood) and thus was responsible for capturing the youthquake that was exploding in London and causing the rest of the world to sit up and draw their inspiration from. Sassoon was revolutionizing the way woman wore their hair, chopping off long manes and creating The Bob. Mary Quaint was chopping off hemlines and creating The Mini-Skirt. And Terence Donovan was there capturing all of the chopping and show stopping buzz.
Born in 1936 to a lorry driver and department store manager, Donovan remembers much of his youth sitting in the cab of his father’s truck and going to 10 different schools because the family kept moving around a lot. His first career choice was to become a chef but because he was too young he couldn’t get into cooking school so he took a job at his Uncle Joe’s lithography studio and that became his first career move. He was 11 years old. He began a part-time apprenticeship while finishing his school and he also joined Bethnal Green Camera Club where, I believe, he was introduced to photography.
Before he had to do the required two years of National Service in the UK, Terence started assisting photographers. After he returned from service, he returned to a job he had at Fleet Illustrated with photographers Hugh White and Michael Williams. After a few more assisting gigs, including working for John French, Donovan opened his own studio at age 22. His first paid gig was shooting a sponge cake for a cake-mix producer but within 2 weeks he was testing with a sought after model, Marla Scarafia and a month after that he was shooting Vidal Sassoon for The Sunday Times. Obviously The Times spread launched his career because of it’s wide spread exposure.
From what I have gathered about Donovan is that he was a photographer who could wear many hats. By this I mean that he was a reliable, responsible photographer who the mainstream magazines like Vogue and Harper’s could rely on to get the shoot in the can with very little drama and get all the important bits: the buttons on the coat, the hemline on the dress. But then he could be quite edgy and experimental as Nova Magazine’s David Hillman told Vogue: “Donovan was born to shoot for Nova. We were talking about ideas rather than stitches and buttons. We were trying to shoot mood, and Donovan was doing things that were edgy and original. He could do an amazingly complicated picture in a simple way.” And I read, too, that magazines like Vogue knew that Donovan could switch roles and be relied upon every time. Grace Coddington admits that he had the entire shoots laughing until their sides ached but he was precise and exact when he was shooting.
I suppose Donovan is most famous for the Robert Palmer video, “Addicted to Love” but really it should be noted here that by the mid-90’s he was established as a well respected and highly regarded photographer, a member of the Royal Photographic Society and a photographer to the Royal Family.
Of course, Donovan enjoyed the rewards of his hard work: A Rolls Royce (which apparently was like a home office), a Piccadilly house, a wife and some pretty awesome kids (one of his sons played in Big Audio Dynamite who I saw in the ‘80’s at The Whiskey). He seemed like a down to earth man, in love with taking pictures but not so impressed with being famous for it. His wife, God Bless Her, put together a book of his images in 2012 called Terence Donovan Fashion. With a preface from Grace Coddington (I do love her) and edited by David Hillman (you should look him up, he was famous for many things during the Sixties) and Robert Muir, the book is both beautiful to look at and to read. His friends loved him, as did his colleagues that worked with him. Apparently, though, the humorous, loving man had a sad, almost sardonic view on the world for much of his life. He suffered from depression and ultimately took his own life. It’s hard for me to understand that a man filled with so much passion and vigor could also suffer so deeply that he resorted to suicide. He told Jean Shrimpton that photography was fascinating to him because he was instant. And the minute it wouldn’t be fascinating, he would quit. He never did quit shooting but I guess the depression took over, resulting in his untimely death. I’ll end this with a quote of his that really hit home for me:
I love that. Get the book, know his work and follow his drive. He really loved photography. And it shows in his work.
Here’s a selection of his wonderful work: