Speed of Light – Terence Donovan

Beginnings and endings, it’s funny how often they affect the way we think about what goes on in the middle. Very often though they have little relevance to what goes in-between. ‘Speed of Light’ is the first major retrospective of the work of Terence Donovan (though there was a show of his work ‘The Eye That Never Sleeps’ at the Museum of London in 1999). As you climb upwards to the of the exhibition, extended over two floors of the Photographers’ Gallery, an image of Twiggy looms over you in the hall, so vast she’s difficult to take in from one view. This iconic face, shot against a Union Jack, is completely emblematic of the 60’s. Shot near the start of his Donovan’s career, it is the perfect precursor to a wonderfully expansive look at this influential and provocative photographer. And knowing that his career ended with death by his own hand colours my thoughts as I progress through the show. Yet there is no trace or indication of what is to come in any of the work on show, not even the wonderful 21 portrait portfolio ‘National Anthems’ shot for GQ shortly before his death. These wonderful images capture a musical moment.

Terence Donovan’s beginning was in the east end of London, the son of a lorry driver and a department store supervisor and came to prominence at the start of the sixties with 2 other working class lads, Brian Duffy and David Bailey, whose work almost came to define the decade of revolution. Fashion, culture and design,all leapt into the future together and these photographers captured and propelled their progress. The newspapers called them the ‘Terrible Trio’, Norman Parkinson christened them the ‘Black Trinity’, finding their images ‘unpolished’, while Cecil Beaton thought Donovan created ‘such a stir’, and not in a good way! Yet these three were perfect for these new democratic times.

‘Before us, fashion photographers were tall, thin and camp. We’re different. We’re short, fat and heterosexual.’ Brian Duffy

And different they were, with their stark gritty images that changed the way women were seen and perceived themselves. As Grace Coddington, a model for Donovan herself and Creative Director for US Vogue has said:

‘Gone was the haughty, stylised lady of the 1950s who led the impossibly glamorous life of the rich and famous. Enter someone young and touchable, someone who was part of the world in which you lived and someone you wanted to be.’

Knowing this background contextualises the wonderful, sometimes stark, sometimes futuristic, photos that greet the viewer at the beginning of the show, but really they could be from no other decade. The futuristic white coats of Pierre Cardin, shot in the then impossibly modern Maison L’O.R.T.F. in Paris; the ‘Spy Drama’ images of mysterious strangers shot verité style around the bombed out east London of his youth (shot in 1962 the year Dr No was released, and surely an influence on the look of The Ipcress File a few years later) or Julie Christie on the cusp of the international stardom brought by the success of Billy Liar – each image seem’s to ooze the decade they were shot in, and highlight Donovan’s distinct style and viewpoint.

As you move around the show, images exude an effortless cool, whether it is a modelling test shot featuring manmade fibres, a fashion spreads for Vogue, Princess Diana, Naomi and Cindy in their prime or indeed the wonderfully satirical and hugely influential video for Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’.

Donovan remained in demand as a fashion and editorial photographer, and continued to challenge throughout his career, whether working as a documentary filmmaker, video director or painter. Blunt, funny and talented, he raged against the nonsense of modern life, and the injustices he saw around him.

‘Why aren’t we ashamed not to be more like the French, who boldly put a stop to vehicle clamping by the simple expedient of roughing up the clampers in the first week of their incarnation and throwing their stupid gadgets into the Seine?’  Terence Donovan.

Donovan seems to have been a unique mixture of characteristics – a working class east-ender and loner, a zen buddhist and black belt judo master, a Thatcherite with a distinct work ethic, an enormously talented artist who saw himself as ‘only’ a craftsman and professed to value the money he made rather than the work. He rarely exhibited his work during his lifetime (he disliked looking back). His distinct and impressive body of work lives on after his death, and this show encompasses all aspects of his career. I have to confess I knew only a handful of his most famous images before I saw the show and I was incredibly impressed the range and quality of the photos, and what an influence he was on those who followed him. This is a beautifully presented exhibition and left me thrilled and inspired, it’s a ‘must see’. It runs till the 25th of September and ‘Speed of Light’ it appears was a phrase that he used to ‘encourage everyone to get a move on!’

All text and exhibition photos © Jonathan Dredge

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