Terence Donovan was born, the only child of a working class family, in East London in 1936. Fascinated by photographs and photographic processing as a young boy, his professional life started at the age of 11 at the London School of Photo-Engraving, which he left at 15 to become a photographer’s assistant. After a year at the John French studio (1957–58) he left, opening his own first photographic studio in 1959 at the age of 22.
The studio was an instant success. Work poured in and his versatility attracted a range of clients, including the leading advertising agencies and the fashion and lifestyle magazines of the time, among them Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, as well as the influential magazines of their day; Queen, Man About Town and later Nova.
Donovan came to prominence as part of the now famous era of ‘Swinging London’, a postwar renaissance in art, fashion, graphic design and photography. Associated at this time with David Bailey and Brian Duffy, these three English photographers (nicknamed the “Black Trinity’) revolutionised the world of magazine and newspaper photography. Shooting mostly with black-and-white film, Donovan’s iconoclastic and sometimes irreverent photography brought to magazines and advertising a new visual language rooted in the world he knew best – the streets of London’s East End. Taking his models to bomb-ravaged wastegrounds or balancing them off steelworks and iron bridges, his gritty and noir-ish style was more like reportage than fashion photography, and unlike anything that had gone before.
In the 1970s Donovan decided to diversify to concentrate on advertising photography and the moving image. By the 1980s much of his time was spent making award-winning television commercials and advertising campaigns, while still shooting still photographs for fashion magazines and newspapers and covering the fashion collections twice a year for Harper’s Bazaar (Italy). He was a pioneer of the pop promotional video, most famously for Robert Palmer’s song Addicted to Love (1986), for which he was nominated one of Vanity Fair magazine’s ‘People of the Decade’ in 1989.
The Royal Family, and in particular Diana, Princess of Wales formed part of the many commissions which he continued to undertake up until his death in 1996. Shortly before he died, he was appointed a Visiting Professor at Central St Martins School of Art, a position of which he was fiercely proud. Though his interests were wide-ranging, Donovan’s passion for photography remained overarching and constant throughout his four-decade-long career. In 1963 he told a young Jean Shrimpton that ‘photography fascinates me. Instant fascination every time. When the fascination leaves me, I’ll give it up.’ As it never did, so neither did he.