A Swinging ’60s Look at London Style

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Advertisement for Terylene, March 10, 1960.Photo: Courtesy of the Terence Donovan Archive

“It’s very sad that Terence Donovan is not around, because I think he would without question be one of the grand old men of British photography,” says Robin Muir, curator of “Terence Donovan: Speed of Light,” a new exhibition at London’s The Photographers’ Gallery.

Donovan, who died in 1996, was one of the significant image-makers who produced the famous London look of the 1960s. “It’s a very British thing: the Union Jack, Twiggy,” says Muir. But, as the new show demonstrates, there was more to Donovan than his renowned women’s-fashion shoots. His menswear photographs, for example, were groundbreaking: “He took them to the most extraordinary locations. He took them to the gasometers that punctuate the London skyline; he took them to the Blitz-rubbled landscape of east London, which of course he knew as a child; and he gave men’s fashion a drama that it had never had before — and paved the way for the photography of men’s clothes that we know today.”

He was also an accomplished portraitist. “I’m putting one of his portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales, in [the show], which I like enormously, and that’s a very good example of somebody who came alive under Terence’s direction in the studio,” says Muir. Beyond the walls of his studio, Donovan occasionally produced his own documentary photographs, which are less known than his fashion portfolio; they include a series following a day in the life of a stripper, and another observing an artists’ commune. “He photographs them like he’s rediscovered a sort of interesting, unseen tribe,” says Muir. “They’re in the tradition of the photo essay, which is something he didn’t really pursue thereafter — which is a great shame, because I think he was very good at it.”

Donovan’s 1970s and 1980s work in advertising and music videos, however, showed a highly commercial eye. He produced the iconic 1986 video for Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” in which the singer performs with a band of Alaïa-clad women with slicked-back hair and glossy red lips. “And you know, we found a piece of paper — the back-of-a-fag-packet idea he had — and sure enough it’s translated into this video,” says Muir. “Terence came up with the idea. I don’t quite think he thought it would have the life that it did.” Click ahead for a preview of the photographer’s London retrospective.

“Terence Donovan: Speed of Light” in association with Ricoh is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, from July 15 through September 25. Terence Donovan: Portraits is published by Damiani at £35.00 ($46).