Society

Provoking a reaction was the hallmark of his fashion work of the 1970s. The bomb-scarred landscape of east London had added force to his early pictures; so, too, had the gradual regeneration of London’s industrial heartland, the docklands and its barely working river. And it was for Nova magazine that Donovan was allowed to explore this further. When he took his first photographs for the magazine in 1969, Nova was four years old. It lasted only seven more, but within its short life it achieved legendary status in British magazine publishing. Startlingly ahead of its time, it was by turns irreverent and radical, provocative and intelligent. As its art director David Hillman later 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.’

Donovan was also courted by mainstream fashion magazines, able easily to switch his style from experimental to reassuring. For much of the 1980s and into the 1990s he drifted from editorial photography, having found a talent for commercials and pop promos in an era when the remuneration was high and budgets almost limitless. By the mid-90s he was a senior figure in British photography, an establishment and household name, a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and a photographer of the Royal family. Through it all, he never lost interest in the talent he first discovered at the Bethnal Green Camera Club and the rewards it brought. 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. Donovan died unexpectedly in 1996.Thirty years previously, just before he walked back down the uncarpeted stairs, the reporter from the British Journal of Photography was moved by the fact that Donovan ‘laughed at life’, but ‘sadly rather than cynically’. The photographer of the moment showed him out of the studio with a valedictory observation. ‘All I want is an amusing and interesting life because you realise that no human being can ask for security. I see life as a simple thing. You crawl out of the womb and you spend most of your life trying to crawl back again… You book off, collect your cards and this space in time is called life and photography is a particularly interesting way of spending it.’