‘Speed of Light’ • Donovan at The Photographers Gallery

The Photographers Gallery has turned over two floors to ‘Speed of Light’ a major exhibition of Terence Donovan’s portraiture and fashion photography. Arranged vaguely chronologically, the fourth floor covers his start in the late 1950s and his 1960s work, and the fifth floor covers the 1970s through to his death in 1996.

For me, one interesting thing is that this review is quite different, having taken a period for reflection, than it would have been if I had written it immediately. My first impression, particularly of the Sixties floor was of a mass of rather clichéd ‘gritty East End’ images. However, with time for reflection, I realised that the reason that type of image is now a cliché is because the ‘black trinity’ (as Norman Parkinson dubbed Bailey, Donovan and Duffy) invented the look and did it so bloody well that few followers could add anything significant.

Most of the Sixties work exhibited is fashion rather than portraiture. Donovan and the others of the ‘trinity’ broke the mould of studio fashion shoots by taking models and clothes on location in East London (Donovan said he preferred to work ‘East of Aldgate). This is my favourite image from the period, juxtaposing a man’s suit against a factory roof with steam, fire escapes and broken windows. The black suit against the white steam gives contrast and drama and gives the impression that the wearer (and, by extension, a purchaser of the suit) is a no-nonsense businessman who has worked his way up the ladder.

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source: The Photographers’ Gallery

In similar vein is a series titled ‘Goldenloin’ which presented mens’ fashions in a James Bond style (in 1961, a year before Dr No appeared in the cinemas). Ladies’ fashions are given a similar treatment, with this example contrasting the tweed pattern of her suit with the mosaic tiling of a pedestrian underpass.

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source: The Photographers’ Gallery

The later work, on the fifth floor, is predominantly in a crisp style, although rather less harsh, and we see Donovan experimenting with colour, flare and soft focus, for example ‘The Heavenly Suited’, below:

My favourite is also Donovan’s last piece of major work, ‘National Anthems’, a set of portraits of pop cultural figures which appeared in the December 1996 issue of CQ. This was formal studio work with a large-format camera but the sitters are clearly relaxed, as is the overall ‘feel’.

The images on the walls are supplemented by displays of the magazines with Donovan’s spreads, together with his meticulous notes and diaries, which give a feel for his working methods.

This is one exhibition that I want to see a second time.

Dandyism at The Photographers Gallery

‘Made You Look’, currently on at The Photographers Gallery has the strapline ‘dandyism and black masculinity’

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‘Dandy’ is defined by the Oxford dictionaries as ‘A man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable’ and, in white European culture at least, has connotations of effeminacy if not homosexuality (cf. popular portrayals of Quentin Crisp) as also suggested by definition 2 from the online Urban Dictionary. It is, therefore, an interesting inversion to see dandyism presented as a provocative response to the stereotype portrayal of black men, of ‘maleness as performance’ and a deliberate transgression of a social order that would otherwise render them invisible (this sentence paraphrased from an exhibition wall note).

There seem to be two different forms of dandyism. A set of images by an unknown photographer in 1904 has its subjects dressed in very formal ‘Sunday best’ with bow ties or cravats, and later images also show the business suit and tie but with a sharp edge and attention to detail.

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The second form is characterised by (to my eye) outlandish patterns and colours, which are clearly intended to be seen and make a statement.

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The overall impression is of subjects displaying style and confidence, definitely masculine and by no means invisible. This fits well with the stated premise of the exhibition.

References

Oxford Dictionary (s.d.) ‘Dandy’ definition [online] at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dandy

Urban Dictionary (s.d.) ‘Dandy’ definition [online] at: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dandy