He was born in Stepney in the East End of London, and took his first photo at the age of 15. The bomb-damaged industrial landscape of his home town became the backdrop of much of his fashion photography, and he set the trend for positioning fashion models in stark and gritty urban environments. Flats and gasometers were popular settings, and he often had the models adopt adventurous poses. He wedged one model up the side of a building, and photographed another as she posed dangling from a parachute.
Along with David Bailey, he captured, and in many ways helped create the Swinging London of the 1960s: a culture of high fashion and celebrity chic. Both photographers socialised with actors, musicians and royalty, and found themselves elevated to celebrity status. Together, they were the first real celebrity photographers.
Donovan shot for various fashion magazines, including Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, as well as directing some 3000 commercials, and a 1973 movie Yellow Dog. He also made documentaries and music videos, and painted.
Donovan was married twice, and is the father of television presenter Daisy Donovan and musician Dan Donovan (Big Audio Dynamite).