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John Donat (1933-2004)

Although a fine writer, lecturer and broadcaster, John Donat will principally be remembered as one of Britain's foremost photographers of architecture who boldly challenged the genre's accepted conventions.

The son of Oscar-winning actor Robert Donat, and related through his mother to the pioneering Arts and Crafts architect CFA Voysey, Donat, like many other postwar British architectural photographers, trained as an architect. After studying at the Architectural Association, he joined the Schools Division of the London County Council Architects Department but was drawn increasingly to photography. A trip to Turkey and Iran in 1956 with his friends and fellow students Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek had produced a fine crop of pictures of Middle Eastern architecture, but it was successive visits to Crete in 1960 and 1961 to photograph its monuments and people - imagery belatedly exhibited and handsomely published in John Donat's Crete 1960 (1999) - that convinced him to take up photography full-time.

From the outset Donat's photography was distinctive, marrying a deep knowledge and love of the subject with a passionate belief that architecture was about people.

This led him to deplore much mainstream architectural photography, which he excoriated for its obsession with graphic pattern-making at the expense of context and use and for its relentless pursuit of the perfect, sunlit, usually uninhabited picture that failed to convey what Donat regarded as the photographer's prime duty, namely to communicate 'an experience of a slice of time in the life of a building'. These principles he provocatively expounded in a presentation to lies', which should be required reading for any aspiring architectural photographer.

Donat sought to reinvigorate architectural photography by applying to it the photojournalistic ethos he admired in the work of Roger Mayne and especially Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose own death poignantly preceded Donat's by only a few days.

Accordingly, in preference to the standard large-format camera, he employed smaller, more flexible cameras and faster films to achieve livelier pictures in which buildings and users interacted meaningfully. One of Donat's favourites was his shot of Boots, Nottingham, in the rain that he considered a telling rebuke to the Architectural Review's fetish for unremitting sunshine. This more dynamic photographic style saw him in great demand from leading magazines and architects of the period, among them Norman Foster, Denys Lasdun and Eric Lyons.

Although the 1980s explosion in colour reproduction placed renewed emphasis on formal abstraction in architectural photography, today this orthodoxy is again under attack, rendering Donat's work more relevant than ever.

'Architecture, Art & Life' was the title he gave to a talk at the RIBA in 1989 and to his website. For Donat, who died earlier this month, all three were indissolubly linked.

His photographs will stand as eloquent testimony to his accomplished realisation of this humanistic vision.

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