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Courtesy Donna Trope

Donna Trope makes beautiful and subversive photography about sex

The legendary beauty photographer talks getting asked about being aroused on set

In our regular series Icons we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy. 

Have any conversation with Donna Trope and it will somehow wind its way back to sex. It lies at the heart of everything she does, every image she creates. If the legendary beauty photographer isn’t aroused on set, then she might as well not be on set at all. Even as a young girl, her vision of the world was informed by her understanding of sex and sexuality. “One of my earliest beauty memories is watching my young stepmother getting ready for my father to come home,” she says. “Her hair and makeup were akin to that of a fashion shoot. They had a decidedly sexual aura. Her getting ready was almost ritualistic and I watched this, maybe as a voyeur, and was fascinated enough to remember it all my life.”

Growing up in LA, during the 60s and 70s, it was in the height the great sexual revolution that Donna’s ideas about style and beauty were first formed. “Though I was too naive to really understand sexual politics, I saw women in LA primarily as sex objects,” she says. “It was all cleavage, makeup and tight clothes.” Keen to express her own sexual identity, Donna experimented with beatnik and 60s gogo trends. “I was precocious,” she recalls. “I remember being about seven years old and asking whether I was a teenager yet and getting yelled at. I would watch teenage dance programmes and was mesmerised by the clothes, look and attitude of the teens featured to the point where I plotted and planned my own specific style and look in secret. It made sense to no-one but myself.” She would team black tights with oversized men’s shirts, or pull a long v-neck mohair sweater over a mini skirt. “I guess I wanted to look naked. I came from a conservative, strict upbringing, but I found loopholes so I could stroke my creative energy.” Finishing off her look, she’d wear a barrette with coloured velvet to keep her hair off her face, placing it so that it slid down her side parted shoulder length hair and was level to her lips. “It just hung there, doing nothing but making me happy when I looked in the mirror.”

Though she was reasonably popular at school, Donna still felt like an outsider. “My family was talked about amongst the Bel Air and Brentwood parents (I’m from a broken home with a bachelor father and several stepmothers which was taboo at the time). I knew I was different. I preferred my pets to boys. My girlfriends with their caked on makeup and frosted lipstick couldn’t understand that by 13 I had already outgrown boys.”

At 19, Donna had also outgrown LA, moving to London, where she lived in a derelict loft on Old Street, surrounded by broken glass and other struggling artists. “London didn't change my aesthetic so much as it welcomed me home, it was where my aesthetic belonged, intellectually, culturally and artistically.” She’d already decided that she wanted to be a photographer. The image of a roving reporter with multiple cameras strapped around her neck appealed to her. “I wanted to show what I saw, and I knew I saw things a bit different and it was hard for me to communicate that in any other way.” She’d find models on the underground, picking those she felt she had an aesthetic connection to, and shot them in her own makeshift studio back at the loft. She also did their hair and makeup, too.

Totally self-taught, Donna used to hang out on the Strand at photography shops, swapping notes with all the guys who worked there. “I asked loads of stupid questions and I figured it out from the bottom up.” She was so serious, she would even read the paper instructions that came with the box of film. “I was shamed into never doing that again when a big photographer saw me reading the paper and looked at me with horror.” After a couple of months honing her skills and building up a bank of experimental test shots that she’d printed on a sheet of 35mm, she plucked up the courage and strolled into London ad agency, Holmes Knight Ritchie, where she booked a year long Max Factor beauty campaign on the spot.

A turning point in her career, since then Donna has shot almost every major beauty ad campaign: Revlon, Aveda, Maybelline, Guerlain, Sephora – the list goes on. Disturbing and erotic, Donna broke boundaries with her subversive imagery – a stark contrast to the traditionally polished beauty images of the time. “I never liked the overly airbrushed, polished to perfection look, except in airports or high end department stores,” she says. “I liked a different type of beauty and noticed the realities that nobody showed, not just the gap tooth, but the frizzy hair and facial scar. That’s appealing to me.”

From an image of a girl with a cigarette being stubbed into her face, to close up of an eye being peeled back or a lipstick being sliced by a razor blade, Donna masterfully combines classical elements of beauty with the thrill of pain and a frisson of illicit excitement. At times there are also elements of the absurd; in one image a snail crawls across a model’s lips. In another, a crosshairs is projected onto Jessica Stam’s face. “To me, beauty is a mini world where the face is the star, the features are all players, and the bone structure is the glue that holds it all together. I've always thought that cheekbones are what keeps a face upright, your face is literally hanging from your cheekbones and held up by the jaw. The higher your cheekbones are, the more we are hanging on to our looks, our unique make up of what makes us "us”. So a bit of action and a bit of tension is needed. I view a beauty shot in many ways: a microcosm and a technical blend that creates something and then there is the sexual element, which is the brain behind the face.”

When it comes to Donna’s visual rhetoric – from flowering orchids to dripping cream to the visual tropes of S&M – sex is unavoidable. “My images are sexual, but they are about me,” she says. “I'm the subject. I am taking the photos but I am also the star and the models are my body doubles. I get asked about getting sexually aroused when taking pictures."

One of the striking things about Donna’s images is that they have a unique ability to both pull you in and repel you at the same time. Of her impressive oeuvre, one shoot that stands out is the series she created with Katie Grand for the 14th issue of Dazed and Confused, titled Preservation Vamp – a nightmarish riff on beauty extremes and societal obsessions with youth and perfection. In it, a peroxide blonde model is captured topless, drinking a bottle of blood, licking the sharp edge of a meat cleaver and on the phone whilst having an eye-lift – the latter of which Donna juxtaposed with an image of a raw steak and a pair of surgical clippers. Clinical, confrontational and yet charged with emotion, the shoot caused outrage. “What Dazed has done is disgusting,” said April Ducksbury former director of top modelling agency Models One.

For Donna, however, it was the manifestation of true creative expression,  “We were on a free association kick and it took on a life of its own,” she says. “It highlights the dark side of plastic surgery and this human attempt to stay eternally 17, like a vampire. Oh to be a vampire! Plastic surgery seemed like a way to incorporate blood and death and the idea of eternal youth.”

After three decades working tirelessly in the industry, Donna took a well deserved hiatus. By this point, her work had been exhibited across Europe in both solo and group shows, her prints included in museums such as the V&A, as well as private collections worldwide, and she’d also been awarded numerous awards including the Jasmine and Clio Awards, as well as being included in a handful of books on both photography and fashion, not to mention her own 2001 tome, Beauty Shots. But she was burnt out. “I achieved what I wanted to in my professional life, I needed to take care of the emotional side, which I had overlooked in the frenzied pace of work.”

Now, galvanised by a newfound energy and creative vision, Donna is back to her old tricks, working on new projects. “I was woken up by someone (I call my muse) who pushed my trigger and inspired me,” she says. “I knew I had more to say and it's hard talking to oneself. So I have been refreshed and thinking like a total beginner again, continuing my previous work and expounding on my personal artistic style.”

Has the industry changed since she was last working in it? “Yes. I am finally free and I am the complete art director of my images. I mean I always was, but I took a lot of crap for it. I got sneered at, and fought on set, and snubbed. Now I have a literal mass of images that I wasn't allowed to shoot and outtakes.”

Another thing she’s thankful for is the democratising effect social media has had on our collective understanding of beauty. “I think we are in a paradigm shift. We can transform ourselves to uber majestic goddesses or whatever we want. I think that the future will be having access to everything and anything. I think that pure unadulterated caucasian will be an anachronism and the beauties will be biracial in terms of features.”  

As for her own future, Donna has some lofty ideas. “I am taking a more active interest in bigger 'higher' things. I am learning about higher powers and other dimensions and keeping a more open mind to what I refused to hear when I was younger. As I grow older, and more mature, I'm thirstier.” Expect big things to come.