As a tribute to legendary photographer Terry O’Neill who passed away on November 16, 2019 we’re re-running an interview Professional Photo editor Terry Hope carried out with him for the magazine back in 2010 when he was preparing for his Guys and Dolls Exhibition at the Little Black Gallery in London. Many thanks to Iconic Images for use of Terry’s pictures. All images open in a lightbox.
Meeting up with Terry O’Neill, he retains all of the easy-going cockney charm that opened so many doors for him during his days as a hard working photographer, plying the celebrity circuit both here and in Hollywood. His connections were impeccable: over the past fifty years he’s pictured just about every iconic A-List star from the world of entertainment that it’s possible to think of – he even married one, Faye Dunaway, for good measure – and his vast library of images is now more than just a collection of great photographs, it’s also a treasure trove of memories from the recent past, when show business was just that touch more glamorous and the stars of the day were so very much more approachable.
The famous faces staring back from the wall of a Terry O’Neill exhibition guarantee interest and value, but it’s the extra something that has found its way into this work, the relaxed expression and the unguarded manner that only comes when the photographer has the trust and complicity of the sitter, that really adds the sparkle. These are clearly not images extracted from under the watchful eye of an all-powerful PR agent: instead these are genuine moments that give you an insight and a connection with some of the greatest stars who ever lived.
In a world where fine art photographic prints are now escalating in value, Terry O’Neill’s work is highly collectible and no-one seems more bemused about the whole thing than O’Neill himself.
“I had no idea that there would be this kind of interest for my pictures at the time I was taking them,” he says. “However it’s really taken off big time and now the interest in my work is spreading all around the world. Alongside the show at the Little Black Gallery I’ve got exhibitions opening in Moscow, San Francisco and New York, with a further show at the Proud Gallery in December, and it’s great to see so much interest. What is fascinating for me is the way that galleries will select the work that they feel will suit their particular clientele: for the current show, Guys & Dolls, I’m showing pictures of the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn, Dolly Parton and Frank Sinatra, with a couple of things that have not been available for sale before, such as a contact print of a session I did with Marianne Faithful. The Proud Gallery has more of a track record with collectors who are into their music history, and so I’m doing a rock and roll show with them.”
Right : French actress Brigitte Bardot shot by Terry O’Neill on the set of ‘Les Petroleuses’ a.k.a. ‘The Legend of Frenchie King’, directed by Christian-Jaque in Spain, 1971.
Given the vintage of the pictures that are selling so well you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a finite collection and that there will be no more to add, but you would be wrong. “We’re still going through old libraries finding shots,” says O’Neill. “Robin Morgan, who is working with me on marketing my prints, has just found a whole load of early Beatles and Rolling Stones stuff this very morning, and these were images that I’d forgotten about. I’ve got an incredible library anyway, but it’s getting even better now, and I might well use some of these newly discovered images in my next show.”
Above: Paul McCartney and Terry O’Neill are playing together on stage. O’Neill is on the drums and McCartney plays the guitar, 1980s and Right: The Rolling Stones who line up outside the Tin Pan Alley Club in London, 1963
Many years ago when I met up with Terry I asked him whether he, like fellow east ender David Bailey, saw himself eschewing retirement and carrying on behind the camera way into the future. The answer was emphatic: “If I retire I’ll stop taking pictures: it’s a business to me.” Some twenty years or so down the line I was interested to know if his opinion had changed in any way.
“No,” is the immediate answer. “I only do it as a job: it’s not a hobby. Too much work goes into it! I’m a hired gun in that respect. But I’ve no intention of stopping at the moment, when there are things that I want to do.” While putting down the cameras might not be on the agenda, it’s clear that O’Neill is picky these days about what jobs he takes on. His success in the collectible print market is taking up a huge slice of his time in any case, but he’s just shot the latest album cover for Eric Clapton (“a good friend of mine”) and he’s recently returned from a shoot with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, one of the few jobs he’s undertaken with a digital camera. “I hired a Nikon D3s for the shoot and I’ll use digital cameras if I have to,” he says. “But I don’t care for them. For me it still doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel as fast and reactive as my film cameras do, and I’m just not used to them. Photography is all about moments and in my opinion you can’t control the moment in the same way with a digital camera.”
Given the choice it’s film all the way, and tellingly for the shoot with Clapton, he was working with his favourite 6x6cm Hasselblad and a selection of lenses hired in for the job: since having the bulk of his kit stolen he’s not considered it economically viable to replace the lost optics permanently.
O’Neill is also a regular user of Leica M2 cameras, and the speed and efficiency with which these can be handled is a throwback to the days back in the late fifties when he was just starting out and was working as an agency photographer at London Airport capturing celebrities on their way into and out of the country. At the time he was up against rivals using cumbersome Rolleiflexes and 5x4in cameras, and while the regular approach was to pose an artiste on the steps of the plane they were boarding, O’Neill worked in the Terminal – just the one in those days – shooting pictures with his 35mm camera of star names mingling with everyday passengers as they waited for their flight.
A move to the Daily Sketch came in 1959 and O’Neill stuck with his approach, even investing in one of the now-legendary superfast Canon f/0.95 lenses when they emerged in 1961. “It was fantastic,” he recalls. “I was years ahead of everyone else in Fleet Street with that. I never used a flash, and that used to get me so many great pictures. Plus I had 36 frames, whereas those who were still working on the larger cameras had just 12. I was the youngest photographer in Fleet Street by about 10-12 years. Len Franklin who was the Picture Editor of the Sketch at the time took a chance on me, and I didn’t really know anything.”
Naïve he might have been, but by his own admission he got lucky with his first few stories: after photographing a trio of the acting world’s most senior names – Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Moore and John Mills – hamming it up dressed as women for a charity show – he landed himself an eight-page spread in the paper (“I wasn’t even sure why there was so much
excitement about them at the time”). He got even more of a break with his second assignment: “I got sent to do this pop group because the editor wanted to encourage young readers into the paper. No-one had ever photographed that kind of subject before, but this bunch turned out to be The Beatles. They had just finished recording Please, Please Me and the day the paper published it sold out and that was the start of pop pictures in newspapers.”
O’Neill loved the buzz of Fleet Street and revelled in the way that the world was changing around him. “It was just a fantastic time,” he says. “We used to get to the office at 8am and leave at 8pm at night and you would do four, five, six jobs a day and there was always something happening. I had a bit of everything to cover so I was well trained. And probably that training stood me up for the rest of my life, showed me how to work fast and not to hold people up. It also taught me to always think of the picture: when I get a job now I always think about what would make a great shot, and if I get there and find something better – which I usually do – it’s a bonus. I’ve got a pre-set thing in my mind before I even start the job, because what I’ve learned after all these years is that you’re like a film director: you walk on to do a job and those people are your characters, and it’s up to you to make them work in your picture.”
Ultimately making the logical move to Hollywood where so many of O’Neill’s subjects were based, he was convinced he would arrive to find that the ‘swinging London’ phenomenon was something that was just England-specific. “When I got there all people like Fred Astaire wanted to do was to talk about the Beatles and Stones and Jean Shrimpton, and I thought to myself, these people are actually for real! It is going to last, because if someone like Fred Astaire thinks they are great they must have something.”
Right: David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at the Marquee club for the NBC TV late night show in London, 19/10/1973.
Talk to O’Neill about the heady days when he was shooting celebrities on virtually a daily basis and counting many of them as personal friends and it’s clear how much has fundamentally changed in the relationship between big-name stars and photographers over the years. “Ava Gardener, who I was friendly with in England, wrote a letter for me to give to Frank Sinatra,” he says, “which must have said something like ‘he’s a good friend of mine, you can trust him’ because I walked on the set and gave him the letter – I wish I had known what was in it – and he said fine, you’re with me and then he totally ignored me for three weeks. I could go anywhere I wanted with him.
And I’ve got a picture in the Little Black Gallery show of him walking down the boardwalk with his minders, and that was the first time I saw him. It was a different time: they’re not like that today are they?
“Another time I got hired for two days by 20th Century Fox to shoot the poster for the film ‘Pocket Money’ and they wanted a shot of Lee Marvin and Paul Newman to use on this. Anyway, I got there and went into the office the first morning at 8am and Paul Newman said to me, listen, no-one is talking to Lee Marvin. He hates everyone and they hate him! So he says good luck!
“With some trepidation I went onto the set and thought what am I going to do? So Lee Marvin is standing there, leaning up against the wall and I went up to him and introduced myself and told him that I had come to shoot the poster for the film. And he looked at me and I thought he was going to go bananas: and then he said, ‘Are you from England?’ and I said yes, I’m from London and he said ‘I love the English,’ shook my hand and from that moment on it opened all the doors. I shot the poster of the two of them and I was laughing. I kind of became his unofficial minder after that and I worked with him on another couple of films.
Right: American singer, dancer and actor Sammy Davis Jr. gets ready for a show backstage, London, 1961.
“That kind of relationship just wouldn’t happen now. These days you would have to shoot in a studio or a hotel room: they just don’t treat photography with any respect. And the PRs have created this thing: say I’m photographing Brad Pitt. They will say that you can do one shot here, one shot for Paris Match, one shot for Rolling Stone and these are the only shots you can use. But that’s not the way to get any decent pictures, hence everything is now half an hour in the studio, half an hour here, it’s all a bit of a joke. But they’ve created their own world now: it’s up to them to sort it out.”
Did Terry himself ever find that he had to play along with these kinds of games? “I did get caught up in that a little towards the end, but I just didn’t have anything to do with it. I did it a couple of times, with Tom Cruise for example: I followed all the rules, but it wasn’t for me.”
Not that O’Neill is entirely unsympathetic to the pressures that the modern stars find themselves under, and he gets visibly annoyed when I raise the issue of the intrusive approach taken by the latest breed of paparazzi. “The way that some photographers act you can’t blame people for wanting to avoid them,” he says. “The way the paparazzi behave today is terrible, they should be arrested. I don’t know why they don’t bring in a law against them. They’ve got no right to do the things they do: I used to have a relationship with the person I was photographing and I got my pictures through gaining their trust.
Left: English fashion model Kate Moss in a black body stocking, 1993
Above: English actor Roger Moore in his role as James Bond in Guy Hamilton’s film ‘Live and Let Die’, with co-stars Gloria Hendry (left), who plays Rosie Carver, and Jane Seymour, who plays Solitaire.
“It all used to be so different. When Frank Sinatra came to London for example I would meet him at the airport and take pictures of him coming down the steps and shoot all the rehearsals and then we used to give it all to the papers, Saturday, Sunday evening about 5pm. Ultimately he was never bothered by the paparazzi at all because they couldn’t top the pictures we were giving the press.”
Does he feel that he could have achieved what he did had he been starting out now? “No,” he says simply. “I wouldn’t know how to go about it to be honest. I go to these premieres and I watch the photographers and they’re looking at what they take on the back of their cameras and then they take a few more. I don’t know how to describe it, but to me it’s not photography, it’s the camera getting between you and the subject. And the characters who were once around are just not there any more: I’m so lucky that all those people I photographed were great: Sinatra was great, Paul Newman was great, Robert Mitchum… They were all fabulous stars. There just aren’t stars like that around now.
Right: Singer Amy Winehouse poses for a Terry O’Neill CBE shoot during a concert honouring Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday in Hyde Park, London, June 27, 2008.
Below: Elton John photographed by Terry O’Neill CBE, whilst he performed at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, October 1975.
“I’ve had a great career but I came out at a great time. If I hadn’t have come out of the sixties I don’t think that I would have made it. I was just lucky to have been born when I was. People knock it but believe me it was great to be around when the East End took over from the West End, and those of us who would once have been written off had a chance to say something and to show people what we could do. And boy did we take it. It was fantastic: the toffs just got knocked to one side and there was nothing they could do to stop us.”
Terry O’Neill CBE passed away at the age of 81, quietly at home after a long illness (30th July 1938 – 16th November 2019) He was one of the world’s most renowned and collected photographers, from presidents to pop stars he had photographed the frontline of fame for over six decades.
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