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Interview: Iconic Celebrity Photographer Terry O'Neill

Acclaimed as one of the key documenters of the 1960s, photographer Terry O’Neill knows the value of being in the right place at the right time.

Frank Sinatra (c) Terry O`Neill

It’s one of the most iconic showbiz photographs. Frank Sinatra is pounding along a promenade, with his stunt double and two large henchmen. Sunbathers look up. There’s an air of menace about it, of star quality in action. Here, without doubt, is the ‘chairman of the board’.

“It’s a cliché to say that photographers hide behind their camera but that’s absolutely true of me. Sinatra taught me that, to hold back,” recalls Terry O’Neill, arguably the 20th century’s biggest celebrity photographer and the man who took the Sinatra shot. “Ava Gardner wrote a letter of introduction for me and I spent three weeks with Sinatra. And yet we barely spoke, although he let me go everywhere with him. And then I realised that was the secret: being allowed in [to someone’s company] but not being afraid of them. That’s how you get candid shots. That’s how I take pictures.”

O’Neill recently turned 80. “I don’t like it,” he laughs. “I don't know where the last 30 years have gone. No idea at all. Life just accelerated.” He’s shot everyone from Elton John to Elvis, Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela, Sean Connery to Robert Redford, David Bowie (that unforgettable shot of a seated Ziggy Stardust with a leaping dog) to Queen Elizabeth. “She was the only person I’ve ever felt nervous about photographing,” says O’Neill. “It’s usually the other way around. Why be nervous? Well, you know, she’s the Queen. And because you have to be asked to shoot the Queen. It’s an honour.”

O’Neill, who was born in Romford, near London, UK, has also shot more than his fair share of bands. He was working as an air steward with BOAC when a colleague brought in a stack of photography annuals. O’Neill fell in love with the work of photo-journalist Eugene Smith, and it was the fly-on-the-wall reportage style, adapted for the boom in post-war celebrity culture, that started to get O’Neill noticed. A photo he took at an airport of a sleeping figure whom just happened to be the then home secretary was spotted by a newspaper editor with a feeling for the impending youthquake. As lucky a break as they come, he commissioned O’Neill to photograph an up-and-coming beat combo: four then barely-known lads from Liverpool.

“That first job I got was to shoot The Beatles,” says O’Neill, still sounding slightly amazed at the fact. “And, when those pictures came out, another manager called me up and asked if I could do the same for his band; the second job I got was to shoot The Rolling Stones. In fact, I think it was because of working with people like that when I was young that I never got star-struck. You just don’t get fazed by it. It’s amazing, but you don’t. My mum hero-worshipped all the stars of the golden era. You’d have thought that might have influenced me, but it didn’t. She used to get me to go into London at the weekends to get their autographs when they’d come out of the theatre after performances. But I never knew who they were. The interest just didn't rub off.”

That cautious detachment didn’t always work out. Inevitably sucked into the world he was documenting, O’Neill was at one point married to Faye Dunaway (he took a famous image of her languorous by a pool the morning after her Oscar win in 1977) and found himself becoming something of an accidental celebrity himself.

“I could feel that I was crossing the line,” he recalls. “We’d go out together and I quickly found that I didn't like being in that limelight, being Mr Dunaway. I wanted to be the photographer, not the person being photographed. It’s awful being famous, you know? People think that it’s great, but it’s not. You know, Dean Martin never liked it either. After a show he’d be straight home to bed, away from all the partying, because he wanted to be up early to play golf, something he loved doing.”

Remarkably, photography isn’t what O’Neill himself necessarily loves most. His real passion is jazz and he spends much of his time now, when not co-ordinating gallery shows or books of his work, listening to records. His greatest desire when a young man was to be a jazz drummer. And a promising career looked to be beckoning. But the more he got on in photography, the more his drumming receded. Besides, says O’Neill, the pop explosion of the 1960s were bad years for the standing of jazz. They were, however, very good years to be a photographer.

“It was a very particular time,” says O’Neill, “an incredible time, no doubt about it. I don't know why it was so dynamic. When you're in it you don't think anything of it. But everything was new. What was key to it all was that it opened the doors to the working classes. We got the chance to have our say. We couldn’t believe that people loved whatever it was we were doing. Perhaps that’s why we thought it would never last. I remember sitting with The Beatles in a club at one point early on and we were all talking about what job we’d get when it was all over. The assumption was that it was all going to end. And then you’d find yourself in the US with stars the stature of, say, Fred Astaire, and all they wanted to do was talk about The Beatles. Back in England they were all getting ready to pack up.”

Elton John (c) Terry O’Neill

Were he a younger man, O’Neill might himself be rather inclined to pack up. It’s not simply the disillusionment of old age, but O’Neill does say he’s rather disappointed with the way the emotional resonance of portrait photography has been diluted by post-production processes, giving so many images an air of unreality about them. “When I shot, say, Raquel Welch, that was really her,” he exclaims. “She actually looked like that. There wasn’t any digital manipulation like there is now. And, of course, using that is going to change the way people are perceived.”

What’s more, he adds, today there doesn’t seem to be the same star quality that he once documented. The last person he shot whom he felt really had that X factor was the late Amy Winehouse. “Fame now isn’t what it used to be, such that I’ve kind of given up on it now. I’m just not interested in it anymore,” says O’Neill. “What does fame mean now? It’s meaningless.”

O’Neill was, he concedes, a photographer at his peak in precisely the right place at the right time. “No photographer can really explain why they take a shot in a particular way. Don’t get me wrong though, I always had an eye,” he says. “But the fact is that talent alone isn’t enough. You need to have so many things going for you. Luck has to be on your side. You need to live in the right times.

Terry O’Neill, Rare and Unseen, O’Neill’s latest book, is published by ACC Art Books.

This article was originally published in Billionaire`s Earth Issue, September 2019. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.