words by Ellie Brown
When thinking of some of the iconic stars of the 20th century, it’s likely that an equally iconic photograph of them has been taken by Terry O’Neill. Having inadvertently found himself at the epicentre of the glitz of the swinging sixties, O’Neill cut his teeth amongst the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Born in London, he had wanted to be a jazz drummer, and, accordingly, took a job with British Airways as a photographer, with the ambition of working up to a flight attendant which would have allowed him four days a week on the ground in New York – and a way into the jazz world. Yet, a chance snapshot of a sleeping man, who turned out to be the then-home secretary, RAB Butler, gave O’Neill an unlikely way into photography. His embracing of an emerging youth culture is a testament to his distinctive eye; working ahead of the curve, both his subjects and images alike would come to have resounding influence. Over the course of a luminous career, O’Neill has worked with legendary names – from Frank Sinatra, and Audrey Hepburn – to David Bowie and Nelson Mandela. Across an extensive oeuvre, the unique partnering of star power with the quality behind the persona conjure up a bewildering sense of awe. Behind the glamour, though, lies the pragmatism of O’Neill himself.
NR MAGAZINE: Of all the photographs you’ve taken over the years, is there one that stands out as a personal favourite?
Terry O’ Neill: I think it’s Sinatra on the Boardwalk (1968) - that was the first time I met Frank Sinatra. I already knew Ava [Gardner], and told her I was headed down to Miami to work with her ex-husband - she said, “I’ll write you a letter.” So I go down to Miami and I’m waiting for Sinatra to arrive. I look up and see these men approaching, and I started to take pictures. Sinatra and his guys came right up to me, and I nervously handed Frank the letter. He read it, looked and me and said to his boys, “it’s okay. He’s with us now.” And that was the start of a long working relationship I developed with him. He was a legend.
NR: Do you ever look back critically on any of your photographs?
TON: Oh, of course. Sometimes when I go into the office and I’m shown the negatives of my work, I’m surprised that I took so many pictures. At the time though, when I was working, I never looked back. I was always looking for the next job.
NR: Are you always in control of the image you take, or are there incidences where the outcome is entirely accidental?
TON: I think, except for a few, it’s all incidental. I love the work of photographer W. Eugene Smith, and so I was inspired to take photos of what I saw on the street. Sometimes the best shots are the ones you are lucky to catch.
NR: Is there a certain characteristic you focus on, and like to draw out in your photos?
TON: I wanted to capture the subject just a little off-guard. If not that, I’d try to find that specific moment that defines who they are. With the photo I took of Terence Stamp and Jean Shrimpton, for example, the assignment I was given was to capture the “face of the Sixties”. Theirs were the first two faces that popped into my mind. I decided to get in really close and crop it in, so you are just left with this intense stare.
NR: How do you control the portrayal of ‘star power’ in your photos of high profile celebrities?
TON: I was never really bothered by all of that. I started out at the same time that many celebrities did too – movie stars, and rock stars. There was only ever one time I was asked to leave, when shooting Steve McQueen. But I did sneak in a few shots beforehand!
NR: In terms of the poses that your subjects adopt, are they agreed upon beforehand - or entirely natural?
TON: I’ve done both. When I was asked to take photos of the newest Oscars Best Actress winner, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want the big smile, holding up the award. I wanted to know what it looked like the morning after - when it all hits you that you’ve just won an Oscar, and your salary has just gone up by millions. I asked Faye [Dunaway] to meet me by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel at 6am. I was friends with the guy who ran the pool, and he snuck me in. I set it all up - the papers, the breakfast, the Oscar. And she sat there. Many people consider that photo to be one of the best images of Hollywood.
NR: In the time since you started out, what is the most significant change to take place in terms of celebrity photography?
TON: Selfies! And the fact that stars have too much control over their image now. In order to work with a celebrity, you have to deal with managers, publicists and the managers of the publicists, you have to give up approval and rights. By the time the photograph runs, it doesn’t even look like the person you shot! Everything has been approved by everyone - except for the photographer. In that sense, we’ve lost a lot; a lot of great pictures will never be seen, let alone even taken. It’s a shame. Everything is staged and then made to look better. It’s no longer just a great photo of someone.
NR: You’ve said there is nobody today that you’d want to photograph, what could change your mind on that?
TON: I was very lucky that I worked at a time when stars like Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, The Beatles, even David Bowie, were around. If you invented a time machine and send me back to the ‘60s, then I’d change my mind!
Terry O’Neill: Rare & Unseen is available now.