Terry O’Neill: A lifetime behind the lens
British photographer Terry O’Neill’s back catalogue is like a who’s who of the most celebrated, iconic and influential figures in the history of popular culture. One of the world’s most collected photographers, he made his name in the swinging sixties, snapping emerging faces of film, fashion and music, many of whom turned out to be era defining stars. He quickly developed a candid style, placing his subjects in often unusual settings, helping create his unique images. Now aged 79, after six decades spent behind the camera, Terry tells The MALESTROM his stories of capturing famous figures such as Bowie, The Beatles, Paul Newman, Brigitte Bardot, Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra, and lets us in on the one huge name that got away.
The MALESTROM: Terry, so how did it all begin?
Terry O’Neill: Well I wanted to be a jazz drummer. I thought that’d be my ticket – I love music, love jazz and that’s what I wanted to be. I saw an advert for one of the airlines and I thought that if I were able to get a job there, I’d be able to fly to New York City and play jazz in clubs.
I got the job and was assigned to the terminal. The job was interesting though, and it entailed going to art school once a week. We were given a homework assignment to take pictures of emotion. I went across to Heathrow airport to capture people saying goodbye and crying. I shot a picture of the then Home Secretary, Rab Butler, asleep among a crowd of African chieftains. The editor at The Dispatch [now defunct] saw the shot and hired me to work at the airport every Saturday.
TM: What did you look for when taking a picture back then?
TO’N: I don’t think I knew to look! That comes with time and practice. Kids, students ask me all the time about how to take a photo and I always say the same thing. Practice, practice, practice.
TM: Who was the first genuine star that you had to photograph and do you remember if you were nervous?
TO’N: In the beginning, they weren’t stars – we were all just starting out. One of my first assignments for the paper was to go down to Abbey Road to take photos of this new young band. So I went down there and took some photos. I remembered asking them to step outside, but then I looked at the drummer and thought, well, there’s no way to make it clear he’s the drummer, all the rest of the boys had their guitars – so I asked him to just hold-up his cymbal!
That photo of The Beatles ran in the paper practically the next day – and the paper quickly sold out. That’s when the editors all realized that photos of musicians sold papers. And we were off and running.
Not long after, Andrew Loog Oldham rang me and asked if I could do for his band what I just did for The Beatles. Andrew’s a good guy, really smart, bright. So I arranged to shoot The Rolling Stones in Soho and around Tin Pan Alley. I posed them as just a working class, travelling band. Keith even told me later that the suitcase he was carrying on the shoot was the first suitcase he ever bought – and it even had the tissue paper still in it!
TM: How did you end up getting a break to photograph Hollywood stars in the 60s?
TO’N: Oh, it’s just one thing led to the other, I suppose you could say. By this time, I left the paper and was on my own. I remember the editor at the paper really didn’t like that I was leaving and told me that I wouldn’t find any work and that I was nothing without that paper. I really had to hustle and find work. I was determined to prove him wrong.
TM: You photographed a lot of beautiful women in the 60’s, and one of the most famous of all time, Brigitte Bardot?
TO’N: Yeah, she’s something. Really beautiful but I don’t think she spoke any English and I didn’t speak French.
TM: You also captured the sense of freedom that women started to enjoy in that period, how do you remember it?
TO’N: It was a special time in London, in the 1960s. Music, arts, movie, fashion – you name it. And we were all around the same age, so it was youth really, that changed everything. Youthquake and all that.
But back specifically to women. I think they just felt more empowered, certainly more than the 1950s – and there were some brilliant, strong women in media, like Felicity Greene, a brilliant editor, who was making changes too.
TM: What can you tell us about Raquel Welch back then in her 60’s heyday?
TO’N: Ah, she’s a really lovely person. And doesn’t get the recognition she’s due – she’s a very talented actress, but also a really good singer! People also forget that that’s how she looked. When I first started taking photos of her in the late 1960s we didn’t use photoshop or airbrushing, none of that stuff to alter images. That’s all her! Raquel is a total professional. She worked really hard to be who she is.
TM: Another who is chiefly remembered for a truly tragic event is the actress Sharon Tate? Any memories of photographing her, and do you remember when the news broke of her murder?
TO’N: What a loss. I was with her just a few days before, and I was invited over to her house that night. I didn’t go because it was just too far of a drive and I was tired – but when that news broke, it was just devastating. Changed everything, I think.
TM: Oh my word. You could have been there?!
TO’N: Yeah… it was truly shocking.
TM: Crikey… on a lighter note. You were good friends with Michael Caine is that right?
TO’N: Caine! Ah, he’s great! He’s got a movie out now all about the 1960s. We were great mates back then, just got along. He was a big star when I started to work with him, but he was so down to earth, just a fab bloke. And he’d always get recognised. I remember in America once, I was with him, all the girls just loved his accent. Then they’d turn to me and ask me to say something, “you sound just like Alfie!”
TM: One Hollywood couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor ruled the headlines like no other. What do you remember about photographing them? And were they as tempestuous as the stories say?
TO’N: I don’t remember that – but I didn’t get involved with too many people outside work. I had mates, like Caine, but I didn’t really hang around after I was done working. So I never saw that side of couples like Burton and Taylor.
TM: What about the European Burton and Taylor, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin?
TO’N: Same, they were just great people and I got the chance to take some photos.
TM: The famous photograph you took of Frank Sinatra with Peter Lawford and their heavies – was that intimidating? What was he like to work with?
TO’N: Frank Sinatra was the best. He really was. It was only because I knew Ava, and told her that I was going to be working with her ex – and she wrote a letter and told me to hand it to him. So here I am, down in Miami, waiting for Sinatra, and he turns the corner with all of these guys! It was a pretty intimidating moment – having that come at you. He came right up to me because I was taking photos and I handed him the note Ava wrote. He read it, looked at me, and said “Boys, he’s OK, he’s with me now.” I never knew what she wrote!
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TM: Tell me the story behind the very famous photos of Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman hanging out together?
TO’N: Well, there was some music going on downstairs at the hotel we were at. And I’d go and play the drums – and Eastwood, a big jazz lover, would come down to listen and we just got on; talked about jazz. And I said, you know, there’s no great photo of you and Newman, so we arranged for it to happen.
TM: Hard to take a bad photograph of Paul Newman though right?
TO’N: I don’t think you could!
TM: Another truly enigmatic star in his day was Sean Connery?
TO’N: And Roger, too. I think every generation; every decade has a Bond that defines that era. I had a lot of fun on those sets – can’t think of how many Bond films I was involved with, but a lot of them!
TM: Was Steve McQueen as difficult as he’s often been portrayed?
TO’N: Well, that’s the one I had trouble with. I was supposed to take some portraits of him at his office. But I don’t think his PA had it scheduled or something like that. So I went in and he was not in a good mood and started to yell at me to get out – I just started to take photos! That wasn’t the best experience.
TM: To capture so many stars in such a natural way, they must have liked hanging out with you? Are you naturally charming?
TO’N: Ha ha – I don’t think so! I know I’ve said this, but at the time, we were really just all in it together. We were growing up at the same time, well, some of us a bit older and some of us a bit younger, but we were all starting at the same moment no matter what was the career. There were musicians, actors, models, designers – Vidal was cutting hair, Jean was modelling, The Stones were singing, Caine and Stamp were acting, I was taking photos.
TM: What was your favourite shoot?
TO’N: Oh, I can’t say. The first one that springs to mind, though, is Nelson Mandela. I was asked by the Sunday Times to cover his 90th birthday event in London, in Hyde Park. Everyone – and I mean everyone was there; the Clintons, Oprah, everyone. That was a real honour.
TM: What genuine star of today would you love to photograph that you haven’t?
TO’N: I don’t know! It’s just not what it used to be. Now it’s all managed and approved and the photos that run in the papers or magazines look nothing like the actual person. I don’t think I’d be good at it if I was starting out today. I don’t know how anyone does it.
TM: How did you end up photographing Amy Winehouse? And do you remember your feelings when she passed away?
TO’N: She was a great girl. Another one, like Brian Jones, just too soon. She would have been a great jazz singer. That was for Mandela’s birthday. She came right from hospital and performed a few songs, I took four photos of her backstage and she was gone.
TM: Tell us about The Rolling Stones?
TO’N: Well, they were great. Again, they were just starting out – so they needed me in a way. Because I was the way in to the papers. You have to remember, getting your band in the paper was as about a big of a deal you could get. Papers would sell out and then their tickets would sell out – and sure enough, they’d be a cue to get their latest album. Having your photo in the newspaper or magazine was one of the only ways you could see your favourite band. It’s not like today.
TM: What about Jagger? What’s he been like to photograph over the years?
TO’N: Well, I liked Charlie of course, we bonded over the drum set! But they were all easy to work with. Brian was something though. In the beginning, he was really the one who seemed in charge of it all. But then I think he just got caught up in the drink and what have you. It’s a shame, it really is – all those talented people. I stayed away from all that.
TM: How did the photograph of John Lennon and George Harrison come about?
TO’N: I worked with The Beatles a few times in the early days, and then again for portraits later in the 1970s or 1980s. If you’re talking about the photo I think you are talking about – where the two of them are out at a party, those were from the opening night of The Apple Boutique. I think most of London was invited to that opening, and I remember they were serving apple juice, not able to get a liquor license or something like that.
Years later, I went up to George’s house in the 1970s to take a portrait of him. What a beautiful home – and he had this stream that we went to, and he sat down and in the distance, you could see his home. Idyllic.
TM: For many years you seemed to capture David Bowie as he was developing. Did you become friends with him?
TO’N: Ah David. Well, his manager at the time, Tony DeFries, called me up and asked me to come along to the Marquee Club on Wardour Street to take some photos of David Bowie who was performing for an American television special. Marianne [Faithful] was going to be there, as well, and I knew her, worked with her in the 1980s. Well, I turned up and there were about 100 kids all dressed to the nines waiting outside. Everyone was dressed-up and I couldn’t stop but think, ‘boy, he has something really special here.’ To this day, I’ve never come across a singer who has a more loyal fan base.
And he was great. They allowed me full access, so I took photos backstage, getting dressed, having his make-up applied, the works. A few ran in the paper the next day. I worked with him a few more times after that.
TM: What’s the story behind that photo of David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor ?
TO’N: It’s a funny story. I was in LA and Elizabeth called me up and asked if I wouldn’t mind introducing her to David Bowie. There was a role in a film she wanted to speak to him about. So I made the calls and a meeting was arranged. We were due to meet around noon at the director’s George Cukor’s home. Noon came, then 3pm, then 4pm… and no sign of David – and you don’t keep Elizabeth Taylor waiting!
Well it had to be about 6pm when the car finally pulled into the drive. The sun was starting to go down, and Elizabeth knew I wanted to take some shots – so she quickly ushered him outside and directed a series of portraits of them together. She was probably mad, but they were pure magic in front of the camera. He didn’t get the role in the film. But they did become lifelong friends.
TM: Elton came up at the same time. How different was he to Bowie? And was Elton ‘the accidental rock star’?
TO’N: I first heard Elton on the radio and thought, ‘what an incredible voice!’ Papers and magazines would often ask me what was going on, who was new, who were the ones that were going to make it – so I rang them and said there’s this American bloke named Elton John and he’s going to be a big star.
I went over to meet him – and he’s English! I had no idea. We got on right away. When you speak about talent and superstars, well, that’s Elton John. He really is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.
TM: You captured a young rising rock star by the name of Bruce Springsteen. Did you know what a big name he would become?
TO’N: I had no idea. This was just a case of luck. I was on my way back from Tower Records in LA and I saw him walking towards Tower Records! I just stopped him on the street and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I took a few photos. I started to take the photos and I realised that behind him was a massive billboard advertising his new album, Born to Run.
TM: What about Alice Cooper?
TO’N: Oh, I don’t remember what that was for, but I went over to his house and he had this great little pool out back. Jaws was just out in the movie houses and that great classic Creature from the Black Lagoon was re-released, so he was just having a bit of fun playing off of that.
TM: What shoot was your most memorable, that made the biggest impression?
TO’N: It’s really hard to say, after all this time. I love doing these interviews and talking to people, though – especially when I get to meet people at galleries and what not. Once I get talking, things start to come back to me (laughs). Iconic Images, who manage all of my archive, find all these photos of mine and I just sit there sometimes and wonder, wow, I took all of these photos.
TM: Do you have any regrets looking back? Someone you had a chance to photograph but didn’t?
I missed my chance to take photos of Marilyn Monroe.