It was 1974. Terry O’Neill (already by then a global photo-luminary) was shooting studio portraits of glam rock star David Bowie – and an extremely large dog.
‘It was a promotional shoot for Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ album,’ smiles Terry. ‘The problem was that when a strobe went off in the studio the absolutely barking mad Great Dane decided to jump up and try and kill it. The entire studio staff instinctively recoiled but David didn’t even blink.”
Since the recent tragic death of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Terry’s central London office has been swamped with requests for images. “We must have had hundreds of enquiries”, he says. “David was adored by millions across the globe and I worked with him quite a bit – especially in the first twenty years of his career. I have to confess I didn’t like his voice as much as I liked his lyrics. To me he seemed more of an actor than a pop singer – with all the different roles he played. He was constantly reinventing himself with characters like Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke. David always struck me as a man way ahead of his time – and I was extremely saddened to hear the news that he had died.”
Terry (now 78 years old) has been the photographer of choice for some of the most influential celebrities of the past half century. The roll-call just goes on and on and includes:
The Beatles; Brian Jones; Marianne Faithfull; Audrey Hepburn; Brigitte Bardot, Sean Connery; Raquel Welch; Rod Stewart; Clint Eastwood; Lee Marvin; Paul Newman; Ava Gardner; Dean Martin; Muhammad Ali; John Lennon; Tom Jones; Elton John; Peter Sellers; David Bowie; Robert Redford; Bruce Springsteen; Frank Sinatra; Peter O’Toole; The Who; Steve McQueen; Dustin Hoffman; Michael Caine; Robert Mitchum; Eric Clapton; Faye Dunaway; Natalie Wood; David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton; The Stones; Sir Winston Churchill; Chuck Berry; Anthony Newley; Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; David Niven; Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda; Ursula Andress; Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate; Groucho Marx.
The Rolling Stones pose for a group portrait in Leicester Square in London, 17th January 1964. From left to right: Brian Jones (1942 – 1969), Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman.
Underpinning this man’s talent are the sixty five O’Neill images currently held by London’s National Portrait Gallery – and the fully-stretched O’Neill team is constantly masterminding international exhibitions of his back catalogue.
But the amazing thing is that Terry O’Neill really fell into photography by accident.
He spent two years of his childhood training for the priesthood but his true love as a fourteen year old was jazz drumming. And by some extreme irony he confesses that he never managed to organise photo-shoots with the jazz greats he always admired, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
When he was seventeen Terry had worked out that he would stand a much better chance of mixing with the big-name jazz players in the States if he could just find a way to ‘cross the pond’.
He decided the answer was to apply to be an air steward with BOAC (the former long-distance arm of British Airways).
He recalls: “In those days you’d do the trip to New York and get three days off before flying home. I thought that would be my best chance of getting some jazz gigs out there. But I got offered a ‘foot in the door’ job at the airline’s photographic unit, so I took it just to get into the corporation. Then I got hooked and one thing led to another.”
Then came the first break. “I took a photograph of RAB Butler who was then Britain’s Home Secretary, asleep in a waiting room at the airport. He was surrounded by a number of African chieftains.”
The picture made the front page of the Sunday Dispatch the next day.
“From then on I had a regular job at the airport” he recalls. “All I had to shoot with was this old Agfa Silette, a small 35mm fixed lens viewfinder camera. It was a terrible camera but I started to get some great scoop pictures. I used to craft my images not ‘steal’ them like the paparazzi do now.”
Terry has no time for paparazzi: In a bit of a rant (viewable on YouTube) he once declared: “Paparazzi should be shot – they are just animals with cameras. You could train a monkey to do that.”
The Daily Sketch noted his emerging talent and offered him a staff job. His first task was to trek north and take a picture of four young musician hopefuls.
“Well it turned out to be The Beatles”, says Terry. “The next morning the paper completely sold out. My pictures were the very first press photographs ever taken of the group. It was the beginning of pop pictures in newspapers.”
Terry completed four years on The Sketch. “I bought a better camera but I ended up being just about the only photographer in Fleet Street shooting with a 35 mm at that time. Everyone was using 5×4 or Rollei medium format. But I worked out that the 35mm was often much more practical on a celebrity shoot because it was smaller and didn’t put people off quite so much.”
But all that changed. And how.
For many decades Terry has been a loyal disciple of Hasselblad. And one of his most iconic images – a picture of an exhausted Faye Dunaway (who was, at the time, his wife) slumped in a poolside chair at 6.30am at a top Hollywood hotel after just winning an Oscar – was captured with his beloved Hasselblad 500CM.
“She wasn’t very pleased. She had been up all night at the ceremony and didn’t really want me to take the shot” he admits.
American actress Faye Dunaway takes breakfast by the pool with the day’s newspapers at the Beverley Hills Hotel, 29th March 1977. She seems less than elated with her success at the previous night’s Academy Awards ceremony, where she won the 1976 Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for ‘Network’.
They later divorced.
But Terry and Hollywood got on like a house on fire.
It was Ava Gardner who secured him the plum job of following and photographing Frank Sinatra. “Ava wrote me a letter of introduction to Frank. I handed it to him and he said: “Bloke, you’re with me.” Then he completely ignored me for the next three weeks.”
But Sinatra gave him access to his inner sanctum for years. “I was deeply honoured” admits Terry. “Sinatra was an exceptional professional and only surrounded himself by people who he considered the best in their business.”
Now iconic O’Neill images of Sinatra in the Sixties and Seventies sell for thousands of pounds.
One shot in Miami with Sinatra, a body double and a bevy of heavies recently sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $30,000.
But it wasn’t all sweetness and the right lights. Challenges and downsides were there too:
Terry says: “I became good friends with Peter Sellers and he asked me to cover his wedding. It wasn’t the greatest moment of my life when I realised I hadn’t put any film in the camera until halfway through the proceedings. Mercifully, I managed to recover the situation and just carried on as if nothing had happened.”
And some of the stars weren’t always at their best when he turned up.
He recalls: “I remember rocking up to shoot Steve McQueen. As soon as I arrived he got involved in a heated argument with his PR because he said he hadn’t been told I was coming.
My Fleet Street press instinct took over and I just snapped away for about three minutes while they argued. Then I left…with all the pictures I had actually needed.”
Talk to Terry O’Neill about shooting style and he freely admits he doesn’t really have one.
He is adamant that the real secret to great photography is for the photographer to learn the art of fading into the background.
‘When Sinatra ignored me it was the best gift he could have given me. It enabled me to just get on with the job I do best.”
He adds: “I’ve had no training other than working in a darkroom; I’ve never been near a photo seminar in my life. I just try to take pictures that tell a story – perhaps in a candid and unconventional way. I think you can either see a picture or you can’t. I just capture the moment as it is.”
But when the subject turns to capture devices it’s all Hasselblad.
He STILL has that old 500CM (he’s a silver halide fanatic, even today)
I love film but I do shoot digitally when a client demands it’ he says.
“I just know that medium format Hasselblad is the way to go at the high-end. I do believe that when image is everything bigger really is better. I discovered I could tell more of a story in square capture format and for that reason my love affair with Hasselblad has never waned.
I used a Hasselblad for my most celebrated portraits of The Queen, Nelson Mandela, Amy Winehouse and Elton John.”
Terry comments: “Even with today’s capture options and the inexorable march of DSLRs and camera phones many professionals still want the quality and feel that only medium format is capable of delivering.”
He adds: “In the business I have been in for fifty years there is no room at all for equipment compromise. I just don’t believe a smaller sensor can ever beat the quality delivered by the medium format platform.”
Terry covered Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations too. “That was a huge honour” he notes: “I took pictures of people like the Clintons and other world leaders. I was there for a week.”
But the great man thinks it’s all getting harder for young professionals in his line of work.
“In my heyday the people in front of my camera let me get up close and personal. There were no pushy publicists trying to control everything. These days PRs and publicists just get in the way. They insist on putting up obstacles and imposing multitudes of restrictions on photographers.
I have been very lucky. I had the best of it. But my advice though to those intent on persevering is just keep shooting. Just keep taking pictures.”
*Terry is working with his friend (and another rock photographer god) Gered Mankowitz on a brand new book covering the early years of The Rolling Stones. It’s due out in the spring.