A man who has seen many of the 20th century’s most recognizable faces through his viewfinder says he’s loved everyone he’s ever photographed.
“When I see a picture, I take it,” Terry O’Neill said. “I don’t make judgments on people.”
His goal is to preserve the dignity of people, not to make them look foolish, he said.
Almost by accident, O’Neill redefined reportage photography of stars at a time when studio photography was the norm.
Hoping to get from England to the United States to launch a career in jazz, O’Neill got a job printing pictures of plane interiors with the British Overseas Airways Corp. at the London airport in the 1950s. He started taking pictures of people at the airport on his own and caught celebrities moving through. He took a picture of singer Petula Clark putting on makeup, with curlers in her hair, at an airport coffee bar. O’Neill was hired as a newspaper staff photographer but quit after four years when he tired of covering tragedies.
From there, he moved into celebrity photography, using the Hollywood connections he had built up through meetings and assignments. He shot many of the greats of the ‘60s – The Beatles, Twiggy, the Rolling Stones, Jean Shrimpton.
“I started at the top and never looked back,” he said.
O’Neill said he and the other artists in the ‘60s thought the madness wouldn’t last.
“We all thought that it would come to a halt and we’d have to get a job one day,” he said.
The enduring presence of the Stones and Beatles in today’s pop culture shows they were wrong.
“It’s still the best music ever done,” O’Neill said.
In 1967 he followed Frank Sinatra for three weeks. O’Neill remembers him as a powerful man.
“Wherever he went the entire town revolved around him,” he said.
After writing a list of directions for O’Neill, Sinatra pretended the photographer wasn’t there.
“He gave me the greatest gift by ignoring me,” O’Neill said. “I didn’t realize it until after.”
That stayed with O’Neill for the rest of his life and shaped other long-term shoots with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman.
Today’s celebrities wouldn’t allow that kind of access, he said, but back then he felt very welcome. With all the red tape for covering celebrities now, it’s not the show biz he grew up in, he said.
“You need approval for everything,” he said. “They’ve killed all the freedom and spontaneity about it.”
He’s still good friends with Elton John and Eric Clapton.
O’Neill said he didn’t envy his subjects.
“I’d much prefer my side of the camera,” he said. “They get isolated from the rest of the world.”
Only when he reached his 60s did O’Neill realize how incredible his career had been.
“I think God was looking for someone to photograph these people in the ‘60s and found me,” he said. “I’ve had such a great life, I can’t believe it still.”
- Lauren Russell, CNN
"Terry O’Neill," published by ACC Editions, is available at bookstores everywhere and online.