Terry O'Neill: Capturing celebrity

image source, Terry O'Neill

For more than 60 years, British photographer Terry O'Neill, who died in November 2019, photographed many of the biggest names from the worlds of film, fashion and music.

A new exhibition at the Maddox Gallery in Gstaad, Switzerland shows off some of his best work, alongside his recollections.

The Beatles, London, 1963

image source, Terry O'Neill

O'Neill was working for the Daily Sketch as their newest photographer when he was assigned to take photos of emerging bands.

"The papers quickly discovered that a young bunch of musicians on the cover of one of their papers meant the papers sold - and sold quickly in incredible numbers," he recalled.

"One day, the editor said to me 'there's a new young band recording at Abbey Road and we want you to go over and take some pictures'.

"Well, that band turned out to be The Beatles.

"I went over to the studio and these four lads - a few years younger than me - were recording Please, Please Me.

"I didn't like the light at the studio so I said, 'come on then, let's go out back so I can get a better light'. I asked them to bring their guitars, so it looked like they were musicians. Ringo just grabbed his cymbal.

"These photos are some of the earliest portraits of the band ever to run in the national press.

Not much later, a young kid named Andrew Loog Oldham called me up and said: 'Can you do for my band what you just did for The Beatles?'

"That band turned out to be The Rolling Stones."

The Rolling Stones, 1964

image source, Terry O'Neill

"I said I was pretty busy. But if his band wanted to meet me in Soho, around Tin Pan Alley, then maybe I could squeeze them in.

"The first couple of times I hung out with them, I took them around London, making sure there was a recognisable city element in the background.

"Other times, I'd just trail them as they went to do television appearances. Television was really important back then, probably more important than it is now.

"If you had a band and got a TV gig, it was a chance to appear in front of thousands - hundreds of thousands - who would then not only go out and buy your record or new single, but show up to the gigs."

Audrey Hepburn, South of France, 1966

image source, Terry O'Neill

"During breaks between scenes filming Two for the Road, someone set up a beach cricket game.

"Audrey jumped right in and started to play.

"These are great shots of not only a beautiful woman, but I hope these portray what she was like off-camera. She was one of the most kind and generous people I've ever worked with.

"She lit up a room and never took a bad picture. My job was easy - I just had to be there and press the button."

Frank Sinatra, Miami boardwalk, 1968

image source, Terry O'Neill

Taken in black and white on the set of the 1968 film Lady in Cement, O'Neill's first encounter with Frank Sinatra was the start of a working relationship that would last nearly 30 years.

In collaboration with digital artist Mariona Vilarós, O'Neill re-worked the image in colour.

"After that day, I could go anywhere with Frank. He allowed me to become a better photographer by simply letting me do my job. It was a real honour to work with the man, a privilege.

"I remember how nervous I was to finally meet Sinatra. And I remember the colours of the Miami sky and how blue the ocean was."

Michael Caine, 1970

image source, Terry O'Neill

"I've known and worked with Michael Caine for practically my entire career - and I count him as one of my closest friends. We've had many adventures together - [about] many of which I've been sworn to secrecy.

"Michael really embodies the characters he plays. He's also one of the only actors who can take on a serious role one minute, a thriller the next and then follow up with a comedy. He's just incredibly gifted."

Peter Sellers and Roger Moore, Beverly Hills, 1970s

image source, Terry O'Neill

"Peter Sellers was a very complicated man. I knew him really well throughout his life and was with him through the highs and lows of his career, as well as the highs and lows of various relationships.

"I considered myself a good friend of his and he was certainly a good friend to me. He just never fully believed in himself and his talent. He was a gifted actor, comedian, writer and singer, as well as a very good photographer.

"Our mutual love of photography was what bonded us in the first place. He was always buying the very latest cameras available."

Elton John, early 1970s

image source, Terry O'Neill

"People ask me all the time what my favourite Elton John picture is. And I can never really answer that because Elton graciously gave me so many opportunities to take a great picture.

"But this one really stands out. It's his confidence that he developed over time when in front of the camera - my camera - and, of course, the outfit. This is signature Elton."

Muhammad Ali, Dublin, 1972

image source, Terry O'Neill

"It was the start of summer 1972 and Muhammad Ali was in Dublin, training for a fight against Alvin Lewis. I flew over to take photographs and interview him for the Daily Express.

"Ali was great to photograph. He paid no attention to me and was either training or raving about being the greatest. Or he'd just sit in a room and say nothing for hours, watching training films of himself.

"He just created a stir - you knew when Ali was in the room. When you talk about legends and what defines that term, he had it."

Faye Dunaway, the morning after her Oscar win, March 1977

image source, Terry O'Neill

"I was asked by one of the magazines to take a photo of the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. Faye Dunaway was the odds-on favourite to win an Oscar for her performance in Network.

"I didn't want to take the photo everyone else would take: you know, the one right after - where they look surprised, happy - holding up their shiny new Oscar.

"I wanted to capture something different. I wanted to capture the morning after.

"I explained the idea to Faye and told her, 'listen, if you win, meet me by the pool at dawn. And bring the Oscar'.

"She was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel and I knew the guy who worked the pool. I asked him to let us in for a few minutes and then arranged the papers and the breakfast tray. I had it all set when she suddenly appeared, in her dressing gown, Oscar in hand.

"This photo was just us. There was no stylists or PR, no lighting or assistants. And it only took a few moments.

"A few years later, I married her. A few years after that, we divorced."

Kate Moss, 1993

image source, Terry O'Neill

"She would have fit right in with us back in 1964.

"She's another one where it's impossible to take a bad photo and that's why she's been at the top of her game since she started. I was lucky enough to be there at the start of her career, to take these portraits.

"She was delightful to work with. A real professional with a bit of fun."

Terry O'Neill: Every Picture Tells A Story, A Retrospective will run at Maddox Gallery, Gstaad and online, 30 July - 29 August 2020.

Terry O'Neill, Iconic Images courtesy of Maddox Gallery

Related Topics