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Terry O'Neill – 1938-2019: iconic British photographer remembered in his own words

Terry O'Neill attends the Sunday Times Magazine 50th Anniversary Party at Saatchi Gallery on February 2, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart Wilson/Getty Images)
Terry O'Neill in 2012 standing next to his portrait of Amy Winehouse
(Image credit: Getty Images)

British portrait photographer Terry O'Neill, best known for his picture so the swinging sixties and his portraits of celebrity A-listers, has died aged 81. He died at his home on Saturday, following a long fight against prostate cancer.

Born in London, his work is a catalogue of the rich and famous of the second half of the 20th century. His early work chronicling the early years of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and others, led him to a career shooting portraits for top magazines around the world. His sitters have included The Queen, Frank Sinatra, and Faye Dunaway (who would later become his wife).

To mark his passing we are reproducing an interview we did with Terry O'Neill in 2016, originally published in Professional Photography magazine.

Terry O'Neill in conversation with Steve Fairclough

When I remind Terry O’Neill of a previous interview 25 years ago – when his answer to almost every question was simply “Michelle Pfeiffer” – a cheery London accent rings out down the telephone line. “Good God. Christ, that’s going back a long time… bloody hell!” 

It’s the distinctive voice of probably one of the world’s greatest portrait photographers, and a member of the cool gang of Brits who shook up the world of photography in the 1960s and beyond. With more than 50 years behind the lens, a marriage to movie star Faye Dunaway, and friendships with rock stars and celebrities, nothing seems to have diminished the charm, wit and warmth of a photographic great. 

Having shot everyone from Judy Garland to Elton John to the Royal Family across the decades, in 2016 O’Neill’s work is in the spotlight once more, with a new book and exhibition, Breaking Stones, featuring his iconic 1960s images of rock legends The Rolling Stones. We talk to him about capturing the decade, and why he hates cameras… 

What sparked your initial interest in photography?

“I was a jazz drummer, but I wanted to go to America so I took a job at BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), in the photographic unit. There was a bloke there, Peter Campion, who got me interested [in photography]. I asked him questions about which lens took this, etc., because I was in the job for three months and had to show some interest.  

“They gave me homework to do at the weekends and I’d go across to the airport [Heathrow] and photograph people crying, saying goodbye, coming back to England – all sorts of reportage stuff. One day I took a shot of a bloke in a grey, pin-striped suit and he’d fallen asleep amongst some African chieftains. The newspaper reporter who saw me take that picture said, ‘I’d love to send that picture to my editor – did you know that was Rab Butler?’ He was a senior government minister and I had no idea. 

“So I sent the picture up and rang the picture editor at 6 o’clock and he said, ‘I really like the pictures; I like your approach to photography. I’d love you to cover the airport for me every Saturday. I love that picture, we’re going to run it and I’ll give you 25 quid for it.’ So I was off and running and slowly I was getting pictures published. 

“Then I met a guy called Brian Fogarty, who was the star photographer on The Daily Sketch, and he wanted somebody younger to work with him to cover the airport because he was meeting people like Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg, all these movie stars, and they wanted him to go down on their film [sets] and take pictures of their movie making. 

“Then he died in a plane crash and suddenly, after a year, I got his job on The Daily Sketch. I walked in there and I said to Len Franklin, who was the picture editor, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here.’ But he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you. Why we’ve got you here is we think youth is on the rise in England and is going to change the world… we want you to photograph that’. 

“I said, ‘Oh, really?’ and he said, ‘Yeah. I want you to go down tomorrow,’ – this was my first day – ‘go down to Abbey Road tomorrow and photograph
a group called The Beatles’. 

“So I went down there [they were recording their first big hit, Please Please Me], the photo was published and the paper sold out. Then the phone rings and it’s Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager, and that’s how I got to take all those pictures in the book. That was the start of the whole of my career and when I look back and tell people… I mean, I started at the top and I never looked back.”

The exhibition Breaking Stones and the accompanying book are out – what was the process of going through the old photographs like?

“It was fabulous to go through them because there
are shots you forget. It was thousands and thousands [of images] – I shot them [The Stones] quite a few times. I love that one where they’re all walking along the street – by the Donmar [Theatre] I think – with their cases. I love those type of pictures: you never see pictures of bands like that any more. It’s all ruined
now, it’s all junk now.”

Were you friendly with The Stones?

“I was friendly with Bill [Wyman], Keith [Richards] and Charlie [Watts]. Mick [Jagger] and Brian [Jones] I wasn’t that close to. But there was always respect amongst us all because I was really something; I was a young kid who could get people’s pictures in the newspaper and that was really important to these pop groups at the time – it was like getting a TV show of your own. We all used to go to this club called the Ad Lib Club… we used to sit there talking about what we were going to do when all this was over. We were all convinced that we were given this chance and in a couple of years it would go back to what it was like before, and we’d have to get a proper job. Keith [Richards] never thought it was going to last and I remember Ringo [Starr] wanted to open a chain of hairdressers for his old lady. I mean, it was so funny.”  

Were there ever any problems getting The Stones
to pose?

“No. I just photographed them as they were – that was my style; so it just fitted in great for me.”

You mention in the book about being in the right place at the right time…

“That’s true, I was. I had no idea I was going to end up where I ended up in life: it was just fate. I can’t believe the first time I photographed The Beatles, and then The Stones, and then in 1966 and 1967, I worked with Frank Sinatra. I’ve had an unbelievable career; nobody could have a career like that any more, really.”

Do you still keep in touch with any of The Stones?

“I see Bill [Wyman] because he lives about five minutes away from me.”  

What should people going to the exhibition or buying the book look out for?

“Just enjoy a world that doesn’t exist any more. They’ll never see a band like that so exposed – exposed, that’s an interesting word – like The Stones were; they’ll never show that any more. It’s the last of a world where they’ll see anything like that.”    

What was your workflow like in the 1960s? Did you print your work?

“No. I did in the beginning but as I got on, and
I started travelling the world, I couldn’t. I’d send the film back and they’d process it; I’d use good printers and things like that. I couldn’t keep up with it all.
I couldn’t work all day and then print all night.”

What about cameras?

“My first camera that I ever had in Fleet Street was the Canon [7 rangefinder] with the f/0.95 lens. It was 88 or 96 quid, I think. I loved that camera – it had a trigger handle at the bottom; it was fab.”

What do you shoot with now?

“I use Hasselblad mostly now but I don’t really do jobs any more; I’m not really interested in the people.”   

Do you prefer to take photographs in black and white or color? 

“I always prefer black and white. I did take some
early color… there were lots of pop magazines around in the 1960s, like Rave and Fabulous, and when I used to do the black and whites of them [the groups], I’d shoot a roll of color and flog it to them… the market for pictures was incredible.”

Who was the most interesting person you met whilst working?

“Frank Sinatra was a king  – he was a fabulous
bloke to work with. But they’re all great people,
I’m just lucky to have met them all. Sinatra was just ‘the guv’nor’ wherever he went and you knew if you worked with him, and you got close to him, that you were amongst the top of your tree. He only used the best musicians and I was the photographer – everyone was the best, so you felt good about it.”

What, if anything, do you want viewers to see in your pictures?

“Well, I’m trying to show them the world that I’m in at the time. I just blend in with the group or whoever it is and hope that I’m capturing the world that they live in. I don’t set out consciously to do it.”   

Have any photographers inspired you in your work? 

“I fell in love with [the work of] Eugene Smith, the great photojournalist, and I tried to copy and shoot in his style all the time. My work is nothing like it but that’s who I copied in the beginning, because you always have to copy somebody.”

Do you still keep in touch with other photographers?

“Not really. I’m friends with Don McCullin and Bailey, but I don’t really see them. I’m not into photographers and, believe it or not, I hate cameras. If I couldn’t use a camera I’d be happy as a sandboy, because you take the picture in your mind and you just need the bloody camera to capture it, but if I could work without cameras it would be ideal. It sounds ridiculous when you say that, but it’s true – I’m not into equipment or anything. I just buy the equipment that I like and I use it.”

Have you shot digital and what do you think of it?  

“I hate it. I use it – today’s people just want it… so what can you do? If I do a job and there’s somebody in the studio; they love to look at all the pictures and say they like this one and that one. It’s not photography – photography is about moments and you can’t get it with all that shebang going on. Nothing beats film; believe me.”

Do you have an emotional attachment to your pictures?

“Well, I love the photographs. I don’t love the cameras and everything but I love all the pictures and the life that I’ve captured. I mean I see it all the time, every day: we’re always going through the archive and it’s really interesting to me. It just interests me; I’m never bored with it – I should be, but I’m not.”

Is there any person you would like to photograph that you haven’t?

“No. Not really. The only person I missed out on was Marilyn Monroe and that was because I fancied her PR and (laughs) decided to chase her, which was the wrong mistake.”   

Do you have any regrets about anything?

“No. I haven’t. I worked hard enough but I wish, in one way, I’d worked even harder. When you’re going through all your stuff, certain days come back to you. You remember how you could have stayed on but you didn’t, you went. And I thought, ‘If I’d have just…’ I’m a perfectionist, that’s the trouble. I’m never satisfied… but what can I do?”

What’s next for you in terms of photographic projects?

“We’re doing a fantastic tribute to David Bowie – really a super, fabulous book. Then we’re doing a book of all my best pictures and telling the full story of how they were done – the whole shebang behind them all. It’ll be a really interesting book... (Laughs) And we haven’t mentioned Michelle Pfeiffer once!”     

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