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Celebrating life of Terry O'Neill

Terry O’Neill, British photographer who captured swinging ’60s London, dies at 81.

November 16th, 2019 is a sad day for the whole world. One of the brightest stars of the photography world passed away. The legendary photographer, Terry O'Neill, who chronicled the swinging 60s generation, died aged 81. Mr. O'Neill, who rose to fame capturing the explosion of London's youth culture in the 1960s, died at home following a long battle with prostate cancer.


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The morning after Faye Dunaway won the best actress Oscar for “Network,” she woke at 6 a.m. to meet photographer Terry O’Neill at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

They had hit it off a few days earlier, at a People magazine photo shoot in March 1977, leading Mr. O’Neill to suggest his idea for a carefully staged sunrise photograph — a snapshot of Dunaway sitting alone in a pool chair, gazing at her Academy Award with a look that suggested the hollowness of success, or the years of hard work that had culminated in her first Oscar, or perhaps just the difficulty of facing a new day in Hollywood on three hours’ sleep.

“I always wanted to capture what it felt like the next day,” Mr. O’Neill later said, “not the image you’d see in the papers of the star holding up the award with all the lights and camera — but I wanted to capture the moment it all sinks in, that your asking price has just skyrocketed and you can have any role in the world. I wanted to capture the morning after.”

His photo is now part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in London and has become one of Hollywood’s most iconic Oscar images, with Dunaway dressed in a pale satin robe she had previously worn in “Chinatown,” seated in front of a breakfast tray amid a pile of scattered newspapers.

“In Terry’s picture, success is a solitary place to be,” Dunaway wrote in her memoir, “Looking for Gatsby.” “In my life, it has been the same … One of Terry’s favorite films is ‘Sweet Smell of Success.’ Like the film, what Terry managed to capture in the shot was the emptiness of it all.”

Mr. O’Neill and Dunaway married six years later and divorced three years after that, in what Mr. O’Neill described, with some regret, as a rare instance in which he developed a romantic relationship with one of his subjects, then found himself making headlines instead of simply photographing the people behind them.

David Bowie by Terry O'Neill - JM Art Management
David Bowie by Terry O'Neill

The fact that he had developed a close bond with one of his subject at all, however, was far from unusual. In a half-century covering actors, musicians, monarchs and statesmen as one of Britain’s leading photographers, Mr. O’Neill struck up friendships with stars including David Bowie, Michael Caine, Eric Clapton, Mickey Rourke and Peter Sellers, whose wedding with Britt Ekland marked a low point of his career. Mr. O’Neill, who was photographing the event, had forgotten to load the film.

He was 81 when he died Nov. 16 at his home in London, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. His death was announced by Iconic Images, which licenses his photos, and came five months after he was named a commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to photography.

As both a chronicler and influencer of popular culture, Mr. O’Neill helped define the aesthetic of swinging 1960s London, contributing photos to newspapers and magazines such as Vogue, Life, Rolling Stone and Paris Match.

He was 24 when his editor at the Daily Sketch tabloid enlisted him to photograph a “little band” recording their debut album at EMI’s studios on Abbey Road. Mr. O’Neill, a former jazz drummer, led the Beatles to a bricked-in area outside the studio and took what is sometimes described as the group’s first portrait and one of the earliest images of a pop band to appear on the cover of a national British publication.

After the paper’s Beatles issue sold out at newsstands, his editor asked him to “go and find the next group.” So he photographed the Rolling Stones, lining them up outside London’s Tin Pan Alley Club months before they cut their first album. His boss told him the musicians looked like “prehistoric monsters,” so he next photographed the clean-cut Dave Clark Five, leading both images to appear together alongside the headline “Beauty and the Beast,” according to Mr. O’Neill.

Elton John by Terry O'Neill JM Art Management
Elton John by Terry O'Neill

He went on to photograph Elton John, capturing the musician’s historic two-day concert series at Dodger Stadium in 1975, and Bowie, chronicling his transformation from the glam alien Ziggy Stardust into the Thin White Duke. One 1974 portrait showed Bowie seated calmly next to an enormous leaping dog, startled by the flash into jumping skyward.

Raquel Welch by Terry O'Neill JM Art Management
Raquel Welch by Terry O'Neill

Mr. O’Neill also photographed Raquel Welch dressed in a fur bikini and tied to a cross; model Jean Shrimpton and actor Terence Stamp, cheek-to-cheek during their celebrated mid-’60s romance; an ailing Winston Churchill carried atop a stretcher-like chair; James Bond actors from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig; and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, during a visit to Sandringham House in 1992.

He had elicited a smile from the queen, he said, by telling horse-racing jokes to lighten the mood.

Terence Patrick O’Neill was born in Romford, Essex (now part of east London), on July 30, 1938. Both parents were Irish immigrants and his family later settled in Heston, in west London, where he spent his early years in an air-raid shelter during the Blitz.

His father was a foreman in a Ford factory, and his mother was a homemaker who wanted him to become a Catholic priest. That dream ended after two years, when a 14-year-old Mr. O’Neill was told he had “too many questions and not enough belief,” and decided to focus instead on becoming a professional drummer.

To perform on both sides of the Atlantic, he applied for a steward’s job at the British Overseas Airways Corp. (a precursor to British Airways), figuring that frequent travel to New York City would only boost his career. He was placed in the airline’s photography division and vowed he would work his way through the ranks and onto a plane, despite having little experience with a camera.

Drumming soon took a back seat to photography, and one day he snapped a picture of a well-dressed man sleeping on an airport bench. The gentleman turned out to be Rab Butler, the British home secretary; Mr. O’Neill’s image made the British papers and launched his career on Fleet Street. He quit his newspaper job to become a freelancer in 1964, tired of being assigned to cover the aftermaths of tragedies.

By Mr. O’Neill’s account, his life nearly ended on Aug. 8, 1969, when he was invited to actress Sharon Tate’s home in Los Angeles. He had previously photographed Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, but turned down her invitation “due to jet lag.” She and four others were killed that night by members of the Manson Family cult.

Mr. O’Neill later photographed stars including Isabella Rossellini, Bob Hoskins, Sting, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Amy Winehouse, whom he met at a birthday party for fellow portrait subject Nelson Mandela. In 2011 he received the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal.

His marriages to Vera Day and Dunaway ended in divorce, and he later married Laraine Ashton. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. O’Neill was quick to acknowledge that chance played a role in many of his greatest pictures, and in recent years lamented that photographers were often granted minutes, rather than days, to spend time with their subjects. He accompanied Frank Sinatra for weeks during a 1968 film shoot in Miami Beach, resulting in a memorable image of Sinatra mid-stride on the boardwalk, joined by his stand-in and body guards.

Brigitte Bardot by Terry O'Neill JM Art Management
Brigitte Bardot by Terry O'Neill

And in 1971, he visited Brigitte Bardot on the set of a Western comedy, where he later recalled burning through film as he became “drunk on how stunning she was.” As she smoked a cigar, he waited for the wind to lift her hair across her face, then pressed the shutter to create an image that was reproduced in magazines and posters across the world.

“It was a picture in a million,” he said, and the last frame of his last roll of film.

Terry O'Neill JM Art Management
Terry O'Neill

Written by Harrison Smith

All images are curtesy of Terry O'Neill and Iconic Images


JM Art Management


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