Terry O'Neill

Bridgitte Bardot photographed by Terry O'Neill in the 1960s

By Jeremy Miles

Celebrity photographer Terry O’Neil has worked with them all. In a career spanning almost 50 years everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin posed for his camera. A working class Londoner who fell into photography by accident, it was O’Neil who took some of the first newspaper pictures of sixties pop stars like The Beatles and The Stones. Little did he know at the time but by getting in on the ground-floor of what was fast becoming Swinging London he was booking himself a free pass to the Hollywood A list, By the time he got to California everyone from Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor was frantic to be captured by his lens. 

I caught up with O’Neill last month and he was in reflective mood. “I got the chance to go to America and suddenly found that people like Fred Astaire and  Shirley Maclaine were inviting me  to dinner,” he says, a note of incredulity still evident in his voice. “All they wanted to talk about was The Beatles, The  Stones, Mary Quant and what was happening in London. That’s when it really hit home to me how important this thing, this youth boom that had been happening was. They wanted me there because I’d met those people, I knew them. I thought Christ if someone like Fred Astaire thinks they’re great , then they must be.”

O’Neill, now 70, says he’s only just becoming aware of how incredible his career has been. “I’m a very lucky man,” he tells me. “I was  born at exactly right time. I was  coming up to 20 when rock ‘n’ roll was at its height and the sixties were just around the corner.  When I look back and see what  I’ve done I’m staggered.  I find I’m  totally in awe of the people I photographed now but I certainly wasn’t back then. It’s kind of funny because I took it all for granted yet it now I realise it was largely down to luck. You’d never get the kind of access I enjoyed now. The PR industry has killed all that.”

 These days Terry O’Neill is still working but says he picks and chooses assignments with care. After a being diagnosed with  bowel cancer two years ago he underwent months of treatment and though he’s been given the all-clear, says he has taken stock of his life and work. He has been busy cataloguing his vast archive, amazing himself by rediscovering many pictures he hasn’t seen in decades,. Now he’s  mounting a series of exhibitions at which some of his finest works can be viewed with limited edition gallery quality prints selling for  between  £1,600 and an eye-watering £8,000. There’s a major show due at Bournemouth’s Royal Bath Hotel on Saturday October 18. It is being staged in conjunction with Gallery 57 in nearby Westover Road and is already attracting interest from collectors.

When I talked to O”Neill he was fresh from  photographing Nelson Mandela and Amy Winehouse. Although pleased with both sessions he says he is saddened that the easy access he once enjoyed to the stars is a thing of the past. Negotiating your way through the international security and  pop-world hierachy of the 21st century in pursuit of accreditation is an experience light years removed his early days as young photographer on the Daily Sketch. hanging out at the Ad-Lib Club with The Beatles and The Stones.

In those days, he says,  hanging out at London’s Ad-Lib Club with The Beatles and The Stones was just part of being young and where the action was. His relationship with them was one of friendship and shared experience. “I remember talking about what jobs we’d do when it was all over. My mum wanted me to work in a bank. I think Ringo’s mum wanted him to work in a bank too while I remember George Harrison’s wanted him to work in a big department store. 

“It never occurred to any of us this that this was going to last. I remember The Stones manager Andrew Oldham would set up photo-calls and if I couldn’t get there for any reason he’d happily bring the band round to the office to have their pictures taken.” It’s hard to understand in these celebrity-obsessed times  how singularly unimpressed early 1960s newspaper editors were by pictures of what they considered to be grubby, unwholesome pop singers.

O’Neill’s first photograph of The Beatles was put up for publication again and again but continually rejected until, after three months, a slow news day arrived and it was slabbed into the paper for want of anything better. The edition sold out in near record time. Suddenly newsdesks started getting interested in pop. They needed pictures and O’Neil was clearly the man for the job. Not only was he a good 10 years younger than anyone else on the photographic staff but he actually seemed to understand these pop people. He also used one of the fancy new 35mm cameras. In a world of  weary hacks in trilby hats toting cumbersome 5x4’s, he had a definite edge..

He threw himself into the fun but admits that though he partied with The Beatles and The Stones he backed off when they started getting into drugs. “I didn’t get involved. I couldn’t afford to. I had a job to go to. They could go to the  studio and record from ten at night to six in the morning but I had to go to work the next day.” He says he’s known many people damaged or killed by drugs and excess including old friends like Peter Cook and Keith Moon who once, astonishingly and decidedly unwisely, shared a house together. It was O’Neill who persuaded them that this arrangement was likely to prove fatal. Cook moved out but, as O’Neill says, “He was never the same again. He was a spent force.” 

 The conversation turns to his recent encounter with Amy Winehouse - “another victim I suppose,” he says quietly. “She’s a great singer. It’s very sad.” Mind you he has some sympathy for Winehouse, saying that her growing reputation as a troublemaker is perhaps a little unfair. “She was fine with me,” he says. “But look at what she has to put up with. She’s permanently surrounded by the paparazzi and they behave disgracefully.  I don’t know why the country allows it. I’d definitely ban them, I’d have them locked up.  They’re not even proper photographers. . Anyone who wants to bring in a law, they’ve got my vote.“

On the face of it this rant might sound strange coming from a man who has spent his entire career following and photographing the stars. But as he points out standards have slipped and not just in professional expertise. He fully understands why these days any out of focus smudge will get published if it’s of someone famous enough doing something outrageous enough but in terms of common decency and manners, the money-is-everything attitude that drives people to take terrible advantage absolutely appalls him.

“ A star may be a star but they do deserve some privacy,” says O’Neill. “ I’ve certainly been in situations where I could have made  a lot of money had I chosen to take certain photographs, but I wouldn’t. You have to respect people’s privacy.”

© Jeremy Miles 2022