“Truth be told, I hate cameras. If I could do without them, I would!” Contradictory words it may seem, coming from a man famous for his candid style photographs but that’s the kind of views that I believe has made Terry O’ Neill the Legendary photographer that he is today.
Born July 30, 1938, Terry O’ Neill began his career by accident. With a dream of going to New York to become a Jazz drummer, a young Terry figured the best way to achieve his dreams was to become a British Airways Air Steward. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) he was turned down for that role and was instead given a camera with instructions to go photograph famous people at Heathrow Airport. One of the first photos he took was of a sleeping figure in a waiting room. He was more than thrilled when someone offered him £20 for that photo. It turned out that the sleeping figure was Rab Butler, the British Home Secretary at the time. Since then, he has racked up an impressive career spanning over 50 years, photographing many world famous stars from the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to the likes of Winston Churchill, The Queen and Nelson Mandela. With an archive boasting of more than a few Iconic photos, notably one of a relatively unknown band at the time called The Beatles and also The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Brigitte Bardott with Sean Connery, David Bowie with Elizabeth Taylor, a bare-foot Cindy Crawford, and perhaps the most famous one – Faye Dunaway lounging next to the swimming pool of the Beverley Hills hotel the morning after winning an Oscar award.
On first impression, Terry O’ Neil might come across a bit reserved but according to Dylan Jones, he is in fact a rather shy person who finds it quite unnerving to talk about his achievement. He prefers to blend into the background, taking candid photographs, with hopes that the image would say all there is to say about him and his subject. However, this should not be taken at face value, he also has a very honest approach to life, speaking without hesitation what he really feels about any subject. For instance, when asked why he no longer takes photographs, he says there isn’t anyone special anymore. “Where are the great people nowadays? Publicity and PR machines are ruining everything.” One can only envy his time, where all it took to shoot that famous image of Faye Dunaway at the Beverley Hills hotel, was a chat with her asking if she would like to do it and with the hotel staff, asking for permission to use the pool area. One wonders if it were today, how many people he would have had to talk to and how many contracts would have had to be signed in order to get it done.
Perhaps it was pure luck that he happened to be around in the 60s -an era where no one really thought too much about the future – and just ‘got on with it’. In fact, Terry admitted that it was only about 10 years ago, did he really begin to realise what he was doing was perhaps important. Back then, they (the players of the time – David Bailey, Terence Donovan, etc) all thought they’d just play around for a few more years and eventually they’d all have to get ‘real jobs’. Little did they know then, that what they were doing would make an impact.
In today’s world where almost everyone now takes pictures using their camera phones, Instagram, and share instantly, does it bother him that photography has become what it is today? He says it does and that is in fact the reason behind his hatred for digital cameras. On the flip side though, its done a good thing because there are now more photographs being taken in the world, and that truly is a good thing.
Finally, when asked if there was someone he wished he’d taken a photo of but never did. “Yes”, he says, “Marilyn Monroe!”