Name any famous figure from the 1960s and it is likely that British photographer Terry O’Neill has taken their photo. Be it a politician, athlete or movie star, O’Neill’s reach seemed to know no bounds. Capturing the spirit of the 60s, O’Neill continued to photograph the rich and famous for sixty years until he passed in 2019. In honour of the legend behind the lens and following our 2020 solo exhibition of Terry O’Neill’s works at Maddox Gallery Gstaad, we outline five things to know about the incredible photographer.
O’Neill originally wanted to be a jazz drummer
Growing up in a Catholic family, for a brief period O’Neill thought he was headed for priesthood. Reportedly stating that he ‘had too many questions to be a priest’, O’Neill decided to pursue his love of music instead. He had always had a passion for jazz and wanted to become a drummer for a jazz ensemble. Although O’Neill never realised his dreams of becoming a professional percussionist, he did go on to photograph some of the most influential musicians England has ever produced, taking snaps of Elton John, Amy Winehouse and David Bowie, just to name a few.
His path to fame started by chance
Whilst still pursing his music career, O’Neill decided that a job with an airline might enable him to travel to New York to boost his career. Therefore, he got a job at British Airways Oversee Corporation – a company that would later become British Airways - and with no jobs on offer as an air steward, O’Neill joined the photography department instead. It was here that O’Neill caught his big break capturing, by chance, the prominent British politician Rab Butler asleep at the terminal. Off the back of his snap of the snoozing statesman, O’Neill secured employment at the Daily Sketch and never looked back.
At the newspaper, O’Neill was often asked to take photos of up-and-coming musicians. One day, the novice photographer was tasked with travelling down to Abbey Road Studios to ‘take a few portraits of a new band.’ This group turned out to be The Beatles, who would soon become some of the world’s most renowned musicians.
In 1977, O’Neill was given an assignment by People Magazine to photograph Faye Dunaway ahead of the Oscar Awards. With O’Neill feeling that a better picture would be obtained the following morning, when an Oscar winning actress is flooded with calls and movie proposals, they instead decided to meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool at dawn to capture the moment. Winning Best Actress for her role in Network - and having gone to bed just 3 hours before the shoot! – the pair secretly met at 6am on the poolside to avoid any onlookers in what was then a ‘no photos’ zone. This ‘meet cute’ not only resulted in an iconic photograph that would stand the test of time, but also led to the couple eventually marrying.
During his career, O’Neill photographed everyone from Elton John to the Queen but the photographer notes that it was Frank Sinatra who made him the most anxious. On meeting the singer for the first time, O’Neill reportedly stated: ‘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'. Despite O’Neill’s hesitation, thankfully the meeting went well and the pair continued to work together for over thirty years.
Last year, O'Neill's friend and driver, Lenny Taylor journeyed around London with Maddox Gallery's Artistic Director, Maeve Doyle recounting the unforgettable stories told to him by Terry O'Neill. Watch the video below: