Terry O’Neill captured celebrity from the start

His photographs defined the democratic post-war age. Stephen Bayley hears the stories behind previously unseen pictures

Collective memory of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s is illustrated — even illuminated — by Terry O’Neill’s photographs. The Beatles larking about with Harold Wilson. A juvenile Mick Jagger pouting. Brigitte Bardot smoking. Faye Dunaway collapsed by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel in an actressy simulacrum of post-coital tristesse following the climax of her 1977 Oscar.

O’Neill recently reflected that he had ‘lived a life among legends’. Indeed he had. But he was reticent, modest and stood in the background, even if he had to be told ‘not to get in the way’ by the stellar and infamously difficult Frank Sinatra. Who could discount the value of such ultramontane advice about professional humility? O’Neill was invisibly present — and his easygoing nature and amiability played its part in getting him precious access.

Some photographers use the camera as a weapon, an intrusive device that violates privacy. Indeed, according to Susan Sontag, ‘a camera is a sublimation of the gun’. Not for O’Neill it wasn’t. His contemporary Don McCullin chose war as his workplace. O’Neill chose celebrity: the concerts, the parties, the beautiful, spoilt people. There is, happily, no dark side to his world.

Now 80, O’Neill’s career fully conformed to the mythic structures of his newly democratic age, with its upward-only arcs of social promotion: a clever, poor boy made very good indeed. Pedigree Cockney, he remains an impressively unaffected working-class hero. Joe Tilson, Len Deighton and Michael Caine are his peers. It was an ’ullo dahlin’ world. But, of course, circa 1965, your ’ullo dahlin’ type was aristocracy.

Yet O’Neill never intended to be a photographer. Jazz drumming was his vocation and he figured that a job as a steward with BOAC would get him long lay-overs in New York to hone his craft in Manhattan clubs.

That job never came, but he was assigned to BOAC’s photographic department. One day he took a picture of an elderly man dozing at Heathrow. That man turned-out to be home secretary Rab Butler. The picture appeared in the papers and O’Neill’s career choice was made for him. In 1959, he joined the staff of the Daily Sketch. In those days, tabloids made news.

Looking at an O’Neill retrospective, you ask yourself how celebrity has changed in the past 40 years. Well, it was once a stable construct, more directly related to talent, beauty, cultural significance and photogenic potential than it is today. Besides, in the later 20th century, celebrities were real news.

A billion photographs will be taken this very day in 2018. Maybe more. And most of them will be rubbish: the easy facility of a smartphone does not encourage discipline or stimulate art. O’Neill was, by contrast, fully analogue : his Rangefinder Leicas or Nikon SLRs were metal mechanisms that had to be laboriously loaded with fiddly film. And film came in cassettes with only 36 exposures. O’Neill had to be sparing, to calculate, to have a very good eye.

Today, O’Neill prints are expensive collectables. Pick one up and look at the back to get a sense of the artisanal quality of vintage photography made with wet chemicals and paper. On the back of a photograph of Sean Connery you will see ragged strips of masking tape, chinagraph sizing instructions, agency rubber stamps and various scrawls in pencil or Biro. It is like an ancient artefact. In every sense, photography is history.

But how were such pictures made? Did O’Neill recognise Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ or care at all about Sontag’s theory of cameras imprisoning reality?

‘Nah. A lot of bullshit is talked about photography. It’s instinct. You’ve either got it or not.’

Terry O’Neill had it.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR

As Hollywood’s Cleopatra or a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it was inevitable O’Neill would pay homage at her court. ‘Elizabeth — I never called her Liz, it was always Elizabeth — was something very, very special. You know, she was really shy. I remember doing a shoot with her for Paramount’s anniversary and when I looked around she wasn’t there. I asked her PA and they said she was in the corridor. So I went out and she said she was nervous because of all those stars. I said, “Elizabeth, you are the biggest star of them all.” I asked her who she wanted to meet and she said, “Ooh, I’d love to meet De Niro and Harrison Ford.” So I took her over to De Niro and said, “Bob, Elizabeth wants to meet you.” That taught me that no movie star thinks they are the best.’ (See top image)

PAUL McCARTNEY AT RINGO’S WEDDING

The Beatles drummer married Barbara Bach, a Bond girl, at Marylebone Registry Office in 1981. Her gown was by the Emanuels, who dressed Diana for her wedding that same year. O’Neill was at the reception at Rags Club in Mayfair. This was the first time Paul, George and Ringo had been together since Lennon’s murder. ‘I couldn’t get close to John,’ O’Neill said. He was ‘ruined by drugs’ — but found Paul, George and Ringo more affable. Here, McCartney improvises a singalong which Lennon would have detested. The founder of the band thought The Beatles were ‘so fucking humiliating’.

KATE MOSS

‘I was in Sally Brampton’s office, I think it was at Elle, and I noticed a photographer doing some test shots of this girl. I asked Sally if I could do a few rolls myself. She said yes.’ This girl was Kate Moss. ‘She just struck me and I knew she’d take a great photo. She just had something incredibly special and I could see that straight away.’ And this is one of the photographs. Today, Moss returns the compliment by calling O’Neill a ‘legend’.

ROMAN POLANSKI AND SHARON TATE

In 1968 Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls) had married Roman Polanksi (The Fearless Vampire Killers). The following year, eight and a half months pregnant, she was murdered by a deranged Satanist called Charles Manson in Polanksi’s Los Angeles home. O’Neill had been invited to the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, that very night. Happily, he missed the carnage. But O’Neill’s early portraits of Tate catch a very different mood: the jubilant optimism of a mother-to-be. The summer of love was just about to end. ‘I didn’t really know Roman — I only met him through Sharon,’ O’Neill said. ‘I took a few photos of them together, at their home in London. I mean, looking back at all of it now, and what might have been, what might have happened — they just appeared to be really happy together and her happiness, especially, I mean, she was just beaming. What a tragedy.’

SEAN CONNERY

This forgotten print was recently found on eBay. In pre-digital, pre-internet days, studios distributed black and white publicity pictures of in-production movies by post. This shows 007 on the set of Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. In an unusual pose, the suave spy has coquettishly exposed an impressively hairy calf while (apparently) hitch-hiking.

THE BEATLES WITH HAROLD WILSON

‘Because I was young, I was assigned to take photographs of the new bands emerging in Britain,’ O’Neill said. At an awards ceremony at the Dorchester in 1964, one of these new bands met the prime minister. The avuncular Wilson ‘did not know what hit him’ when introduced to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Or maybe he did: the following year, when Rubber Soul was released, The Beatles controversially received MBEs.

Terry O’Neill: Rare and Unseen is available for pre-order through www.iconicimages.net. An exhibition of O’Neill’s work opens on November 9 at Iconic Images Gallery.


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