A unique ability to capture humanity made him as famous as his subjects

David Bowie in Los Angeles (1974)
Kate Moss (1992)
Elton John (1973)
Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher for ‘Star Wars’ (1977)
The Beatles recording ‘Please Please Me’ in the backyard of Abbey Road Studios (1963)
The Rolling Stones at Hanover Square in London (1964)
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Hollywood Royalty

O’Neill photographed sports heroes, supermodels, real and Hollywood royalty and household-name rock stars. His skill in forming close professional relationships with them allowed him to take candid photos that revealed the humanity and vulnerability of his famous subjects. The Stars exhibition at the Fotografiska New York features 110 photographs, from crisp portraiture to playful behind-the-scenes snapshots, created by O’Neill from 1963 to 2013.

O’Neill left school, at the age of fourteen, in 1952 to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz drummer. In 1958, he planned to go to New York and study with the greats. He prepared to get hired as an air steward, thinking a job at an airline would enable him to travel to New York City and play in the jazz clubs between his work. Instead, British Airways gave him a job as a technical photographer. The job required taking photographs of people arriving and departing the terminals, so he snapped a picture of a man sleeping. That man happened to be surrounded by African chieftains in full regalia; he was also the British Home Secretary. His photo was published on the front page of a prominent newspaper and led to a photojournalist position. That was 1959.      

The Beetles & The Rolling Stones

By 1963, O’Neill left the security of being an employee to become a freelance photographer. Being young and a musician, he was commissioned to take a few portraits of this new band calling themselves The Beatles. His was the first image of the group to appear in a national newspaper. This was quickly followed by publicity shots for The Rolling Stones, which Keith Richards would later remark was instrumental in the band’s early success. Becoming an “insider”, he was trusted and took candid images. He hung out with them at the Ad Lib Club in London’s Leicester Square. O’Neill was courteous, polite, professional and charismatic. He also paid attention to details and quickly became an excellent photographer. His A-list of clients expanded, and he became as much of a star as his subjects. He was a friend of stars and a consummate insider. He introduced, then photographed, Elizabeth Taylor and David Bowie. He married Faye Dunaway several years after taking a memorable photo of her by a pool the morning after her Academy Award win.

But O’Neill did not like the fame associated with being Mr Dunaway. He preferred to be behind rather than in front of cameras. In a 2015 interview with Stuart Heaver for the SCMP, O’Neill commented on seeing a published photograph of himself attending a prize fight with Frank Sinatra. He realised that was wrong, that he had to choose between being best friends with Sinatra or being a photographer. He chose the latter and subsequently developed an instinct for staying out of the limelight. Heaver concluded, “It was his talent for accessing his famous subjects’ lives without becoming part of them that gave O’Neill his unique photographic perspective.”

Elton John & David Bowie

O’Neill’s success can be partially attributed to being at the right place and time. London in the sixties and seventies was an epicentre of creativity in the film and music industries. There was a shift in demand for images that captured the human side of famous people rather than the previously popular, carefully crafted public personas. That change in taste suited O’Neill’s way of working. With patience, humour, and an easygoing manner, he would put his subjects at ease and create a relaxed atmosphere that enabled his subjects to reveal more of themselves. For instance, he would be on movie sets for prolonged hours and get to know the actors. He toured with Elton John and David Bowie. His subjects were comfortable with him, and he was there to capture unscripted moments. He was also willing to experiment with camera angles and frequently shot using natural light. The effect was to create a soft and natural look or to provide shadows and contrast that created visually striking images. In these ways, he consistently captured intimate moments of some of the world’s most guarded and image-conscious people.    

Terry O’Neill: Stars

Terry O’Neill passed away from cancer in 2019 and will be remembered as one of the most influential photographers of his time. His unique ability to capture the vulnerability and humanity of our stars made him as famous as his subjects. Yet he remained humble and likeable and helped to shape our collective memory and cultural identity. This exhibition celebrates O’Neill’s lifetime of friendships and provides a historically significant trove of visual culture.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Terry O’Neill