The man who shot the stars
Photographs by the iconic British photographer Terry O’Neill can be seen — and bought — at Rosphoto.
Published: April 27, 2011 (Issue # 1653)
The French actress Brigitte Bardot, now a prominent animal rights activist, is pictured with a dog.
Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Brigitte Bardot, Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II. Other than being famous across the globe, it might seem that they have little in common. But at various times, they have all been in the camera lens of Terry O’Neill.
While his subjects are popular among the general public, O’Neill is famous in celebrity circles, which may be twice as precious. “I’m pleased,” he says. “It means they are happy with my work. They are hard people to work with. You have to be the best to work with them, or you won’t be there.”
The son of Irish immigrants raised in the London’s East End, O’Neill left school when he was 14 to become a jazz drummer. “I was trying to get to America to be an air steward, so I joined British airways,” he said. But the only job available was at the photography unit. “That’s how I started photography, and then it was slowly over for the jazz drumming. Rock and roll came in and nobody was really listening to jazz. So I decided to become a photographer.”
Fortune, luck and opportunity have been O’Neill’s companions throughout life. He was the first to shoot the Beatles and Rolling Stones just before they got famous, being only a couple of years older than them. But it all started with “a picture I took accidentally of the British Foreign secretary, Rab Butler, sitting at a London airport with a load of African chiefs on their way back to Africa,” recounts the photographer. “And he was falling asleep. He was in a pin-stripe suit. And I just thought it was an interesting picture. I had no idea who he was.” The Daily Sketch bought the photograph and offered O’Neill the job of covering the airport. “And that’s the picture that started my whole career, so I guess that was my lucky break.”
The cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” album was also taken by chance. During the shoot, the dog was lying quietly at Bowie’s feet, but right after O’Neill said the photo shoot was over, the dog leapt up. Everybody started with surprise, except Bowie, who didn’t move a muscle. Fortunately O’Neill still had his camera in his hands and captured the dog on film just as it jumped. That was the picture that later become the album cover of “Diamond Dogs.”
Terry O’Neill is like a man from another epoch. He distrusts digital photography and thinks that there are no contemporary stars. Nor will there be, he says, until one thing happens: “When the PR people stop controlling everything,” he said. “It might take 10 to 20 years for a new star to appear.”
Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison, who embraced Indian culture.
He is skeptical about the capabilities of today’s celebrities: “I don’t think they’ve got the talent. All the time I was working, all those people really had talent. Sinatra was going from top to bottom, top to bottom. He made a comeback three times. And if they can’t make it today they’re gone, they never come back. Sinatra was the king of them all.”
According to O’Neill, photographers also have their ups and downs, but what makes a really good professional is the ability to move forward. “I keep working, I keep taking pictures. I always realize I’ve got to beat the last picture I’ve taken,” he says. “Always try to do the best you can, no matter what conditions or anything [you’re faced with]. There are going to be bad periods when you won’t get good pictures, but you’ve just got to go on taking pictures. And one day it’ll be all right.”
O’Neill told The St. Petersburg Times that the most exciting part of his job was “meeting all those great people all the time. At the very first job I had at the newspaper, I photographed the Beatles, and I’ve never looked back. Everyone I’ve photographed has been someone famous. So it’s been a really exciting life for me.”
Despite being among stars all his life, O’Neill doesn’t consider himself a celebrity, but pays respect to the people he has photographed, who were not just pop stars, but diamonds of the celebrity world.
“I see them as big stars,” he says. “That’s the way I shoot them. I try not to take ordinary pictures of them. They deserve something to match their talent. I try to shoot them with the respect they deserve.”
“Terry O’Neill and His Shining Stars” runs through May 29 at Rosphoto center, 35 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, with the aid of Renaissance credit bank. The exhibits are available for purchase. For additional information, see www.rosphoto.org/en. Tel: 314 1214.