David Bowie for Diamond Dog, 1974. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
Heʼs shot them all. Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Brigitte Bardot. London-born Terry OʼNeill was twenty-one when his career as an icon photographer took flight. By the sixties, he was off to L.A., documenting the lives of legends, spending three weeks straight with Frank Sinatra. He was twenty-four-years-old.
Thereʼs an etherial quality to Terry OʼNeillʼs work. A dreamlike transcendence that sings. He captures the moment, as if sweeping it up and bottling it – dust particles ʼnʼ all. Youʼre there. You can smell whatʼs been swallowed, you can feel the caress of the sunʼs gaze from that day and the metallic tap to the spine, induced by its absence. This is hedonism in pictures. Clamber in and take a dip.
Bowie and Taylor, 1975. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"None of us thought the moment would last. I remember Ringo was thinking about buying a chain of hair salons."
What is it about your hero Eugene Smith that particularly strikes a chord in you?
I think itʼs the moment that strikes me, the emotion of the photo. He was such a master – and when I first started out, thatʼs what I thought I wanted to be. I had to cover a major plane crash for the paper once, and was then asked to go back to cover the funerals. Thatʼs when I decided I wasnʼt cut out for that line of work. It was too hard! I was much happier taking photos of The Beatles.
Am I right in thinking The Beatles were the first band you ever shot?
I think they must have been. I was the young kid on Fleet Street – probably at least twenty years younger than the next photographer – and that was very much on purpose. The editor said to me, “Look, we think kids are going to be really big and we need a photographer their age. Go down to Abbey Road. Thereʼs a band there recording, and weʼd like to run a photo of them.“ When I went down to the recording studio, I suddenly realised I didnʼt really know how to take a photo of a band! Paul, John and George were all playing guitars, so that was pretty easy. But then, how do I show that Ringo is the drummer? I know – Iʼll have him hold up his sticks and a symbol! Looking back at this photo now, itʼs pretty comical. But the photo ran and the papers sold out. The editor was right – kids were going to be really big.
Were you aware of how big The Beatles were?
At that photo session, they were just lads playing music. They were around my age! The funny thing is, a year or two later when I was in L.A. taking photos of real Hollywood legends like Fred Astaire, they all wanted to talk to me about were The Beatles! I figured, ‘Blimey, if Fred Astaireʼs asking me about The Beatles, they must be big!ʼ In the years that followed, weʼd often meet up at the Ad-Lib pub in Covent Garden. Weʼd have a few drinks and laugh about what we were all going to do next, after our ride was over. None of us thought the moment would last. The next band would come along, the next film-star, the next model... and weʼd all have to get proper jobs. I remember Ringo was thinking about buying a chain of hair salons. Weʼd laugh at even the idea of Mick [Jagger] on-stage at the age of forty. Look at him now, still touring.
The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios, 1963. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"The editor was right – kids were going to be really big."
You spent three weeks shooting Sinatra. When youʼre with someone for that amount of time, you must surely see their vulnerable moments. Did you experience anything like this with the icons youʼve worked with?
You do. When you spend that much time with one person, you become part of their lives, in a way. But I never took that for granted – and I never, ever wanted to take a photo that I wouldnʼt be proud of. In the late ‘60s, I was travelling back to London – I can tell this story now. I donʼt remember what airport I was in, but I saw a guy completely out of it, slumped over in the waiting area, and it was Brian Jones. Now, when I first started to work with Brian and The Rolling Stones, he was the leader. He was even paid a bit more than everyone else! But the drugs and alcohol won him over, and there he was, absolutely wrecked. I didnʼt take that photo. He passed away only a few months later, aged twenty- seven.
Whatʼs the best way to get to know the people in front of the camera when youʼre under time constraints?
Just point and click! When I took photos of Amy Winehouse, she was performing at Nelson Mandelaʼs 90th birthday celebration in London. I really wanted to take her photo, but I had all of a minute to do it. I asked her to stop, look at me and snap, snap, snap.
David Bowie at the Marquee Club, 1973. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"When you spend that much time with one person, you become part of their lives. I never took that for granted."
Whatʼs your favourite memory of David Bowie?
I really enjoyed working with him, because it was always a different setting, character, moment – and he was always professional... Except that one time! It was 1975, Los Angeles. Elizabeth Taylor rang me up, and she was really interested in meeting David Bowie to speak about a role in an upcoming film she was involved in. She asked if I could arrange it, so I made the calls and a lunch was set at director George Cukorʼs home. Around 1pm, no Bowie. 2, 3, 4.... Then around 5c30 or so, he pulled-up. No one keeps Elizabeth waiting! The light goes early in Los Angeles, and I knew if I didnʼt get a few shots in, I would miss the chance. Elizabeth instinctively knew that too, and she swept him up in her arms. I was able to capture some wonderful images of them together, the first time they met. Needless to say, he didnʼt get the part in that film, but they did go on to be lifelong friends.
What was your relationship like, would you call Bowie a friend?
I would, yes, but he was working non-stop at that time – recording, touring, filming – everything. I worked with him on film-sets [Man Who Fell to Earth], on-stage [Diamond Dogs], in the recording studio [Young Americans], and I always enjoyed it. I was able to capture some great photos.
David Bowie, 1974. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"I really enjoyed working with Bowie, because it was always a different setting, character, moment – and he was always professional. Except that one time..."
Do you think he was hiding behind his Ziggy Stardust imagery?
No, not at all. He had dozens of characters throughout his life, his career. When he was Ziggy, he was playing that role. When he ended Ziggy, I think of it as an actor finishing a performance on-stage. Then itʼs on to the next role!
Bowieʼs said in the past that he felt like an actor when on stage, rather than a rock artist. Having worked with actors and musicians heavily, how did you see him?
Exactly like that. He was one of the first musicians I ever worked with who transformed on-stage into a different character.
David Bowie at the Marquee Club, 1973. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"We just published a book called ‘When Ziggy Played the Marquee.ʼ I canʼt believe how many photos I took – rolls and rolls."
You were there during Bowieʼs final Ziggy Stardust performance. What was the atmosphere like backstage, did he seem melancholic?
He didnʼt – I think he moved on months prior to the Marquee performance. He did a big show at Hammersmith a few months before the Marquee, and it was at that show that he announced this would be the last Ziggy performance. And, in many ways, it was. The Marquee performance was being shot for television, so it wasnʼt a typical concert. Theyʼd do one song several times to make sure the cameras got different angles and the shots were right. It felt like I was working on set of a film more than a live gig. I was given all-access, which was great, because I took a lot of photos backstage, during rehearsals and of the fans.
And those shots are now available in hardback!
We just published a book called ‘When Ziggy Played the Marquee.ʼ I canʼt believe how many photos I took – rolls and rolls. So many of the fans came to the book events – fans who were there, that day, at the Marquee. It was great – and I have to say, David Bowie has the most loyal fans.
The Rolling Stones, 1963. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"I saw what drugs and alcohol could do to a person, how it could seriously destroy the most talented of them all."
You must have seen Bowieʼs ups and downs, having spent a lot of time with him in the seventies. Did you try to help?
That was his business, you know? And, to be honest, there were a lot of people trying all sorts of things from the ‘60s on. I think that was the main reason why I stayed away from all of it. I saw what drugs and alcohol could do to a person, how it could seriously destroy the most talented of them all. Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse – weʼve lost way too many people to drugs.
Youʼve said in interviews before that you never particularly liked Bowieʼs singing. Did you ever tell him that?
Of course not! I was a photographer, and that was my job. I wasnʼt a critic – who cares what I thought of his music? What I did know is that he made a great photo, and thatʼs what was important. But I worked with so many different types of musicians, from Sinatra to Elton John, AC/DC, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Stones, Beatles, the list goes on and on and on. Everyone knew I loved jazz.
Amy Winehouse, London, 2008. Photo: Terry O'Neill © Iconic Images
"Just point and click! Snap, snap, snap."
So why was Sinatra the only jazz musician you photographed?
The answer is simple! I was too busy listening to the music to even think of taking a photo.
Now, how about an autobiography?
Oh, well, you see – Iʼve been lucky. Really, really lucky. And Iʼve had the most incredible life. The people Iʼve met, the places Iʼve been – incredible. But I would never want to betray the trust people put in me to sell a few books!
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Terry O'Neill's Rock 'n' Roll Album
Out now: Terry O'Neill's Rock 'n' Roll Album
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