Terry O’Neill | A Beautiful Life

It’s 6am on March 29, 1977 at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool where Faye Dunaway, dressed in a silk robe and high heels, sits in a daze with a pot of tea and the Oscar she won just hours earlier for her role in Network. 

“I wanted to capture that dazed look, because the next day they’re dazed. They realize they’ve got the world in their hands – their money’s gone from 100,000 to 5 million and they’ve got the pick of every script. I wanted to capture that, I like capturing moments like these because they tell a story,” says Terry O’Neill, the man behind the iconic photo of Dunaway and thousands more featuring legends of the 20th century – from Frank Sinatra to Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn to Sean Connery – at their most candid, perhaps even their most human moments. 

I asked O’Neill what the secret was to capturing those perfect moments on film. He responded with “you just have to be there, innit?”

Upon meeting O’Neill, it was easy to see how he was able to take such raw and honest images of even the shyest of subjects; he’s warm, inviting and genuinely interested in people – at times I began to wonder whether I was interviewing him or vice versa. 

On top of this, he’s kind with not a harsh word to say about anyone, not the notoriously hot-tempered Naomi Campbell – “she’s a really great girl,” he says, with emphasis on ‘really’ – and not even the ever controversial, late Amy Winehouse.

“I met Amy Winehouse whilst photographing Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. I wanted to get a picture of everyone who sang for him at this concert. Amy had just come out of rehab in a London clinic; she came and sang then went straight back to the clinic. She was fantastic. Truly one of the last talented musicians.” 

O’Neill’s modesty is a humbling reprieve from the current state of the entertainment world – where a song becomes ‘old’ or ‘outdated’ within weeks, O’Neill still looks upon work he’s done 50 years ago with so much pride and tells the stories behind them with such unaffected passion. 

I catch myself smiling as he walks me through his exhibition Terry O’Neill: Icons at Picture This Gallery in Hong Kong, patiently telling me how he met each subject and telling anecdotes from his experiences with them. We stop at a photo of Frank Sinatra, strutting down a boardwalk in Miami with his entourage in tow.  

“I met [Frank] through Ava Gardner. He was great to me. We were friends for 30 odd years and I could go anywhere with him, do anything. He paid me the greatest compliment of all and that was he left me alone, he just let me shoot,” O’Neill recalls fondly. “Frank was the biggest personality of them all. Anywhere we went he made it his kind of town. I used to be with him the days before his shows and he would work with the orchestra – I could see him building this mood and the day of the show was this incredible adrenaline. He was an incredible artist. There will never be another Sinatra."

A sigh, a moment of silence, and we move on to the next frame. 

“That’s Kate Moss when she was perhaps 17.” We’re looking at a black and white portrait of a young, fresh-faced Moss in a fishnet bodysuit. “Elle Magazine were testing her and asked me if I could take a few frames to see what she was like.” 

O’Neill was the first to photograph the likes of Kate Moss, The Beatles and Mick Jagger before anyone cared to know who they were. As a teen, he had hopes of being a big-time jazz drummer in the United States and landed a job at the British Airways photographic unit to get himself across the Atlantic. “It was three days off in New York then three days off in London.” The turning point for O’Neill was when he unknowingly snapped a photo of Rad Butler – Britain’s Home Secretary at the time – asleep amongst a group of African Chieftans at Heathrow airport. “A reporter from The Daily Sketch saw me and gave the picture to his editor, that was the start of everything. 

It was a kind of calm before the storm for O’Neill, who became the youngest dispatch photographer on Fleet Street. “My editor said to me ‘I’ve got you here because we think pop music is going to be big, there’s a new band called The Beatles and I want you to photograph them down at Abbey Road Studios’. No one knew who they were at the time,” he recalls. “You see, all the people at the time were 35 and older, I was 20 years old. They didn’t want to call up some old fuddy duddy and have to explain who the band was. I got on with the bands, and a young person could get young people into a newspaper became very important at that time.” 

Once O’Neill’s photos were published, his career snowballed. Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager for The Rolling Stones, personally called him to shoot the band and before long, he was a regular at the Ad Lib Club in Leicester Square hanging out with both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. 

“We all used to sit and talk about what we would do when it was all over. We all thought this was all going to be for just one or two years and then it would be over. We used to laugh at the idea of Mick Jagger singing at 40. None of us thought it would last and of course, it did,” O’Neill remembers. “After a couple of years I left the newspaper and went to Hollywood where I met all big stars like Fred Astaire and Shirly Maclaine, and all they wanted to do was talk about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. That’s when I realised this was for real.”

He looks at me and smiles, “I’ve had a great life.”