Terry O'Neill is a British photographer who, since the early 1960s, has been documenting the great legends of pop. His list of subjects includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the British Royal family, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, and Orson Welles, among others. In the 1960s, O'Neill used the-then-still novel 35mm film camera that offered a distinctly candid and more casual approach to photography. With the 35mm, O'Neill was able to create photographs discreetly, candidly and spontaneously, with less distance between him and his subjects. In 1963, his first-ever photograph was published, a now-classic image of The Beatles while they were recording their debut studio album, Please, Please Me, shot in the yard in the back of Abbey Studios. The iconic photographs O'Neill took of legends such as The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Elton John helped establish a visual language for their larger-than-life personas early in the artists' careers. According to O'Neill, "No one had ever photographed a pop group before so I could get away with anything. I just did what I thought a pop group should look like." O'Neill's career as celebrity portraitist has spanned over fifty years, and the photographer continues to photograph his favorite sitters such as Eric Clapton.
TERRY IN HIS OWN WORDS
In 1960 I was a jazz drummer and I wanted a job as a flight attendant so I could work the jazz clubs during New York stopovers. Instead they gave me a camera and told me to photograph people at Heathrow airport. I didn’t know anything about cameras, I taught myself!
I was so into the music scene I was spotting upcoming bands - the newspapers couldn’t get enough. I found The Beatles in Abbey Road recording Please Please Me in early 1963, their first hit. Then another called the Rolling Stones. We were all so young. John, Paul, Mick, Keith, we used to talk about getting proper jobs in banks. Maybe we’d have two years if we were lucky and then the screaming would stop.
But it didn’t stop. It just got bigger. I’d be backstage with the bands then I’d be on the set of a Bond movie, the next minute I’d be in Hollywood hanging out with the biggest stars in the world. My subjects let me up close and personal. And there were no digital cameras and computers to manipulate images. These days everything you see is digitally enhanced and controlled by management and marketing people.
Now I seem to be on a plane every other week. Galleries all over the world ask to mount exhibitions of my work. I’m on the road for maybe 10 or 12 weeks a year going from city to city. I might be pushing the trolley selling perfume if I hadn’t been handed a camera.