Even if you haven’t heard of the name Terry O’Neill, the chances are you have seen some of his iconic pieces of work. This is because the photographer has shot the likes of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Chuck Berry, Winston Churchill, and Nelson Mandela to name just a few.
O’Neill was born in 1938 in the east end of London, and started to carve his career as a photographer just 20 years later, after his dream of becoming a professional jazz musician didn’t come to fruition.
By 1960, he managed to get a job as the youngest photographer at The Daily Sketch, a British tabloid of that era.
Consequently, he was thrown in the deep end, snapping some of the biggest names in the rock and pop world during, arguably, the most exciting time in music. He photographed The Beatles as they were starting out, as well as the early careers of The Stones.
His ability to capture ‘real’, unposed and exposing photos of the world’s biggest names meant he got jobs for Vogue, Paris Match and Rolling Stone magazine in his early 20s.
O’Neill became renowned in Hollywood, and even married Faye Dunaway. His shots of the Oscar-winning actress by a Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool in a robe, surrounded by newspapers on the morning after her Academy Award victory with her golden gong on the table remains one of the most famous pieces of photographic work. One of these images is currently on auction and is expected to collect up to $8,000 (£6,723) when bidding closes later this month.
Another image from this series of photos remains in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Although this picture is seen as the ultimate Hollywood photo, O’Neill also snapped Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, and more recent stars, Nicole Kidman, Sean Connery, Amy Winehouse, and Daniel Craig.
Instead of photographing landscapes, natural disasters, fashion or nature, the Londoner concentrated his skills on capturing youth culture and portraits of the world’s most famous faces. He did this during a time before social media, digital cameras, and smartphones when images of celebrities were far scarcer.
He previously said: “You can’t take candid shots of today’s celebrities because they are brands and their management demand control of the images. It means the public only gets to see what the stars want them to see – or what the paparazzi can snatch… honesty, immediacy and intimacy has been extinguished and any reality is distorted through the lens of stalker photographers.”
O’Neill’s reputation became so well-known he was asked to snap the British Royal Family, as well as politicians, to show them in a more natural and human way.
His work includes many warm photos of the late Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as Lord Snowdon and Sarah Ferguson. He was also commissioned to snap Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Neil Kinnock, Churchill, and Paddy Ashdown.
In 2004, he was given an honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society before being awarded its Centenary medal in 2011.
O’Neill passed away in 2019, the same year he was appointed a CBE for services to photography.
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