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An interview with photographer Terry O’Neill

13 August 2017

Over the course of his illustrious career, photographer Terry O’Neill has uniquely captured the evolution of pop culture. Through his lens, the charismatic Londoner witnessed and recorded the ever-changing zeitgeist, beginning with the mop-haired bands descending on the capital in the midst of the swinging Sixties, right through to modern-day icons such as Amy Winehouse, as London Calling discovers.

Iconic, pioneering, original and inspiring – it’s strange to think the career path of Mr Terry O’Neill took many a swerve before photography came into focus. Nowadays, with his work frequently exhibited the world over, it is fitting that he has custody of The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary medal; yet O’Neill actually got his first iconic shot when attempting to follow a career as an air steward with British Airways.
 
“British Airways used to give me homework on the weekends,” he begins. “I went down the airport photographing people coming in, saying goodbye, crying, all this reportage kind of stuff. One day at Heathrow, I took a shot of a guy in a pinstripe suit who had fallen asleep amongst some African chieftains.”
 
The amateur photographer didn’t think much of the shot at the time, but when a reporter asked if he could give the picture to an editor, it turned out to be a request that changed everything. “I didn’t know it but the sleeping guy was Rad Butler, the English Foreign Secretary at the time,” he explains. “It turned out to be quite an important picture. The editor saw my film and liked the pictures, so he said, ‘I’d like you to cover the airport for me every Saturday and Sunday’, and it went from there.”


Terence Stamp © Terry O'Neill
 
Suddenly, O’Neill had become a photographer. “I never really knew what I was doing; I had a cheap little camera - it was a joke really, but I got by. I stumbled into photography - I always thought it was something really clever; I never believed I would make a living out of it!”
 
From these unusual beginnings came a career in Fleet Street, and a route to snapping the legends of an era. As the faces in focus became more recognisable, the ingenuity of his position became even more opportune.
 
“I was the youngest photographer in Fleet Street by 12 years, and they’d say, ‘we want to get interested in pop music, we think it’s going to be big’,” he explains. “So I’d go down to shoot a group and it would be The Beatles, recording Please Please Me. And when that was published and the paper sold out, they’d say, ‘who else do you rate?’ I liked The Rolling Stones, because they played the blues, so I went to photograph them but the papers were horrified by them - they thought they were five monsters!


Faye Dunaway © Terry O'Neill
 
“I had to find another group, and I found the Dave Clark Five. The paper ran that as ‘Beauty and the Beasts’ and it flew off the shelves. We didn’t know it at the time but all this was the first cultural acceptance of pop music and rock ‘n’ roll culture in mainstream media.
 
“In those days they were all individual singers - Johnny Ray, Frankie Lane, Guy Mitchell, Val Doonican - nobody had ever seen a pop group before. I happened to be there at an important time - God pointed a light and the light hit me, thank God.”
 
As well as the treasure trove of images that O’Neill curated to capture this musical moment in time in the city, his memories of that time paint a vivid picture of the capital in a transitional era when names like McCartney, Lennon and Jagger were not yet the household names they were to become.
 
“I remember sitting with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in this club, and we used to discuss what jobs we were going to get when all this was over, because we couldn’t believe we were getting paid to do something we really loved, and we thought one day we would have to own up.


David Bowie © Terry O'Neill
 
“It was when all the poor kids took over from the toffs of London really,” laughs the Chelsea resident. “It was when the kids from Liverpool came down and took over the party.
 
“It was an incredible time and I just picked it up - I photographed all the people who made the 1960s what they were, and I’m lucky to be able to look back on a set of pictures that truly document a very special period in time.”
 
While O’Neill’s images are a lasting memento of a career’s worth of adventures, this undisputed king of camerawork is however unable to choose a favourite photograph. “No, I love all of them,” he assures us. Though, at a push, he does relent… “I love Audrey Hepburn and wish I’d spent more time with her. She wasn’t my type of girl although she was the friendliest and nicest. You never could get a bad picture of her, she was incredible – and it was only after she retired you realised how great she was. I would have liked to do more with her.”


Audrey Hepburn © Terry O'Neill
 
Now happy to take a backseat from the whirlwind nature of the modern paparazzi, O’Neill believes there is still a lot for an amateur photographer to get excited about in London. “The great thing about London is its multiculturalism. We didn’t have that back in the day – if you wanted to see a different culture you’d need to go abroad.
 
“Now, in London, you can walk 50 yards down the road and picture people from every corner of the globe; you can picture great wealth and abject poverty. As a photographer, you have to be inspired by what you see whilst leaving your preconceptions at the door.
 
“London remains probably the planet’s best case study because there’s so much to explore.”
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