Terry O'Neill: The East End boy who shot the stars

Terry O'Neill's portraits epitomise the swinging Sixties and stylish Seventies. Ahead of a new exhibition, he tells Charlotte Cripps the tales behind his favourite photographs

I swore I'd never fall for an actress. She was the exception, years later. I broke the rule there," Terry O'Neill is reminiscing about his ex-wife Faye Dunaway. His portrait of the American actress, taken in 1977, years before they were married, is one of his favourite photographs and will go on show alongside other gems in an exhibition in London next week. Dunaway is pictured sitting poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, the morning after she won an Academy Award for her role in Network, surrounded by newspapers, with her Oscar on the table.

"I set the shot up the night before in case she won an Oscar. I love the detail in the picture", says O'Neill, 73, who is eating a cooked breakfast in a café near his studio in South Audley Street, London. "I wanted the LA Times headline, about her co-star Peter Finch, who won his Oscar posthumously, in the shot."

In another photograph, Frank Sinatra is flanked by bodyguards on Miami Beach in 1968. O'Neill had exclusive access to the star for 30 years, thanks to Ava Gardner, with whom O'Neill was friends until she died in 1990. She wrote a letter to her then ex-husband Sinatra which gave O'Neill the green light to shoot him. "They'd split-up by then but it was obvious they were still in love with one another," recalls O'Neill. "I walked on to the set of Lady in Cement in Miami and Sinatra was reading the letter. I wish I'd known what it said," he says. "I could see why Sinatra was potty about Ava Gardner. She wasn't a femme fatale. She was just a shy little girl from North Carolina who loved walking around barefoot. But she was chased by men all over the world."

In another snap, Audrey Hepburn poses in a pool in 1967, despite the fact that she "hated water", according to O'Neill. It was taken on the set of Two for the Road with Albert Finney, with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair. In another of O'Neill's favourite shots, Clint Eastwood relaxes and reads a newspaper in his trailer in Tucson, Arizona, in 1972, while filming the western Joe Kidd.

These days O'Neill, who was born in the East End of London, has A-list stars queuing up to be photographed by him, but they remain disappointed. As a rule he photographs only his friends – most recently Eric Clapton for his new album and Michael Caine for his book cover – though occasionally he'll take photographs of other subjects that interest him. He enjoyed shadowing Nelson Mandela for a week in 2008, when the South African leader visited Britain as part of his 90-year birthday celebrations.

"In my heyday I photographed Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Richard Burton – all the greats – but today the stars don't hold a candle to them." Taking photographs of actresses bores him, he admits, because "they all look the same with those Botox injections". "I'd never retouch a photo anyway," he says. "It's all so controlled now. The PRs have ruined the intimacy my work thrived on."

O'Neill fell into photography quite by accident, which makes his story even more remarkable. He wanted to train as a jazz drummer in New York, so he applied to be an air steward with British Airways as a means of getting to the US. He ended up as a trainee in the company's technical photographic unit at Heathrow airport. As part of his apprenticeship he attended art school and began photographing people in the arrival and departure lounges for his coursework.

In 1959, he happened to snap the Home Secretary Rab Butler sleeping at the airport. The photograph ended up on the front page of the Sunday Dispatch and the editor offered him a part-time job as their airport photographer.

His refreshingly honest and intimate style soon became all the rage and he began photographing up-and-coming stars including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. "I used to hang out at the Ad Lib Club in London during the 1960s with the Beatles and the Stones. At the time I was higher up the pecking order than they were, as I used to get all their photos in the newspapers. We used to laugh at the thought of Mick Jagger singing at 40. 'What jobs are we going to have when this is all over?' we'd say."

O'Neill fast became one of the most published photographers of the 1960s and 1970s. "The first year I didn't know what I was doing. I was photographing everybody from Vidal Sassoon and Mary Quant to Jean Shrimpton. It's only looking back that I see how incredible it is that I became the unofficial recorder of the people who made the 1960s happen."

Now O'Neill is focusing on exhibitions of his work; he's trying to break into China and has shows lined up all over the world, including one in Moscow next year. This current exhibition of photographs at London's The Little Black Gallery, in Chelsea, is a welcome trip down memory lane.

A 1963 photograph of Marianne Faithfull wearing a black basque transformed the wholesome country girl, showing her in a new, glamorous light, while Tom Jones is photographed in Pontypridd in 1974, standing outside the house in which he was born, with his brand new Rolls Royce in the background. "I wanted to capture the sense of the 'local boy made good'." Elsewhere, Raquel Welch hangs on a cross wearing the fur bikini from her film One Million Years BC. "She said to me, 'Wearing that bloody fur bikini in the film crucified me.' I thought, 'What a great shot that would be, to put her on a cross.'"

Other photographs include David Bowie sitting next to a giant dog standing on its hind legs, for a publicity shot for his Diamond Dogs album cover, and Rod Stewart wearing a leopard-skin suit that matches the piebald horses he's posing with at his home in Old Windsor in 1971. Elsewhere, the image of Brigitte Bardot as a cowgirl on the set of The Legend of French King in 1971, comes from the same roll of film as his infamous shot of her with a cigar, which hangs permanently in the National Portrait Gallery.

The photographer's only regret is that he didn't keep all his negatives safe. "I've got an incredible archive but there is an incredible amount of stuff missing. I've got no idea where it's gone. I'd love to have the photographs I took of President Kennedy." That said, O'Neill doesn't have his own photographs hanging on the walls of his Battersea home. "I'm sick to death of looking at them all day – I need a break when I get home."



Terry O'Neill: Guys & Dolls, The Little Black Gallery, London SW10 ( Thelittleblackgallery.com) 1 September to 30 October

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders