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

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