Desmond O'Neill

Old-guard celebrity photographer

Desmond O'Neill, photographer: born London 14 February 1923; married Yvonne Wingate (three sons); died Oxshott, Surrey 8 May 2003.

The career of the society press photographer Desmond O'Neill stretched from the portrayal of post-war aristocracy to the celebrity cultism of today. As a documenter of the rich and famous at their groomed best, he provided a window into a world through which the public could peer, sometimes critically, often with longing.

Unlike his illustrious predecessors Beaton and Baron, who saw themselves as denizens of a glittering world as well as documenters of it, O'Neill was a practical photographer of people and events. Like the wedding photographer who organises the guests into groups, and makes sure that even the most retiring cousin appears in the photograph, O'Neill made it his job to ensure that the right people were photographed in the right place at the right time. The record which he made of English post-war society, published in the pages of the glossy magazines, is, nevertheless, as interesting a comment on fame and fortune as those more celebrated and critical photojournalistic chronicles which have become so firmly established within the history of reportage.

In common with many photographers of his generation, Desmond O'Neill gained his most significant photographic experience in the Army Film and Photography Unit. The "sergeant-photographers" (who included Bert Hardy, later a Picture Post star), trained by Bill Horton at Pinewood, were able to travel and work as members of the British army and were not subject to the usual press restrictions. "Restage an interesting or unusual episode," they were advised by the ministry,

and do avoid overdoing the "cheery" stuff . . . while there's no need to make all your pictures grim or dour, you must go out to treat serious subjects seriously. Men doing blood-and-guts exercises shouldn't wear wide grins . . . When you select men for photographing, choose the sturdiest, toughest types.

O'Neill excelled as a cine photographer in the unit. He landed at Sword Beach in Normandy on D-Day and, despite being wounded on landing, brought his film back to England, where it was shown on Pathe News.

After the war, O'Neill worked for Soldier magazine as a staff photographer. Many old army colleagues had gravitated to newspaper and magazine work, and, most significantly for O'Neill, Philip Youngman Carter had become editor of The Tatler, then, as now, the house journal of the English aristocracy. Leaving his secure staff job at Soldier, O'Neill embarked on an infinitely more precarious career as a freelance, with work published first of all in The Tatler, and later for a whole range of glossies, including the prestigious Queen magazine.

Before the cult of fame was celebrated in the full colour of Hello!'s lavish spreads, celebrity photography was a decorous and low-key, if highly demanding occupation. In The Tatler's "Jennifer's Diary", edited by Betty Kenwood, aristocratic events were described and recorded. Garden parties, race meetings, court events, balls were noted in meticulous detail. Britain was undergoing a period of rapid social, economic and cultural change, but, reassuringly, Jennifer's Diary and O'Neill's photographs presented a picture of an old and untroubled solidity.

Like all successful photographers, O'Neill knew how to change with the times. British magazine publishing expanded and changed enormously during the early Sixties. New generations of artists, writers, actors, designers and critics had taken the establishment by storm. He began to work regularly for Queen; among his colleagues there were the art editor Mark Boxer and the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon).

Queen's editors were interested in the new, the radical and even the outrageous. They were looking for a new, wider and younger audience than The Tatler's. When Jennifer's Diary - with Betty Kenwood - moved to Queen, O'Neill was instrumental in persuading Kenwood to look at a wider aristocracy, the new Sixties cultural glitterati and the rapidly emerging European jet set. He photographed the wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, produced memorable images of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, and made a photograph of Lord Lucan shortly before his disappearance after the murder of his children's nanny which has become one of the most published photographs in newspaper history.

His social ease with the rich and famous and his huge photographic experience made him the obvious choice as a regular contributor to Hello! magazine in the early Eighties. His company, Desmond O'Neill Features, which he ran with his son Dominic, also a photographer, continues to supply photographs of corporate, cultural, fund-raising and society events across the media.

Desmond O'Neill's photographs are always of people posing for the camera in sumptuous surroundings; there are no snatched moments, no journalistic narratives, no desire to penetrate the façade. Like an 18th-century portrait painter, O'Neill pictured his subjects as they wanted to be pictured, with the trappings of wealth and glamour carefully displayed - ready to face the world.

Val Williams

Comments