A career like Terry O’Neill’s is the stuff of legend, and a new book of his life’s work demonstrates why. Jon Stapley talks to the man behind hundreds of famous faces.
THE NEW book Terry O’Neill, published by ACC Editions, is pretty light on text.
It doesn’t even bother with a real title.
None of it is really necessary. Terry O’Neill needs no introduction. He’s spent decades photographing the most instantly recognisable faces that have graced the planet, and his iconic pictures say more than a biography ever could.
It’s hard to pin anything down about Terry’s style of portraiture. Every shot feels different, spontaneous and tailored specifically to the subject. With that in mind, what we’re dying to know is the secret behind his methodology, his photographic techniques.
Is he able to tell us how these incredible images are made?
‘No,’ he says, ‘I hate cameras.’
‘I’m a hired gun/ he clarifies, ‘I never even take holiday snaps. I only pick up a camera when it’s a job. And don’t ask me how I do my shots — if I knew that I could make a fortune! It’s just instinct. When I first started, I just picked it up and did it my way.’
THE INSTINCTUAL APPROACH
Doing it ‘his way’ would make Terry famous. Not knowing the rules gave him fearless licence to experiment, and allowed him to create his own oft-imitated style of portraiture.
‘With every great picture you take, you’re breaking rules,’ he says, ‘and all that old-fashioned photography still exists, with people following all the rules. Fortunately, I grew up in the ’60s when people wanted to give jobs to young people and they wanted them to express themselves.’
Terry moved to Hollywood after a stint on London’s Fleet Street, and his style of laid-back flexibility combined with relentless professionalism was a revelation. Stars had become accustomed to portrait sessions being ponderous affairs, with photographers taking painstaking trouble to set up shots. Terry O’Neill would walk in and very soon walk out again, with the job done.
‘I said earlier I don’t ever take cameras on holiday, but when I was working it was never out of my hand,’ he says. ‘I was always ready to work. I didn’t stand around talking or anything like that. For somebody to walk in and get it all over with in a few minutes — the stars loved it!’
Throughout his career, Terry has repeatedly had to be ready to improvise. The cover shot of the book is a portrait of Brigitte Bardot, an exquisitely timed photograph that captures the actress’s hair blowing across her face as though it’s the easiest, most effortless thing in the world (see above right). It may look this way, but Terry reveals that he didn’t get that all-important money shot until the final frame.
That was the last shot on a roll of film,’ he says. ‘I had one chance left before we had to move on. I thought: «God, I’ve got this one portrait — when shall I take it?» At that moment, the wind blew and I just knew. And that was it; that was the shot. It’s a great shot. A lot of it was luck I suppose.’
But of course, it isn’t just luck; it’s being in a position to hit the shutter when those lucky moments come along.
‘Always be ready to take a picture,’ as Terry succinctly puts it.
DOING IT HIS WAY
Terry admits that, if someone were to force it out of him, his pick for his favourite subject would be another man who did things his way — legendary singer Frank Sinatra. Terry’s loose but intimate black & white portraiture of Sinatra captures life with a hard-working musician on tour — and few stars worked as hard as Frank.
‘I walked onto set one day and gave him a letter [of recommendation, from Eva Gardner],’ Terry recalls. ‘He looked at it and said «Right, you’re with me». Then, for the next three weeks, he totally ignored me.
And that is the secret of great photography — being there without being noticed. That was the first major lesson I learned about photography and about the art of being a good reportage portrait photographer.’
Terry went on learning lessons throughout his career, and when there were no crooners around to do the teaching he had to do it himself. From teaching himself to shoot colour to dealing with the rise of the celebrity PR (which he describes as ‘a nightmare’), he’s gained a great deal of wisdom on how to handle celebrity portraiture.
‘You’ve just got to totally immerse yourself in that person’s life and live their life for weeks or however long you’re with them,’ Terry says. ‘People expect Frank Sinatra to walk in a room and that to make tor a great picture, well that’s not the way it works. You have to show him in the way that you see him, and sometimes that means talking to people like you’re a film director, especially if they need to know how to react.’
THE LATEST CHAPTER
Terry doesn’t take many photographs these days. As he says, he’s a hired gun, and when photography is a job rather than a pleasure he doesn’t need to indulge quite so often. Like so many hired guns in classic westerns, however, he can be persuaded to take the irons off the wall for one last job.
‘These days I only do something that I’d like to do, and that’s very rare,’ he says. ‘The last thing I did was photograph Pele, because he’s the face of the next World Cup. That was really an honour and I loved photographing him. That was something that I wanted to do, because Pele fired my imagination.’
Terry admits that few people fire his imagination these days, and this is one of the reasons he decided to mostly retire from the world of photography. As a man who’s always lived in the moment, this is his first opportunity to reflect on a life well lived.
‘I just did one job after another; I never thought about not working or not taking pictures,’ he says. ‘When I look at that book myself I’m staggered by the amount of people I’ve photographed, and all the things I’ve done, and the situations I’ve got into.
Only when I looked through my archive did I realise what a fantastic life I’ve had and how lucky I’ve been.’
However, Terry is quick to brush it off in the no-nonsense, self-effacing fashion that you can’t help but suspect is part of what endeared him to so many of his subjects.
‘It was just about getting a good picture, you know? That was all I was intent on doing,’ he says.