Terry O’Neill just told me that he hates cameras. When I ask him when he last picked one up, it takes him a moment before he tells me it had to be at least six months ago, for an ad campaign for a Swedish clothing company.
People who know O’Neill, and his library of work, might find this shocking. For everyone else, let’s just say it’s quite a statement from a man who has spent decades producing iconic photos of rock stars and Hollywood’s A-list celebrities, moulding their public image with a snap of his shutter. (In full disclosure, his photo for The Who’s Who Are You?
album cover hung on my bedroom wall throughout my teen years and shaped my taste for rock music.)
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The Who, Who Are You? (1978)
Photo by Terry O'Neill. Courtesy of Picture This Gallery, Hong Kong.[/caption]
O’Neill spent days or weeks, embedded with the likes of Frank Sinatra, waiting for that perfect moment, and “click”, an image was captured, a look, a strut, an utterance that would become the reference point for a celebrity in the mind’s of their fans. But those days are gone, replaced by a structure of press agents and back-seat creative directors guided by a mission to protect the image of their famous bosses, or rather clients. It’s not the Wild West anymore, it’s a sanitised world ruled by image consultants, and O’Neill says the work is suffering.
Sitting in the Clipper Lounge of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, the hotel designed by his father-in-law Don Ashton, the morning crowd is a mix of guests draped over their chairs, slowly plotting the day’s excursions, and fitted suits hunched over breakfast plates and strategizing between sips of coffee. O’Neill treads the line somewhere in between, excited to explore Hong Kong (it’s his first time in our city, which he describes as a “luxury version of New York") and business-minded, ready for another day of meetings and interviews promoting the launch of his latest photographic exhibit, a chore he says he dislikes but has practiced enough to come across as enjoying it.
O’Neill is reminiscing about Sinatra, turning my question about his work sideways and shining the spotlight on Old Blue Eyes. He describes life among the great crooner, experiencing his presence and how he made a town his just by occupying it for a few days during his tours, “psyching himself up” until that moment when he took the stage and announced his arrival with a snap of the microphone’s cord.
His photograph of the singer, turning a corner in the company of a body double and a bodyguard was a reflex for O’Neill, identifying the moment and photographing it, a man protected yet vulnerable, a duality he knows well.
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Singer and actor Frank Sinatra, with his minders and his stand in (who is wearing an identical outfit to him), arriving at Miami beach while filming, 'The Lady in Cement', 1968. Photo by Terry O'Neill. Courtesy of Picture This Gallery, Hong Kong.[/caption]
O’Neill has spent the majority of his work and life balancing his proximity to fame, starting with a career launched as a 20-year-old amateur photographer by a photo of the up and coming Beatles because his editor thought pop music would be big in ‘60s, and at times swinging him in front of the lens, most famously during his marriage to Faye Dunaway. For the record, he prefers life skirting the fading edges of fame’s glow, capturing a moment and freezing it in time, before returning to the privacy of the shadows.
But back to his strong feelings towards the tool that made him famous. To O’Neill a photo is conceptualized, shot, and developed in his mind with the camera being the necessary evil so others can see his thoughts. He’s never liked cameras and he never brings his work home, not even to photograph his own children, since finding the right light for the simplest of snapshots soon turns in to a full blown production.
He’s also an outspoken advocate for using film when shooting and shunning digital photography as a lack of awareness among today’s photographers who are more likely to capture dozens of images in a burst, with a prayer to the photo gods that something comes out.
Given his strong views on modern photography you might expect O’Neill to equally dislike the extreme amounts of photos now being shared online, from phone to audience in seconds.
“People have become more and more used to seeing great shots, I don’t think this can produce the quality of a good camera,” O’Neill says, holding up his iPhone, which for the record he mainly uses just to watch football during his commutes. “I’ve always been against digital from the start. I think film will come back.”
A flip through O’Neill’s own collection turns up everyone from Ava Gardner and the earliest shots of The Rolling Stones to a raw snap of Amy Winehouse, on the cusp of a laugh.
O’Neill radiates comfort, from his easy nature and everyman London accent to his focus on the moment, making you feel like you are the only one in the room. It’s no wonder the world’s most sought after celebrities acted so natural in his presence.
But just how does someone surrounded by names seen only in lights not get star struck?
“I’m never fazed by meeting anybody. My idols are jazz musicians not movie stars or rock stars. The very first job I had was photographing the Beatles. I sort of started at the top when you look at how it first started out.”
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The Beatles, Abbey Road Studios (1961). Photo by Terry O'Neill. Courtesy of Picture This Gallery, Hong Kong.[/caption]
That photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, which O’Neill describes as amateurish looking back, set him up to answer a request from the manager of The Rolling Stones and countless others over the decades.
To call this luck, or being at the right place at the right time, would tremendously discount O’Neill’s talent, a spark that not even he can identify. Much of his work he puts down to his ability to make people feel at ease, being patient in waiting for the right moment, always having a back up plan, and not believing tomorrow is promised to anyone.
It’s sage advice for budding photographers but O’Neill also has a dark premonition for the future of his profession if people continue to saturate the market thoughtlessly. “In 20-30 years time when I’m gone, what will be the great photograph books to buy? I don’t think there will be any.”
That doesn’t mean he’s lost hope though, saying that photographers need to shoot what they like, any image that captures their eye, perhaps breaking away from their Instagram feed themes and being open to moments that will take them to a place they didn’t plan to go but will be thankful for the results along the way. After all it was reportage that made O’Neill stand out from the posed, static images of his day.
Icons: Terry O’Neill is open at Picture This Gallery until May 16.
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