Terry O’Neill, 1938–2019
The photographer who captured the swinging ’60s
Terry O’Neill was the foremost chronicler of the bold and beautiful in the 1960s and ’70s. The British photographer captured many of the era’s defining images: Brigitte Bardot smoking a cheroot, the wind sweeping her hair across her face; Frank Sinatra and his heavies marching down a Miami boardwalk; Audrey Hepburn with a white dove on her shoulder; a hungover Keith Richards slumped on a café table. Handsome and charming, O’Neill became a friend to many of his subjects—and sometimes something more. He had relationships with Ava Gardner and Julie Christie and was married to Faye Dunaway for four years. Still, the photographer always tried to avoid the media’s attention, once turning down an offer from Sinatra to hang out. “I realized if I was sitting there drinking,” he said, “somebody else would be taking the photographs.”
O’Neill was born in southeast England to Irish immigrant parents “who wanted him to become a Catholic priest,” said The Washington Post. He began training for the clergy, but was soon dissuaded by a priest who told him he had “too many questions and not enough belief.” Deciding instead to become a jazz drummer, he dropped out of school at age 15 and applied to become a flight attendant with the British Overseas Airway Corp., thinking the job would take him to the U.S. Instead, he was placed in the airline’s photography division. At Heathrow Airport’s VIP lounge in 1959, “he snapped a gent in a bowler hat and suit asleep on a bench with African chieftains in full regalia round him,” said The Economist. The gent turned out to be the home secretary, and the photo earned O’Neill 25 pounds and a job at the Daily Sketch tabloid.
The more seasoned staffers there weren’t interested in photographing up-and-coming pop stars, so it was O’Neill who ended up trailing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He went freelance in 1964 and moved to Los Angeles, “commuting for a while back to London by Concorde at the weekends,” said The Guardian (U.K.). In the 1970s, David Bowie and Elton John were among his favorite subjects, and in 1992 he photographed Queen Elizabeth II, eliciting a rare on-camera smile from the monarch. How did he get famous people to lower their guard? “Compliments. More compliments, that’s it,” O’Neill said. “And, well…you could add a few more compliments.” ■