Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 13:44 UK

Life behind the scenes

The Beatles.  By Terry O'Neill

By Caroline Briggs
Arts reporter, BBC News

Terry O'Neill is a legend in the world of celebrity photography.

He captured the Swinging Sixties through his lens, shooting people such as Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Paul Newman, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn and the Rolling Stones.

O'Neill may have broken new ground in celebrity photography, but he puts his amazing career down to a single factor. Luck.

"Looking back I realise what an incredible life I've had," he says, sitting in a sunny London studio where he is preparing for a magazine shoot.

"When I think that I met, and knew, and spent time with all of these people... I just took it all for granted."

Terry O'Neill

Only in passing, and modestly, does he acknowledge that he may have "the eye", and the people skills needed to work with temperamental talent.

"I was lucky to be a photographer in the first place," he explains.

"I was a jazz drummer, and I wanted to go to America, so I came out of the Army and joined British Airways in the photographic department.

"I wasn't interested in photography at all. I was just doing it to pass the time."

One day at the airport he spotted a man, dressed in a pinstripe suit, asleep amid a group of Africans in tribal dress. It was, to O'Neill, "just a funny picture".

Unbeknown to him the man was Rab Butler, the then Foreign Secretary. The Sunday Dispatch snapped up the picture and O'Neill's career was set.


Soon he became a cult figure - "the little kid with a 35mm camera" - and landed a job with the tabloid Daily Sketch.

It wasn't long before he was photographing fledgling bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

"I was offered the job and I thought I'd give it a try, otherwise I was playing Rock Around The Clock seven nights a week. I was getting fed up with that," he laughs.

"It took three months to publish a picture of The Beatles, but the day they did they sold out. I became the hot-shot newspaper guy in pop.

"Like I say, it was all just luck."

O'Neill photographed Frank Sinatra for almost 30 years

None of them expected the luck to last. As they partied in early 1960s London, they were rewriting the rules. Their generation was rocking the foundations of the establishment, but they didn't realise it at the time.

"We all used to sit in the Ad Lib club in Soho - The Beatles, the Stones, all the models - and we'd sit and talk about what job we would do when it was all over," he says.

"I remember Ringo, or George's, mum wanted him to work in a bank!

"Then I went to Hollywood and I met Fred Astaire and we'd go out for dinner and all everyone wanted to talk about was The Beatles, the Stones, Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy and Mary Quant.

"I suddenly realised that these people were being taken seriously. In America they were huge names."

While London continued to swing, O'Neill was also making a name for himself in Hollywood. An introduction from actress Ava Gardner to Frank Sinatra helped strike up a long working partnership.

He went from studio to studio taking each star in his charming Cockney stride.

What a fantastic time I had. I just didn't realise I was making part of history
Terry O'Neill

"All the photographers in Hollywood at the time were these old time movie photographers. Anyone using a 35mm was looked at as a freak!

"But there was a magazine editor out there who wanted younger types of pictures. I was going around doing Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum, then ducking back to England and doing The Beatles.

"What a fantastic time I had. I just didn't realise I was making part of history."

O'Neill's picture of Faye Dunaway relaxing by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the day after winning her Oscar in 1977, became iconic. The pair later married, then divorced, leaving O'Neill wary of being on the other side of the lens.

Fame was, he says, "isolating", and for a while he lost sight of himself. He remains happiest on the outside, observing through his lens.

All-time legend

But O'Neill is not impressed by today's celebrity crowd. Only two Hollywood A-listers are on his wish-list. The rest, he says, are just clones.

"Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr look more like the old-time movie stars. When I was working there was Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne - they all looked different. Today all these people tend to look the same.

"After Frank Sinatra died, I had a big exhibition in New York and the reaction to it made me think, 'Blimey, I really did photograph an all-time legend'.

"I'm not so sure about today's lot. There's no Dean Martin, or Sammy Davis, any more. That Rat Pack time was incredible. You'll never see their likes again."

O'Neill famously photographed Faye Dunaway after her Oscar win

While O'Neill continues to shoot some of today's biggest names - he spent a week documenting Nelson Mandela's visit to the UK for his 90th birthday - there remain "very few jobs" that he has a desire to chase.

He is happy to spend time with friends - lunching every Thursday with old mates Michael Caine and Tramps owner Johnny Gold - but time is taking its toll.

"Our group is down to about three or four members now," he says, recalling music producer Mickie Most, who died in 2003.

"It's the one thing that reminds me that I don't know how long I've got left - 20 years if I'm lucky. I try not to think about it, otherwise it affects me.

"But I'm happy. I'm just expanding my business, we're going to go over to America and we're going to hit all the galleries there. I want to reach out to the people."

His latest exhibition, Terry O'Neill; Behind the Scenes, is open in the unlikeliest of places - Westfield shopping centre in west London.

It features some of his most famous images, such as Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and Robert Redford. In O'Neill's words, "the normal run of stuff, really".

"A lot of people are intimidated by art galleries, which is why I wanted to do this shopping centre," he explains.

"I'm trying to reach out more to the public. I just want these pictures to get out there and be seen, which is why I've done it at a shopping centre - to break new ground."

Terry O'Neill; Behind the Scenes is open at the Getty Images Gallery, Westfield until 3 August.

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