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Terry O’Neill - An Obituary

Terry O’Neill – Photographer

Born July 30, 1938; died November 17, 2019

Terry O’Neill, who has did aged 81 following a battle with prostate cancer, was a photographer whose work possessed a verve and a swagger that helped define the image of those he came of age with in the swinging sixties. Within a couple of weeks of turning professional, O’Neill had snapped the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in all their youthful pomp and about to take the world by storm, taking pop stardom out of the teen magazines and into the Sunday supplements. Like them, O’Neill never looked back. He would go on to move with celebrity circles in the more nominally grown-up worlds of showbusiness and film, capturing his subjects at their most stylishly glamorous, making them even more iconic.

Brigitte Bardot was pictured smoking a cheroot; Marianne Faithfull in lingerie; Raquel Welch in a bikini on a cross; Audrey Hepburn with a white dove on her shoulder; Frank Sinatra and his entourage striding across a boardwalk like they owned the place. He photographed David Bowie for the cover of the latter’s Diamond Dogs album, caught Elton John onstage in his flamboyant wildness, and captured Liza Minnelli with the Pet Shop Boys. Kate Moss, Muhammed Ali, Sean Connery and Winston Churchill were just a few others caught in O’Neill’s lens. While the public image was writ large in his often theatrical images, O’Neill charmed his subjects enough to give them the confidence to be themselves in whichever way they chose.

Terry Patrick O’Neill was born in Romford, east London to Irish parents, Leonard and Josephine. In an interview with the Herald’s Teddy Jamieson in 2013 to coincide with the launch of his eponymous book, one of numerous collections of his work, O’Neill recalled being a war child, and growing up in an air raid shelter.
     
O’Neill briefly trained for the priesthood, but, before pop, jazz was his first love, and he played drums in combos at American servicemen’s clubs in London. He planned to become an air steward so he could fly to New York and check out and hopefully make the scene there. As it turned out, he got a gig at Heathrow as an apprentice with British Overseas Airways Corporation’s technical photographic unit.

In 1959, he took a shot of a man in a pinstripe suit asleep in the airport waiting lounge surrounded by African tribesmen. Unknown to O’Neill, the man was then Conservative Home Secretary, Rab Butler, and the picture was picked up by the Daily Sketch, who asked him to join the paper as one of their in-house snappers. His first job was a portrait of Laurence Olivier, and life was never the same again.  

Like many of those he photographed, O’Neill arrived at a time when social mobility was at its premium. With his camera as his calling card and youth on his side, it was easy for ambitious working class boys like him to take a leap into more rarefied worlds. Here, pop stars and matinee idols rubbed shoulders with landed gentry and faces from London’s underworld.

O’Neill hung out with Michael Caine, and stepped out with Julie Christie and Jean Shrimpton. O’Neill’s first marriage was with actress Vera Day, with whom he had a son and a daughter after wedding aged 21. The couple separated after 13 years. O’Neill would later marry another actress, Faye Dunaway, in 1983, and the pair had a son. His 1977 picture of her, taken in the small hours beside a Beverley Hills hotel pool the morning after Dunaway had won an Oscar for her performance in Network was a perfect evocation of Hollywood in all its dazed and confused glory.     

For all his access all areas status, O’Neill had no truck with some showbiz excesses, and frowned on drug abuse. He had no desire to be centre of attention, preferring to blend into the background, working the room in a more creative way.  

In his later years, and married to his third wife, model executive Laraine Ashton, he steered away from the low-rent celebrities of today. “Showbusiness has changed” he opined in the Herald. “I don’t want to do any of the movie stars because they’re not movie stars like I knew them. They’ve got no aura. They’re just a load of people in black suits.” Only the late Amy Winehouse latterly captured O’Neill’s attention, when he photographed her on the day she sang at the 90th birthday celebratory concert for Nelson Mandela in London.

O’Neill survived cancer and a heart bypass operation. In 2011, he was awarded a Royal Photographic Centenary Medal. Two years later, perhaps recognising a demise of the sort of opportunities that opened doors for him, he founded the Terry O’Neill Awards, an annual competition for photographers to showcase their work. Last year, When Ziggy Played the Marquee, O’Neill’s document of David Bowie’s 1973 Ziggy Stardust performance, was published. Earlier this year O’Neill was awarded a CBE. It was a final accolade for a life that was never black and white.

O’Neill is survived by his wife, Laraine Ashton, and his three children.

The Herald, November 19th 2019


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