Skip to main content

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



Popular posts from this blog

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug