Terry O’Neill: A lifetime of shooting stars

By Madeleine Marr

Getty Images for Gordon Ramsay H

Talk about VIP access. Be it his charm, quick wit or laid-back personality, something about British photographer Terry O’Neill makes celebrities trust him, let him in.

See a sampling of the many stars he hobnobbed with — in uniquely personal settings — at the BIG Images Gallery in Wynwood, 2248 NW First Place, through Feb. 14. “BIG” is a 20-piece traveling exhibition that includes O’Neill’s most collectible, large-scale portraits — many of which hang in national galleries and museums. Think Brigitte Bardot, Mick Jagger, Clint Eastwood, Elton John, Audrey Hepburn, Raquel Welch and Frank Sinatra.

We chatted with O’Neill while he was in town for Art Basel:

You've shot so many celebrities, some must stand out more than others. Is there any way you can pick a favorite?

Sinatra was fantastic. I met him through my friend Ava Gardner, who wrote a letter of introduction. I walked on the set of the film Tony Rome in 1967 on Miami Beach and handed Sinatra the letter. He read it, smiled and said, ‘Right. You’re with me.’ Then he totally ignored me for three weeks. He allowed me to photograph him in private, backstage, at the Fontainebleau, and he never said, ‘Stop taking pictures.’ I went everywhere with him. He acted like I was invisible. But that was his way. He was showing me respect, allowing me to do my work. He always treated professionals that way, particularly musicians. He’s an all-time great.

Who was another non-diva?

In 1977, I was covering the Oscars and I was so bored with photographs of film stars holding up their trophy of the night. I wanted something that showed that ‘morning after, dazed and confused’ look — when it sinks in that they won something that is going to catapult them to the A-list. I persuaded Faye Dunaway, who we all knew was going to win Best Actress [for Network], to get up at 6 a.m. at the Beverly Hills Hotel to pose. She’d only had three hours’ sleep, but what an amazing woman, what a trouper. She came down in her dressing gown and sat for me for 10 minutes, then went back to bed. No hair stylist, no makeup, no assistants.

Did any gig ever personally touch you?

I was photographing Judy Garland in London in 1964 and went around to her rented house, and she introduced me to this teenager. It was her daughter Liza Minnelli. She was about to appear for the first time with her mother onstage singing a duet. I remember Judy fussing over her. She was an adoring mother, and this just seemed like the most natural shot in the world.

How are celebrities different from shooting non-showbiz people?

They are more concerned with how they look; after all, a bad photograph can cost them a movie or a job. Actresses, in particular, as they get older, they get more concerned, more anxious, more fearful. You have to put them at ease and earn their trust. The interesting thing about the stars we all adore and find alluring is this: They don’t think they are beautiful, they don’t feel beautiful. A great photograph is reassuring, but they never see themselves as they are portrayed.

With all the paparazzi and online news outlets, how has your business changed over the years?

Your subjects used to let you up close and personal. There were no pushy managers trying to control what you saw or photographed. And there were no digital cameras and computers to change the image and make it a dishonest representation of the truth. I’m just an ordinary guy who was extraordinarily lucky to be in the right place at the right time when it all began — early in the ’60s — and found myself in demand. I’d hang out with the Beatles and the Stones. We’d go clubbing and laugh about how long this fame game would last and how we’d have to get proper jobs after a couple of years. Now those of us who are left, like Keith Richards, Jagger or Paul McCartney, are older and wiser, but our work lives on and new generations make it timeless.


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