Over the course of six decades, British photographer Terry O’Neill has snapped politicos from Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela, divas from Frank Sinatra and Elvis to Amy Winehouse, and Hollywood stars from Brigitte Bardot to Nicole Kidman–not to mention every James Bond, from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan. His most arresting images are featured in a new retrospective at London’s Little Black Gallery: The Best of Terry O’Neill.
Many of these glamorous shots indulge our fantasies of the celebrity as superhuman, haloed by the camera’s flash. But others are intimate and candid, capturing an unguarded moment that humanizes the famous subject. O’Neill deftly cataloged the life of the celebrity in all its complexity.
Born in 1938 to Irish immigrants in London, O’Neill spent two years training to be a priest, but photography’s call proved to be stronger than God’s. His career serendipitously began while he was working in a photographic unit for an airline at London’s Heathrow Airport. He snuck a photograph of a gentleman sleeping in a waiting area–a gentleman who turned out to be Britain’s home secretary. The photograph was purchased and appeared on the front page of London’s Sunday Dispatch paper, and soon enough, O’Neill had landed his first professional job, photographing actor Laurence Olivier.
“I was suddenly being invited onto the film sets of the most beautiful women in the world, from Bardot to Elizabeth Taylor,” he writes in a memoir penned for his website. “Rock bands and musicians let me go backstage–in the days when photographers weren’t allowed.” (Bands like, oh, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.) “One minute I’d be on the set of a Bond movie, the next I’d be at a Hollywood studio hanging out with the biggest stars in the world.”
In one of his most famous photographs, O’Neill’s then-girlfriend Faye Dunaway lounges next to a Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool, casually eyeing the Oscar for Best Actress she’d won the night before for her role in Network. O’Neill and Dunaway would go on to marry in 1983, then divorce in 1987.
O’Neill’s camera also captured Rod Stewart in flamboyant animal print, nuzzling a mare and foal; a bikini-clad Raquel Welch tied to a cross; and David Bowie in platform shoes, dancing with a hound dog on its hind legs. “What the dog is doing here is trying to bite the flash–every time it went off, he jumped,” O’Neill explained to the Telegraph. “[Bowie] didn’t turn a bloody hair, he was zonked out at the time, all the time. But he was such a class act.”
The Best of Terry O’Neill is on view at London’s Little Black Gallery until March 1.