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From Sammy to Sinatra: Terry O'Neill's best photographs

Words by Chris Anderson

Legendary photographer Terry O’Neill has died, prompting a flood of tributes from the A to Z of Hollywood and beyond

Over the course of six decades, he worked with the biggest icons of our time – leading names in film, fashion, music and politics, with his images often seen in galleries, books and magazines. It all stemmed from a fascination with the emerging youth culture of the 1960s, which led him to form close bonds with the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. His famous charm got him through the door, but his talent kept him in the room. EDGAR spoke to O'Neill in August 2019, then aged 80, about both his incredible career and his famous friends.

You’ve held exhibitions and released books before. Why is Rare and Unseen different?

I have millions of photos in my archive. Most aren’t worth looking at [laughs], but still the folks at Iconic Images, who manage my archive for me, suggested we do a book of my lesser-known work and some of the vintage press prints. You see, we used to produce prints to send out to newspapers. Occasionally, the prints with all the markings, captions and stamps were sent back to me, and I kept them!

The Beatles with politician Harold Wilson

You started in the 1960s – the time of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Were they the hellraisers we’ve all been led to believe?

I wasn’t really involved in the partying, as I was too busy running around getting to my next job. But sure, we went out on occasion. I remember sitting in a club in Leicester Square in about 1965, the Ad Lib, it’s where everyone used to go, and a couple of The Beatles were there, a few of the Stones. But we were laughing about the proper jobs we’d get once this whole thing was over – the fame, the celebrity. We didn’t think it would last. Ringo said he’d open a chain of hair salons with his wife; George said he’d work in a bank. Then someone said, “Imagine Mick still on stage when he’s 40!” Now look at him [laughs].

Speaking of musicians, your work with Elton John is well known. What was he like?

Oh, he’s great. He never really liked being photographed, which is odd considering how incredible he is on stage, and of course the outrageous costumes he’d wear. I’d just get him talking and moving around from room to room [at his home], and take photos along the way. But I consider him one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met.

Robert Mitchum

The list of actors you’ve photographed is pretty long – Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Paul Newman…

Each of those shots brings back memories. Those guys are real stars. Today, photographers aren’t allowed the sort of access I had – taking photos off the set, behind the scenes, it’s just not allowed. Everything is over-controlled, with scores of managers and assistants. Today you barely get to say hello, you’re just rushed in and out.

Muhammad Ali

You got to work on the set of nearly every James Bond film. Do you have a favourite Bond?

Well, every Bond is different. I worked with Sean [Connery] and Roger [Moore] the most, and we always had a great time. I remember, when Sean was filming Diamonds are Forever in Las Vegas, we had some free time, so we decided to walk around. Sean was dressed as Bond, in the full white dinner jacket with the bow tie, and everyone did a double-take. I got a great shot of him playing the slots.

Terry O'Neill and Nelson Mandela

Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela must have been memorable. How were they?

Ali was very focused. He was training for a fight, and when he wasn’t in the ring he was watching boxing clips on tape. It was only when his mother came in the room that a different Ali emerged. He loved his mum, that was clear, and he went from Ali, the Greatest of All Time, to a little boy. It was very sweet to see.

And Mandela – what are your memories of him?

Nelson Mandela was an assignment for The Times newspaper, to tie into his 90th birthday celebrations in London, with the big concert in Hyde Park – incidentally, where I took my only photos of Amy Winehouse. I was there for a few days, and everyone from presidents to celebrities met with him. At the end, as we walked to his car for our final goodbye, he smiled at me and waved. I nearly burst into tears. What a great, great man.

Michael Caine

How did you end up photographing your subjects? Was it purely luck, or more about building the right relationships?

At the end of the day, it was luck. I did hustle a bit, but generally it was being in the right place at the right time. The Rolling Stones, for example – their manager saw my shots of The Beatles and asked if I could do the same for his band. That’s how it happens.

Did you consider your subjects friends?

A few, sure. I was close friends with a lot of great stars, like Peter Sellers, and I’m still pals with Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, those guys. But I never really liked the socialising bit that sometimes came with the job. I’m much happier behind the camera than in front of it.

Frank Sinatra

Is it difficult to know where the line for professionalism and friendship is at times?

Yes. I ran into that problem with Frank Sinatra. He was so great to me, and he’d even call me up, if he was in London, for example, and tell me to come meet him and take some photographs. But I didn’t want to be part of his gang, as then I wouldn’t get the shots I wanted. I had to make that decision.

Is there anyone you haven’t photographed that you would like to?

I just missed out on Marilyn Monroe.

Elton John

Terry O’Neill: Rare and Unseen is published by ACC Art Books

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