Sixty years ago as the Celebrity Age was being born an aspiring jazz drummer and in-house photographer for British Airways found himself at its white-hot center—practically inventing the the term “celebrity photographer.” Into his lens the ethereal, mythic and flawed deities gazed: Bardot. Sinatra. Elvis. Newman. McQueen. Jagger. The Beatles. Connery. Hepburn. TREATS! catches up with Terry O ’ Neill to discuss the dangerous & interesting, the mysterious & alluring, the beautiful & the damned, the seducers & the seduced…and why the golden age of celebrity has been buried by you know who. by Harvey Kubernik
Where were you born?
In England in a town called Romford and I was brought up in a town called Heston, in Middlesex, which is near the London Airport. I moved there when I was two and was brought up in an air raid shelter until I was seven. I had a book of ration stamps. (laughs).
What was your first childhood memory?
Actually, seeing the Queen of England.
When were you first aware of Elvis Presley? When he first came out. I used to listen to a radio thing called AFN, which was the American Forces Network, and they played his music quite a bit. And also an English DJ called Jack Jackson. I was ten when I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Where did you meet him? I met Elvis with Tom Jones in Las Vegas. I worked a lot with Tom and Elvis and Tom were good friends. Elvis loved Tom. Elvis used to come and see the shows; he’d come up when Tom was singing. Then the people with Elvis would ring his manager and he’d say, “Get him off there at once.” So, he’d only ever do one or two songs live with him. And the manager, Col. Tom Parker, would never let me take pictures of Elvis—only when he was singing. I would have loved to have shot Elvis with strobes in a studio in a modern way. Because he was the greatest looking bloke I ever saw. He’s much better looking in life than his pictures.
What comes to mind when I mention the year 1959?
Well, I was age 21 and it was on the verge of the Sixties, which I regard as the greatest time of my life. I mean, the Sixties was when all us poor people had a chance to have a say in the creative part of life. I think I was born in the most fortunate time ever. The Sixties were such a golden age. I doubt it will ever happen again. Back then, it never occurred to me that I could have a career as a photographer. I wanted to be a musician. When I started working for British Airways as a technical photographer, it was with the intention of becoming an air steward so I could fly to New York and be a jazz drummer.
What impact did the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have on you?
To be honest none of us knew what we were doing at the beginning. I didn’t realize the impact of my work at the time. None of the Sixties stars took themselves seriously, either. I used to hang out with all the rock ‘n’ rollers and the models and meet at the Ad Lib Club in London every night and talk about what job we’re gonna have to do when this is over. Because we all thought everything was gonna finish and grind to a halt and we’d have to get a proper job. Mick Jagger joked that he would still be singing at 40. We honestly thought we’d have to get proper jobs. I was going to work in a bank, and Ringo Starr was going to do the same.
Almost a naivete?
Yes. I mean, all this was a brand new world. You must remember at the time there had never been any pop pictures, as I call them, in newspapers. And I took all the first pictures of the Beatles and they ended up in the newspaper. It started a whole new world where every paper on Fleet Street started publishing pop pictures.
So…the Beatles or the Stones?
Every time I saw the Beatles in concert I could barely hear a word they were saying. And they only did 25 minutes. That’s all they could do because they couldn’t hear themselves. And in the beginning the Stones were a crude version of a blues band. But they were good. I know this sounds strange, but, for me, it’s the Stones because they were five different individuals. I mean, it was very hard to get good pictures of the Beatles because they were always surrounded by so many people. Brian Epstein, Derek Taylor etc. And the Beatles weren’t into doing pictures.
Is it true that the papers initially didn’t want to run your pictures of the Fab Four?
Yes. When I first started taking pictures of the Beatles the newspaper people were horrified because of the length of their hair — because they were all used to ‘short back and side’ haircuts.
What did you think upon your first visit to Hollywood?
I was 24 and it reminded me of the South of France. It seemed like heaven on earth to me. It was a fabulous place and everyone was so nice to me. Just fantastic. And all the women were great. And they loved the English accent. I met people like Fred Astaire and Shirley MacLaine, who threw a dinner party for me. And all they wanted to do was talk about the Beatles, Stones, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy. I suddenly realized this is gonna go on if somebody like Fred Astaire is interested in these people and knew all about them. Being part of the London scene really opened doors for me over there. When I got back to England the Beatles had split up. It was ironic.
What have you learned from Michael Caine & Richard Burton?
Get to the girl first and don’t let them meet her! Otherwise you’ll lose ‘em (laughs). I mean, that was the competition amongst us. All the girls. That kept us all going.
Sean Connery or Roger Moore?
Sean is an interesting guy. You knew he was going to be a big star. I think because he was so manly. He was definitely his own man. Where Roger was an actor and you knew he was an actor. But Connery was all one hundred per cent male.
Newman or McQueen?
Paul Newman was a fabulous man. A real gentleman. A really good guy. McQueen could be quite hairy at times. I’m sad to say that. But it’s true. They both worked so well in color because they’re just great looking people. I mean, the stars today can’t hold a patch to McQueen, Newman, Brando or any of those guys like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. They just haven’t got that look. I mean, every movie star looked different. Robert Mitchum, John Wayne. And they all were different. And they were all themselves.
And, of course, Sinatra.
When I first met Frank he was making the film Tony Rome. And I knew Ava Gardner very well. I said to her, ‘I’ve got the chance to go across and photograph your ex-husband.’ And she said, “Oh, I’ll write you a letter.” Now I don’t know what she ever put in the letter of introduction, but I walked on the set of this film, handed him the letter, and he said. “Right, bloke, you’re with me.” Frank was always in love with Ava. Always.
And you never looked back.
Frank just had everything. I mean, you knew you were definitely in the presence of a great man. Irrelevant of what anyone ever says about him. He really was a great man and had a magnetic personality. Frank had this air about him; he really did light up a room when he walked in. When doing photos with him he was so comfortable he totally ignored me. It’s great because he just makes like you’re not there. And I went everywhere with him. He actually was a good photographer himself.
You had an all access pass to the biggest star in the world.
I had access with Frank, and I worked very hard. I didn’t sit around and talk with him all the time. I learned and realized with Sinatra as our working relationship went on that I couldn’t be one of the people sitting down having a drink with him—that is not what I want to be. I want to be the photographer. I think that he, during that period, wondered why I wasn’t more friendly. I think respect is the key thing in my work. And it shows in the way I look at people in my photographs.
Is it true he “came looking for you” because you published photos of him that he did not authorize?
The producer of a film gave permission for some pictures to be released that Frank hadn’t approved. And he thought I’d done it. He did not knock on my door but he was thinking of “sending some blokes to see me.” But it never all came to fruition, and he was quite apologetic when he found out the real story. And he never worked with the producer again
You took some of the first pictures of Elton John.
Yes. Elton had that quality, but he actually hated being photographed—it was always a chore to me. He never felt attractive. That type of guy. A really big talented guy and still going on now. He wasn’t a lead singer standing center stage in front of the microphone. He was at a keyboard. Like Jerry Lee Lewis. A bit pudgy. Glasses like Buddy Holly. Not a conventional leading man. When I did the first pictures, everyone said to me, ‘Well, the Beatles are gone. The Stones are gone. And you’re good at picking out who is good.’ It was Elton.
Bowie used to ring me up all the time. I mean, I was sort of his photographer for a while on the Diamond Dogs tour. And in London when they were doing special things. Because they knew all the newspapers were desperate for pictures and knew I could get pictures into newspapers. Bowie went along with it all and was very cooperative and appreciative. He is a guy who looks better in color than black and white. He just looks after himself. He always looks really healthy.
Your photos of Audrey Hepburn are amazing
The female stars of the 1960s had much more individuality than they do today. Audrey Hepburn was a great one. The most photogenic of them all. You couldn’t take a bad shot of her. She was like five-foot-seven. Every woman loves Audrey Hepburn. Every woman would like to look like Audrey Hepburn; the way she dresses and all that. She’s just got something. And I didn’t realize it at the time. But when I look back at the pictures she was dynamite I must say. The only one I have never photographed was Marilyn Monroe.
Access to celebrities today isn’t what it used to be.How has this affected your work?
Yes. You can’t spend time around them when they’re working, which is the most interesting pictures of all. You can’t take off-beat shots of today’s celebrities because of the PRs. The publicists destroyed the type of photography that I do. They forced every star into not letting photographers into their lives, or give them any time. They don’t strike up working relationships with them. It’s awful, really. It’s gonna cause a huge rift in the photographic history of Hollywood for a start. I mean, it’s just gone now. The publicists want approval of everything. The words, the pictures…it’s a joke. If you want to photograph anyone today who is famous you have to do it in a studio or in a hotel room, and the PR stipulates which shots you can release. It has impacted my journey. Absolutely.
And the paparazzi are cashing in…
The paparazzi have made room for a lot of people with no talent. You know, just press a button on a machine and it will take endless pictures on a motor. But digital cameras can’t capture a spontaneous moment like 35mm because of the time lag between pressing the button and taking the shot.
How has the Internet and web impacted your archive?
I’m developing an App right now. I’ve got a partner in my business who is quite hip and into all these things. And there is somebody who is taking me around to merchandise me. I was initially hesitant but everything is working out quite well. It’s making me realize what a great library and archive I’ve got. I’m selling more pictures now than I’ve ever dreamt of selling. Do you have a philosophy when it comes to taking pictures? Whether it is a photo for a magazine, an album cover or assignment, I just concentrate on getting really eye-catching pictures. I’m serving every master at the same time. It serves the artist as well as me and it serves the magazine. And that’s the sort of task I set myself for every job
Finally, most of your work is black and white. Why?
Well…people love black and white photos. It simplifies the image; you don’t see a whole splash of color to distract you. In the end, people see the pictures simpler.