Terence “Terry” Patrick O’Neill was born in 1938 in London, and was expected to become a priest, but found his true calling in music. “I was told I had too many questions to be a priest. I loved jazz and my heart was set on being a jazz drummer.” As an aspiring drummer, O’Neill sought employment at BOAC (later British Airways) thinking a job at an airline would enable him to travel to New York City and play in the jazz clubs in between his work, he found work in the photographic department.
“Part of my work was to take photographs of people arriving and departing at the terminals. I happened upon a very well-dressed bowler-hatted man, taking a quick nap in the departures area, surrounded by African chieftains, fully clad in their regalia. Soon after, I was approached by an editor who told me that they wanted to show the photo to his paper. The man napping turned out to be the Home Secretary Rab Butler” This photograph set O’Neill on his trajectory.
Some of Terry O’Neill’s earliest photographs were also the first photographs of the musicians who shaped the Swinging Sixties. “I was asked to go down to Abbey Road Studios and take a few portraits of this new band because I was a musician myself and the youngest on-staff by a decade – I was always the one they’d ask. I took the four young lads outside for better light. That band became the biggest band in the world; The Beatles.”
Following his work with The Beatles, O’Neill was asked by their Manager Andrew Loog Oldham, to photograph another new band The Rolling Stones “Terry O’Neill captured us on the street, and that made all the difference”. Recalls Oldham “Terry captured the time”
O’Neill became known for his documentary backstage style which took the formality out of his portraits and helped define the era.
“Terry was an ‘historian’ whose camera captured the resurgence and energy of this revolution” notes Michael Caine. “I can think of no other photographer who has contributed so much to our heritage.”
O’Neill remembered “I started at the top and never looked back.” Following his work with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, more stars started to align, he went on to work with a who’s who of celebrities including Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Terence Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Brigitte Bardot, Clint Eastwood, Faye Dunaway, Rachel Welch, Elton John, Roger Daltrey, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss, in a career that spanned many decades.
Aged 24, O’Neill travelled to Hollywood, freelancing for Vogue, Paris Match and Rolling Stone. His works in Los Angeles are some of the most iconic of that period, including a sultry smoking Brigitte Bardot, and Faye Dunaway,the morning after she won her Best Actress Oscar in 1977.
O’Neill was awarded a CBE for services to Photography in 2019.
Terry O’Neill passed away, aged 81, quietly at home after a long illness.
His work is held in over 40 galleries and collections around the world.