Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: When did you become interested in photography, Terry?
O’Neill: Well, I really wanted to be a jazz drummer! I loved playing the drums and knew that New York City was where all the main jazz action was. So I thought if I was able to get a job with an airline, I’d be able to travel to NYC and play. I wound-up in the photography division. The job was interesting though, and it entailed going to art school once a week.
John Wisniewski: Do you remember taking your first photo? Was it of a rock star or actor?
O’Neill: Ah, I don’t really remember the first photo – but I do remember the photo that really changed my life. I was at the airport and I remember the class I was taking gave the assignment to capture “emotion” at the airport. So I was there and I saw this really dapper looking gentleman fast asleep on a chair – and he was surrounded by these great African Chieftains – all dressed up – and I just thought that would make a great photo. As I was taking the photo, a guy ran up to me, introduced himself as a reporter, wanted to have the photo to show his editor at the paper – soon enough, my photo was in the paper because it was the then Home Secretary Rab Butler! The editor saw the shot and hired me to work at the airport every Saturday. That was really the start of my career.
John Wisniewski: What was the feeling like being part of The Swinging London scene of the 60’s?
O’Neill: Well, the thing was – we didn’t know at the time how important the decade was going to be. We were all just starting out – me, The Beatles, [Michael] Caine, The Rolling Stones, [Terence] Stamp – and we were having great fun doing what we wanted to do. We’d sit around, sometimes, at the Ad Lib club (a noted club in Leister Square) and we’d laugh thinking ‘We’re getting paid for this! How long do you think it’ll last – 2 years, 3’ – we thought we’d have our moment, and then life would move on. We would laugh and think ‘imagine doing this at 40’ -and look what happened. The Rolling Stones are still on tour!
John Wisniewski: Any reflections on David Bowie since his passing?
O’Neill: Well – I have to tell you, I’ve been absolutely astonished by the fans, meaning, I’ve done a few events and talks about my working relationship with David Bowie. I just released a book called When Ziggy Played the Marquee – which covers the moment Bowie went on-stage at the Marquee Club on Wardour Street in Soho to film a performance for television. We did an event recently and the fans – they are just so honest, emotional, and dedicated to David. I’ve never seen anything like that before – an absolute outpouring of love. He meant a great deal to many, many people.
John Wisniewski: Did you enjoy taking photographs of celebrities and rock stars? What attracts you to them?
O’Neill: I did – but this was my job. When the job was done, I left, for the most part. I wasn’t interested in becoming a celebrity – I wanted to stay behind the camera. But for the most part, everyone I’ve worked with have been great!
John Wisniewski: Are there any famous photographers, that you admire and have influenced your work?
O’Neill:W. Eugene Smith – that’s the first photographer that I fell in love with and tried to copy (which I never really succeeded in doing, ha ha).
John Wisniewski: Do you plan to write your autobiography, Terry?
O’Neill:Ha ha, no. My photography is my memoir.
John Wisniewski: Any plans for the future?
O’Neill:Just to keep busy, stay active, see friends and enjoy life!
O’Neill began his career at the birth of the 1960s. While other photographers concentrated on earthquakes, wars and politics, O’Neill realised that youth culture was a breaking news story on a global scale and began chronicling the emerging faces of film, fashion and music who would go on to define the Swinging Sixties. By 1965 he was being commissioned by the biggest magazines and newspapers in the world.
No other living photographer has embraced the span of fame, capturing the icons of our age from Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela, from Frank Sinatra and Elvisto Amy Winehouse, from Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot to Nicole Kidman, as well as every James Bond from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.
He photographed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones when they were still struggling young bands in 1963, pioneered backstage reportage photography with David Bowie, Elton John, The Who, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry and his images have adorned historic rock albums, movie posters and international magazine covers.
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