phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
An interview with photographer Terry O’Neill

An interview with photographer Terry O’Neill

13 August 2017

Over the course of his illustrious career, photographer Terry O’Neill has uniquely captured the evolution of pop culture. Through his lens, the charismatic Londoner witnessed and recorded the ever-changing zeitgeist, beginning with the mop-haired bands descending on the capital in the midst of the swinging Sixties, right through to modern-day icons such as Amy Winehouse, as London Calling discovers.

Iconic, pioneering, original and inspiring – it’s strange to think the career path of Mr Terry O’Neill took many a swerve before photography came into focus. Nowadays, with his work frequently exhibited the world over, it is fitting that he has custody of The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary medal; yet O’Neill actually got his first iconic shot when attempting to follow a career as an air steward with British Airways.
 
“British Airways used to give me homework on the weekends,” he begins. “I went down the airport photographing people coming in, saying goodbye, crying, all this reportage kind of stuff. One day at Heathrow, I took a shot of a guy in a pinstripe suit who had fallen asleep amongst some African chieftains.”
 
The amateur photographer didn’t think much of the shot at the time, but when a reporter asked if he could give the picture to an editor, it turned out to be a request that changed everything. “I didn’t know it but the sleeping guy was Rad Butler, the English Foreign Secretary at the time,” he explains. “It turned out to be quite an important picture. The editor saw my film and liked the pictures, so he said, ‘I’d like you to cover the airport for me every Saturday and Sunday’, and it went from there.”


Terence Stamp © Terry O'Neill
 
Suddenly, O’Neill had become a photographer. “I never really knew what I was doing; I had a cheap little camera - it was a joke really, but I got by. I stumbled into photography - I always thought it was something really clever; I never believed I would make a living out of it!”
 
From these unusual beginnings came a career in Fleet Street, and a route to snapping the legends of an era. As the faces in focus became more recognisable, the ingenuity of his position became even more opportune.
 
“I was the youngest photographer in Fleet Street by 12 years, and they’d say, ‘we want to get interested in pop music, we think it’s going to be big’,” he explains. “So I’d go down to shoot a group and it would be The Beatles, recording Please Please Me. And when that was published and the paper sold out, they’d say, ‘who else do you rate?’ I liked The Rolling Stones, because they played the blues, so I went to photograph them but the papers were horrified by them - they thought they were five monsters!


Faye Dunaway © Terry O'Neill
 
“I had to find another group, and I found the Dave Clark Five. The paper ran that as ‘Beauty and the Beasts’ and it flew off the shelves. We didn’t know it at the time but all this was the first cultural acceptance of pop music and rock ‘n’ roll culture in mainstream media.
 
“In those days they were all individual singers - Johnny Ray, Frankie Lane, Guy Mitchell, Val Doonican - nobody had ever seen a pop group before. I happened to be there at an important time - God pointed a light and the light hit me, thank God.”
 
As well as the treasure trove of images that O’Neill curated to capture this musical moment in time in the city, his memories of that time paint a vivid picture of the capital in a transitional era when names like McCartney, Lennon and Jagger were not yet the household names they were to become.
 
“I remember sitting with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in this club, and we used to discuss what jobs we were going to get when all this was over, because we couldn’t believe we were getting paid to do something we really loved, and we thought one day we would have to own up.


David Bowie © Terry O'Neill
 
“It was when all the poor kids took over from the toffs of London really,” laughs the Chelsea resident. “It was when the kids from Liverpool came down and took over the party.
 
“It was an incredible time and I just picked it up - I photographed all the people who made the 1960s what they were, and I’m lucky to be able to look back on a set of pictures that truly document a very special period in time.”
 
While O’Neill’s images are a lasting memento of a career’s worth of adventures, this undisputed king of camerawork is however unable to choose a favourite photograph. “No, I love all of them,” he assures us. Though, at a push, he does relent… “I love Audrey Hepburn and wish I’d spent more time with her. She wasn’t my type of girl although she was the friendliest and nicest. You never could get a bad picture of her, she was incredible – and it was only after she retired you realised how great she was. I would have liked to do more with her.”


Audrey Hepburn © Terry O'Neill
 
Now happy to take a backseat from the whirlwind nature of the modern paparazzi, O’Neill believes there is still a lot for an amateur photographer to get excited about in London. “The great thing about London is its multiculturalism. We didn’t have that back in the day – if you wanted to see a different culture you’d need to go abroad.
 
“Now, in London, you can walk 50 yards down the road and picture people from every corner of the globe; you can picture great wealth and abject poverty. As a photographer, you have to be inspired by what you see whilst leaving your preconceptions at the door.
 
“London remains probably the planet’s best case study because there’s so much to explore.”

Tell us what you think

You may also like

An interview with jazz musicians Nubya Garcia and Alfa Mist

An interview with jazz musicians Nubya Garcia and Alfa Mist

There’s something stirring in the London jazz scene. In fact, stirring is somewhat of an understatement. A new wave of jazz musicians have arrived to shake…

RA Summer Lates: The Other Paradise

RA Summer Lates: The Other Paradise

If you thought that lavish evening entertainment in the heart of Piccadilly came with a hefty price tag, think again. Leading the way in museum…

The Best Family Events in London this August

The Best Family Events in London this August

With the summer holidays in full swing, we’ve selected some of the best family friendly events to keep even the pickiest of kids entertained. Explore some…

all in: the mind at House of Vans

all in: the mind at House of Vans

Bryony Stone’s latest incarnation of her IRL platform “all in”, housed under the arches of the hip House of Vans, is an eclectic marriage of works from…

The Best Theatre in London this August

The Best Theatre in London this August

When the majority of theatre companies in the UK head to Edinburgh for the International and Fringe festivals, it can seem a little quiet on…

Workshops and Classes with Obby

Workshops and Classes with Obby

Obby run a wide variety of workshops and classes throughout London.

A Cultural Guide to Camberwell

A Cultural Guide to Camberwell

Camberwell lies nestled on a crossroads connecting Peckham, Brixton, Oval and Elephant and Castle. Some say Camberwell means ‘Well of the Britons” due to the sizeable…

+/- Human at the Roundhouse Preview

+/- Human at the Roundhouse Preview

Art and technology intertwine at the Roundhouse next week as award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor premieres +/- Human, an immersive experience featuring an installation and dance…

Summer at Westminster Abbey

Summer at Westminster Abbey

Explore the wealth of activities taking place this summer at Westminster Abbey

Franco Grignani: Art as Design 1950-1990

Franco Grignani: Art as Design 1950-1990

Islington’s Estorick Collection, located in a Georgian Grade II-listed building on Canonbury Square, is a beautiful gallery containing “one of the finest collections of early 20th…

Most popular

Win a Viennese Afternoon Tea for Two

The Delaunay - Win a Viennese Afternoon Tea for Two

Treat yourself to a relaxing afternoon tea with an Austrian twist at The Delaunay in Covent Garden.
Win a pair of weekend tickets to a music festival on Blackheath Common!

On Blackheath - Win a pair of weekend tickets to a music festival on Blackheath Common!

Travis, The Libertines and De La Soul all perform at this weekend festival on Blackheath Common.
Win Film Tickets and Cocktails!

Rooftop Film Club - Win Film Tickets and Cocktails!

Watch Dunkirk, Wonder Woman, The Breakfast Club, or The Godfather on a London rooftop!
Win Stephen King Tickets & Cocktails

BFI - Win Stephen King Tickets & Cocktails

Don’t miss the BFI’s tribute to The King of Horror this autumn!
Win Tickets to The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

Win Tickets to The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

We've got a pair of tickets to give away to this hilarious show.
Win Cocktails at a (not so) Secret Garden Bar!

Win Cocktails at a (not so) Secret Garden Bar!

Pull up a deckchair and enjoy delicious cocktails in the idyllic period gardens of Hoxton’s Geffrye Museum.
Win Tickets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Strawberry Hill - Win Tickets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Watch cycling troupe The Handlebards perform one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies at Stawberry Hill House & Garden!
Win a pair of tickets to the Young Women’s Empowerment Festival

The Jewish Museum London - Win a pair of tickets to the Young Women’s Empowerment Festival

You Know I'm No Good: Young Women's Empowerment Festival is a day of inspirational talks at the Jewish Museum London.
Win two tickets to Britney Spears: The Cabaret

The Other Palace - Win two tickets to Britney Spears: The Cabaret

Australian performer Christie Whelan Browne takes her acclaimed show Britney Spears: The Cabaret to London for one week only.
An interview with Billie Piper

An interview with Billie Piper

Billie Piper returns to the stage in Yerma, and London Calling spoke to her about life and her career to date.

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!