LONDON – As part of Sotheby’s Late Night View in New Bond Street this Friday, photographer Terry O’Neill will be signing copies of his latest book. Here, he talks about three of his most recognisable works offered in next week's Made in Britain auction.
How did you become a photographer?
It was by accident. I was seventeen and wanted to go to America and be a jazz drummer. I read that BOAC, which became British Airways, was starting to fly to America. You flew there, had three days off in New York, so I saw this as the future of my jazz career. They said I’d stand a better chance if I had a job at BOAC already. So they showed me a variety of jobs, and I picked one in the photographic unit.
I got sent across to the terminal to learn how to take pictures and got a shot of a bloke in a pinstripe suit lying asleep and surrounded by African dignitaries. There was a reporter there who wanted the photo for his picture editor. He said, “I really like your work, and I want you to cover the airport for me every Saturday.” The bloke who was asleep turned out to be the Home Secretary.
From there, I went to working Saturdays for the Sunday Dispatch. Then I met a guy from The Sketch who was a top dog photographer in Fleet Street and wanted someone to work with him. So I left the airline, but he died within three months, and I was offered his job. So suddenly, aged twenty, I was the youngest photographer on Fleet Street!
Do you think that gave you a different photographic style?
I told the picture editor that I didn’t really know what I was doing yet. He replied, “I’ve got you here because we think young people are really going to break out in the ‘60s, we need somebody round their age to work with them.” Then he said, “Tomorrow I want you to go down to Abbey Road and photograph a group called The Beatles, they’re doing their first number one hit.” I think it was Please Please Me. Two days later the manager of the Rolling Stones rang me up and said, “Can you do what you did with the Beatles with the Stones?” So I went to photograph them, and one thing just led to another. [These images are part of an exhibition called Breaking Stones at the Proud Galleries from 7 April]
TERRY O'NEILL, 1996. © Presselect / Alamy Stock Photo
Is there anyone that you didn’t get to shoot who you would have liked to?
Only Marilyn Monroe. When I first went out to America, I met this amazing girl who, believe it or not, was Monroe’s press agent, and she thought I was only going out with her because of Monroe. I totally denied it. But I really regret not having photographed Marilyn. I’d have done something different with her.
Would you go with an idea of how you wanted to construct the picture?
I always have an idea of some picture that I want, just to protect myself you know. I was brought up as a photojournalist working for newspapers and magazines, and that’s the thing that drove me on and really taught me to take great pictures.
Your shots of Sinatra on the set of the film Tony Rome have become classics. How did they come about?
That shot was great because it was the first time I saw him. I met Eva Gardner with whom I became friendly in London. I said I’ve got a chance to photograph your ex, and she said “I’ll write you a letter.” So I go on to this movie, and I’m standing on this boardwalk waiting for him to arrive on the set, and he comes round the corner, and I just went click and thought, “My God where have I got myself into here?” I gave him the letter, and he said, “Right you’re with me,” and I was for the next three weeks, and he was so kind to me. He actually taught me the art of getting close to people without saying a word. You know, he just let me go everywhere with him. And I always appreciated that. I never realised at the time what he was doing, but he made it easy for me.
TERRY O'NEILL, FAYE DUNAWAY AT THE BEVERLY HILLS HOTEL, 1977. ESTIMATE £6,000–8,000.
Another lot in our sale is the classic shot from 1977 of your ex-wife Faye Dunnaway and her Oscar. How did this picture come about?
I had this idea for a shoot I was doing for People magazine. The day before she won, I said, “If you win this, I’ve got this great idea for an Oscar picture. I don’t want to do it on the night because I hate those pictures.” I’d seen Oscar winners the next day, and they were in a daze, so I wanted to capture that. I had a friend who ran the Beverly Hills swimming pool, a guy called Sven. You’re not allowed to take pictures in the hotel, so he said get here at 6:30. and we’ll set it up and get out of there by 7:00. So we set it all up with the breakfast and the newspapers and everything, Faye got up at 6:15, came down, did the picture and went back to bed, and it’s become one of the most famous Hollywood pictures of all time. It sold for £180,000 at an Elton John’s AIDS Foundation charity auction a couple of years ago.
TERRY O'NEILL, BRIGITTE BARDOT WITH CIGAR, SPAIN, 1971. ESTIMATE £7,000–10,000.
Another image we’re selling is the one of Bridget Bardot smoking a cigar – was that a spontaneous shot?
That was the last shot on a roll of film. And I’m sitting there with this close-up thinking, “Shall I take it? Shall I take it?” And the wind blew, and I involuntarily took the picture, and that was it.
Did you know when you took it that that was the shot?
I had a feeling, but I was knocked out when I saw the contact print. I didn’t see it for three weeks because we were in Spain in the middle of a desert in Almeria. But when I got back and saw it, I knew I had a winner
TERRY O'NEILL, LAURENCE OLIVIER IN DRAG, 1962. Estimate £800–1,000.
The final shot we are offering is an early one of Laurence Olivier. Do you recall that image?
That was my second job on Fleet Street, and I got sent down to cover something called Night of 100 Stars. I’m shooting these pictures, and I don’t really know who Laurence Olivier is – he was playing the part of a woman, doing a sketch with John Mills and Kenneth Moore. I knew he was an actor but no idea how he was revered. I went into the office the next day and said, “There was this man dressed as a woman,” and the picture editor said, “Who was it?” When I said Laurence Olivier he snatched the film out of my hand, rushed it round the dark room, and they ran eight pages on it. That was my start at Fleet Street – talk about flying start!