Terry O' Neil: the photographer who helped define the ’60s

This interview appears in the new issue of the Christopher Ward magazine

The 1960s may have been defined by its soundtrack of Beatles, Stones, and Kinks, but it was those that produced images of these – and other – stars of the who held the key to their success. 

Terry O’Neill, along with David Bailey and Terence Donovan, was that very ’60s animal, the celebrity photographer. As pop music exploded, so printed media needed young, savvy snappers to capture the equally youthful stars who were elbowing the long established celebrities out of the way. O’Neill fitted the bill perfectly.

Like Bailey and Donovan, O’Neill was from an ordinary background (working class people simply didn’t do jobs like his before the ’60s), a Londoner with a love of jazz absolutely in tune with what was starting to ferment in the capital’s clubs. A lucky break and plenty of hard work led him on a path that would lead to him photographing, not just domestic celebrities, but Hollywood stars like Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Brigitte Bardot, and perhaps most famously, Frank Sinatra, who O’Neill developed a strong friendship with over 30 years. To be photographed by Terry O’Neill was to become an icon.

Described by Michael Caine as “one of the best photographers in the world”, it’s fitting then that O’Neill’s work has finally been documented in one volume, which showcases his reportage-influenced portraits of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Amy Winehouse to his stunning photo the Queen. It reads less like a photography book and more like a retrospective of the pop culture age.

Here, in an exclusive interview, he tells Christopher Ward about leading a very charmed life in pictures.

Hi Terry. Growing up, were you one of those kids who liked taking photos? 
No, I never took pictures, I got forced into it. I was a jazz drummer and wanted to play in America, so I went to BOAC [the forerunner of British Airways] in 1960 as they’d starting flying to America, and applied for a job as an air steward. They weren’t taking anybody on for three months, but if I took a post there I’d stand a better chance of getting a steward’s job. So I got a job in the photographic unit and learnt how to the trade. We used to photograph the inside of aircrafts or went up to take photos of planes in flight. As I was just an assistant, for homework they got me to take pictures around Heathrow at weekends – and that’s where I accidently took a shot of a bloke in pin-stripe suit surrounded by African chieftains.

That photo changed your life…
A reporter came up to me and said, “Do you know who that is?”. I said no, and he told me it was [the politician] Rab Butler, and asked if he could have my roll of film to show the picture editor at his newspaper. I gave him it, and rang up this guy who was the picture editor of the Sunday Dispatch. He told me he loved all the shots and was going to use the Butler picture, for which he paid me 25 quid. He said he wanted me to cover the airport for him every Saturday. I told him that I didn’t really know what I was doing and he said, “Just do what you’ve been doing on that roll of film.” That was the start of my career.

What happened then?
I met up with another guy who I worked with for a while, then he died in a plane crash, so I got his job on the Daily Sketch. I still didn’t really know what I was doing! When I was there, the paper said they wanted to attract younger people by doing pop groups – in those days it was all individual singers, a pop group was unheard of. They said, go down to Abbey Road and cover this group, The Beatles. I took this amateurish shot of them. The paper published it and sold out. Suddenly, everyone was tuned into the ’60s.

And it wasn’t just the Beatles, who you covered, was it?

They said, who else is any good? I loved the blues, so I told them the best group was The Rolling Stones. They were horrified with them, and said, “Can’t you get a good- looking group?” So I told them about the Dave Clarke Five, though only one of them could play anything. They said it didn’t matter, go and photograph them. And they ran the photos under the headline of “Beauty and the Beast”. That was first picture spread of a pop group in a newspaper.

What did it feel like to be in the eye of that pop culture storm?
We all used to go to a place called the Ad Lib club – me, The Beatles, the Stones and all the models. We used to talk about what proper job we’d get when it was all over in a couple of years. It was only when I went to Hollywood a couple of years later and met Fred Astaire, and all he wanted to do was talk about the Beatles, Stones and Jean Shrimpton, did I realise that it must be for real if someone like him wanted to talk about it.

What was Hollywood like then?
That was around 1964-’65 – I loved it. It was like the south of France. I got on great with all the movie stars as they were used to posing with 5x4 cameras and I0x8 cameras, they’d never met someone with a 35mm one. I got paid by the film companies to work on films for two weeks – photographing people like Paul Newman working, not working, hanging around. I often feel God was looking down, pointed his finger and the light shone on me.

You famously took a snap of Raquel Welch in the Chelsea strip…
Yeah, I got her in Peter Osgood’s outfit. She was great and loved Chelsea. They were all great. Obviously, if you’re with people too long you’ll see a bad side, nobody’s perfect, but I was around Sinatra 30 years and he was fantastic. I never overstepped the line. There was a time when I could be the one out drinking with him, but I didn’t want all that.

What pictures are you most proud of?
Brigitte Bardot with the wind blowing in her hair, Sinatra on the boardwalk, Paul Newman. Audrey Hepburn, she was fantastic, too. My only regret is that I didn’t work harder. When I tell people that, they laugh. But I could have worked harder.

What did you have that made you so in-demand?
I have no idea. I still don’t know. I was young and hard-working, quietly spoken. Never pushy.

Out of everyone, who was the most amazing to be with?
Frank Sinatra. When he was in town, the whole town revolved around him. He had an incredible personality, very strong natured. He lived up to it. He wasn’t loud though… a very cool guy.

Who are you snapping now?
I don’t take many pictures now, I did photograph Pelé as he’s the face of the World Cup. There’s not many people I want to photograph any more – I’ve done everybody who’s anybody.

It’s been good to you, this job. Are you happy?
I am happy. Really happy with my life, I don’t worry about anything. I’ve had cancer, I’ve had heart problems, but I just keep pressing on.

Terry O’Neill is published by ACC Editions. Go to www.antiquecollectorsclub.com/uk for more information. Find out about Terry’s exhibitions at www.terryo.co.uk


  1. I commissioned him once when I was at the Weekend Magazine. One of the handful of delights from having a career in publishing.


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