Terry O’Neill – one of the 20th century’s most illustrious image makers

Saskia Rowlands

Saskia Rowlands

By Saskia Rowlands

If there is anybody who has met everybody, it’s Terry O’Neill. For fifty years, O’Neill has shot the famous. From Raquel Walsh to Kate Moss, from Richard Burton to Mick Jagger.

O’Neill’s ethos is a strong one. For such an acclaimed figure it is a very surprising one. Since the 60′s, he has dismissed writing an autobiography- he has seen an awful lot of people at their best and worst- but the idea of making money by trading other’s secrets disgusts him. O’Neill is definitely not in the business of shattering egos and, unlike most portrait photographers, never sets out to demean his subjects. “What’s the point?” he has always said, “who wouldn’t want to take a great picture of Frank Sinatra?” A lot of photographers have an ulterior motive, but Terry O’Neill certainly does not.


O’Neill has a strong, cockney accent. Combined with his dazzling blue eyes, throngs of women have always been in his following. When he first visited the playboy mansion in Chicago to photograph Hugh Hefner, the live-in bunnies thought he was nothing but the living embodiment of Caine’s blue-collar rouge. It was the accent that did it. A voice the girls would knock on his door at night just to hear, proceed to giggle, and then run away.

Unlikely as it may sound, O’Neill’s glamorous career began in Heathrow airport. At this time, he so happened to photograph Rab Butler, then, Britain’s Home Secretary, by mistake, in the waiting area. This ‘fluke’ capture led O’Neill to get a job in Fleet Street, at the Daily Sketch. His first proper job was photographing Lawrence Olivier.

Among O’Neill’s most applauded shots are those taken of Sir Elton John; like Frank Sinatra, Elton John showed a level of trust towards O’Neill that few photographers, even of O’Neill’s standard, experience. Through Elton John, Terry O’Neill’s lens was allowed an access-all-areas pass to the life and times of some of rock ‘n’ rolls most prestigious names.

An O’Neill photograph, to many, may seem casual. Instead of capturing what might be there, he captures what is. What you see is definitely what you get. Although he could be seen as a lover of colour, O’Neill’s heart still lies with black and white photography; he has always said that “Black and White is more journalistic”. O’Neill’s style is archetypal to himself- very real- he is rarely, if ever, drawn to dark interpretations of his subjects’ motives. His forte is not one of discontent but is one of satisfaction, making the fortunes of the famous look deserving.

Terry O’Neill set out in life at the humble age of 25 as a jazz drummer doing the London club circuit. Through aspiration O’Neill has become one of the most highly acclaimed photographers of our time, capturing the iconic, candid and unguarded. He is a real person, shooting unreal lives, which is why he stands firmly apart from other portrait photographers. Sir Michael Caine once said that “Terry O’Neill captures something special”- Sir Michael Caine is so incredibly true.