Interviews, Photography

An interview with photographer Terry O’Neill

Find out the secrets to his success and pick up a few tips from the veteran photographer.

A head and shoulder shot of Terry O'Neill

Photographer Terry O’Neill. Photo: Viviane Li

“I hate being photographed… or doing interviews” said my interviewee just a short while into our conversation. The only thought I had at that point, was that I needed to get him to do both before I left the front door.

Terry O’Neill and I are sat diagonally across one corner of a long black table in the boardroom of his office on a Monday morning. Casually dressed in a white shirt and pale blue jeans, he is a frank-speaking Londoner who doesn’t mince his words. But rather than bravado, these words are spoken with the confidence that comes with knowing oneself, honed through years of experience at the top of the game. In an impressive career spanning five decades, he has photographed almost every A-list celebrity you could think of, from early glimpses of the Beatles to portraits of the late singer Amy Winehouse.

Terry seems to have a celebrity for every story, and a story for every celebrity. His numerous anecdotes, delivered in a straight-shooting style, are exactly what many journalists want to bring back to their editors. In the one-day I had to research and prepare my questions prior to our meeting, I found many enthralling first-hand accounts of Hollywood legends. But what about the man behind the lens? It would be a real shame to become seduced by the stories of fame and miss the chance to pick up some photography tips and to find out what underpins his success.

Make your own luck

From very early on, Terry O’Neill was already making headways, “When I left Fleet Street I was getting paid £75 a week, which was twenty more than the next guy. So I was really doing well.” Earning nearly one and a half times more than your peers is no mean feat. The novelty of discovering a new craft peaked his interest, which then developed into something more, “I fell in love with getting double page spreads in newspapers so I always went for the big picture, you know. I didn’t want to do a picture for a newspaper that was just a small photograph, so I always thought up different pictures for different stories.” Ambition and the reward of success propelled him forward, but optimist Terry also attributes another secret to his achievements – good fortune – “I’ve had luck on my side. God sort of looked down and pointed a finger and it landed on me for the 60s and my life has been incredible.”

What many ‘lucky’ people have in common is hard work and he is certainly not shy of it: “I used to go into a newspaper and there were all these old-time photographers there and they’d do one job a day and I was doing five or six jobs. I just ate up all the jobs that I can do.” Fast-forward forty to fifty years and nothing has changed. At a time of his life when most people are taking it easy, he is promoting his work across the globe, exhibiting and selling gallery prints that cost thousands each. Terry reveals a rather gruelling schedule, “I am actually travelling nearly as much as when I was photographing. So you know, it’s quite a hard job.” What’s more, he intends to continue doing it until the day he meets his maker!

Unmask the fame

His prints of iconic celebrities such as Bridget Bardot and Frank Sinatra are particularly in demand. Having been around a vast catalogue of superstars for much of his life, Terry is remarkably down-to-earth. He tells me how he remains grounded in his approach, “I’ve always learnt that any famous movie star always had a job before and that’s the way I looked at them, like Harrison Ford was a carpenter…” Seeing through the mask of fame is a useful trick to maintain a cool professional head; he continues, “It helps me working because I see them for what they are. I don’t believe in all the mystery of being a movie star.”

Amateurs worry about equipment…

Many photographers obsess about their gear. They like to talk specifications and snoop into each other’s camera bag. Terry O’Neill is certainly not one of them, “I am not fond of cameras. Some photographers are camera mad! They own every model that comes out, but I am just not interested in them. In fact, they get in my way.” The machinery is just a tool, a method of transferring the visualised image from the photographer’s mind onto a form everyone else can see. If we focus on the equipment and make that the centre of attention, we lose the reason for taking photographs in the first place – to record a moment or to tell a story.

Every click counts

Just like some professional chefs who don’t cook at home, this photographer doesn’t snap at home. “I never take pictures unless I have to. I never take holiday snaps or photographs for fun ‘cos it’s not a fun thing to me. It’s work.” explained Terry further, as I tried to explore his motivation. His comment tells me that he puts real effort into carefully crafting every single shot, overseen with a scrutinising professional eye. This is still pertinent in a digital age, if not more so. Just because you can be a burst mode shooter, doesn’t mean that you should. If we want great results, we still need to put in the effort to make every click meaningful – think about what we are photographing and why.

The reluctant photographer

Although he prefers not to pick up a camera these days, I would love to see him working on a shoot. Hidden just under the surface of a reluctant photographer, I caught glimpses of brilliance of a seasoned professional.

While I prepared to photograph him after the interview, the veteran photographer adopted the role of model with the expertise developed from having directed others thousands of times before. Terry sat down on a sofa and posed himself. Then, without moving, stared straight into the lens and patiently waited for the shutter to click – all while I was still thumbing the camera settings. It was slightly intimidating to feel his eyes watching what I was doing. As I felt the knowledge about how to work my camera wanting to drain from my mind, I must remember that he also had a job before. This famous photographer used to be a jazz drummer. It was a privilege to be able to pick his brains.


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