Iconic photographer Terry O’Neill passes away at 81

19 Nov
Photo credit: Misan Harriman/Iconic Images, used with permission

Only two months back, Peter Lindberg, Charlie Cole, Fred Herzog, and Robert Frank passed away within days of each other. Now the photography world has lost another icon. Terry O’Neill, best known for capturing the essence of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ with his photographs of legendary performers from the era including The Beatles, David Bowie, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, and Clint Eastwood, succumbed to a long battle with prostate cancer on Saturday night at the age of 81.

O’Neill was known for capturing his subjects authentically and in an unconventional manner. As Elton John reflects, ‘looking at Terry’s photographs is like gazing through a window at the most extraordinary and exciting moments of my life.’ Born on July, 30 1938 in Heston, West London, O’Neill was on track to become a priest but found his true calling in music. ‘I was told I had too many questions to be a priest,’ he remarked.

Photography would find O’Neill by accident. An aspiring jazz drummer, he sought out employment at British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), now British Airways, in hopes that as a steward he could travel to New York City’s jazz clubs in between work breaks. There weren’t any steward positions open at the time. Reluctantly, he took a job in the airline’s photography department.

Working with Peter Campion in BOAC’s photography department is what changed the course of O’Neill’s career. Campion immediately knew he had an eye and would give O’Neill photography books to peruse for inspiration. A chance encounter with then Home Secretary Rab Butler, asleep on a bench in a BOAC terminal, would yield a photo that was published in the Daily Sketch. O’Neill was immediately offered a job on the Fleet Street beat and worked at the paper for a few years before striking out on his own.

One of his earliest assignments happened to be of a musical group that would define a generation. ‘I was asked to go down to Abbey Road Studios and take a few portraits of this new band. I didn’t know how to work with a group — but because I was a musician myself and the youngest on-staff by a decade — I was always the one they’d ask. I took the four young lads outside for better light. That portrait ran in the papers the next day and the paper sold out. That band became the biggest band in the world; The Beatles,’ recalls O’Neill in a quote published by his agency, Iconic Images.

He would go on to photograph The Rolling Stones during their formative years. Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, credited O’Neill’s images as being fundamental to the band’s success. ‘Terry O’Neill captured us on the street, and that made all the difference. Terry captured the time.’ He continued on his path, photographing more famous faces that defined the 60s including Michael Caine, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Terence Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, and Frank Sinatra. Notably, he was one of the first photographers to work with Sean Connery as he portrayed James Bond. O’Neill worked as a photographer on all the Bond films in the coming decades.

Although most of O’Neill’s work focused on the glitz and glamour of celebrity life during his six decades as a photographer, he also captured prominent athletes and politicians. He photographed the Queen of England twice and also caught Winston Churchill leaving the hospital in 1962. ‘Terry was a ‘historian’ whose camera captured the resurgence and energy of this revolution,’ says Michael Caine. ‘I can think of no other photographer who has contributed so much to our heritage.’

O’Neill went on to capture classic images into the 70s including David Bowie’s ‘Jumping Dog,’ which premiered at the V&A Museum in London, along with riveting moments from Elton John’s ‘Rocketman’ tour – many that were used as reference material for the recent film. It was his portrait of actress Faye Dunaway, ‘Faye at the pool,’ that would establish him as an icon. Dunaway brought her Oscar statue, an award for her role in the 1976 film ‘Network,’ to the Beverly Hills Hotel pool the morning after she won. This atypical ‘day after’ take is recognized as one of Hollywood’s most iconic images to this day. O’Neill and Dunaway would go on to marry in 1983 before splitting in 1987.

At the start of the 21st century, O’Neill started focusing more of his efforts on exhibiting, publishing, and discussing his work. In 2011, he was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal in recognition of his significant contribution to the art of photography plus an Honorary Fellowship of The Society. Earlier this year, he was awarded a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Photography in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Robin Morgan, the former editor of The Sunday Times Magazine and CEO of Iconic Images, the agency that represents O’Neill’s work, sums up his career with the following statement; ‘No other photographer worked the frontline of fame for so long and with such panache. Terry chronicled the cultural landscape for six decades from HM Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela, The Beatles to Amy Winehouse, Muhammad Ali to the biggest stars of film and stage. They all dropped their guard to his mischief, charm and wit.’

Adds Morgan, ‘By the end of his life his work was hanging in more than 40 galleries and museums around the world.’ To this day, O’Neill is one of the world’s most collected photographers. He is survived by his son, actor Liam Dunaway O’Neill and current wife Laraine Ashton.

Articles: Digital Photography Review (

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