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Hollywood Magic, Unguarded: The Iconic Photos of Terry O’Neill

Director John Huston with Ava Gardner on the set of 1972’s “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”

Terry O’Neill wasn’t only exceedingly talented, he also was extremely affable in that devil-may-care British fashion: serious about his work, but unfailingly easygoing and ready with a smile or a joke. Perhaps that’s why his subjects — a wealth of Hollywood’s most famous names in a career that spanned more than half a century — always felt so comfortable with him.

O’Neill passed away in London on Nov. 16th at the age of 81 after a long illness, and it’s notable that his kindness extended to working even while he was in the hospital. He had contributed photos and anecdotes to the book Always Audrey: Six Iconic Photographers. One Legendary Star (ACC Art Books, $65), released on Oct. 27th, and he had agreed to answer a few questions about his work on the project, which showcased the images a half-dozen photographers had taken of Audrey Hepburn throughout her life and career. The deadline came and went without receiving his responses, but as it was known O'Neill was in the hospital, this was understood without question, and his quotes from the book were used instead.

And then on Oct. 29th, his answers popped up via email, with an apology for their delay. A portion of that interview is featured here, but as this represented one of three interviews with O’Neill over the years, this roundup has been put together as a celebration of his life and work. If great photography is about capturing a singular moment, then Terry O’Neill unquestionably ranks among the best, as his signature seemed to be images that were anything but posed; they were relaxed, candid and unguarded, and in creating such photos, he invited the public in to see an exclusive side of Hollywood, one that a community so wholly focused on its image rarely allows to be seen.

The London-born O’Neill had kicked off his career as an airline photographer at Heathrow Airport before becoming a photojournalist for the Fleet Street newspapers, with assignments that included one of the earliest known professional photos of The Beatles. But sensing the energy of 1960s London and seeking a bit more adventure, he soon decided to venture out on his own. As one of his earliest freelance assignments, O’Neill captured the below image of director Guy Hamilton as he trained his eye on Sean Connery and Honor Blackman on the set of 1964’s Goldfinger.

“I started to work on film sets shortly after I left the papers full-time and went on my own,” O’Neill explained in October. “I didn't like some of the assignments I was getting from the papers, and I really wanted to focus on what I was seeing around in London — namely, the start of the Swinging Sixties. I wasn't going to get the model jobs — those were all going to [David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan] — and quite right, too. Great photographers, all three of them. So I started to focus on music, since I already had success with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and a friend of mine suggested I start ringing up the studios to see if I could land work as a special photographer. These were the photographers who would work on-set of films and then sell images to the papers and magazines to help stir publicity. One of the first films I worked on was Goldfinger, and I loved it. I got on with everyone, Sean was fantastic to work with, and — importantly to everyone involved — the photos ran.”  

O’Neill captured this image of Frank Sinatra and Raquel Welch on the Miami set of The Lady in Cement in 1968.

“What people don’t realize is that Frank was himself a really good photographer — he knew about lenses and lighting and everything — so to work for him, you had to be the best,” O’Neill said in 2015. “I had worked with his ex, Ava Gardner, a couple of times, and I mentioned to her that I had a chance to work with Frank, and she said, ‘I’ll write you a letter.’ So on that first morning on that Miami set, I walked up to him and gave him the letter and said, ‘Ms. Gardner gave me this letter to give to you.’ He read it and then told the guys around him, ‘He’s with me.’ After that, I could go anywhere. It was only after I’d gotten back to England that I realized what a gift he’d given to me. He was so kind to me in the beginning, and I just tried to keep up to his standard. There’s a shot of him sitting in a chair, and he’s not aware of a camera on him, and I could do that with him, because he respected my work.”

The photographer also was instrumental in the meeting of two icons, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1975 in Beverly Hills. O’Neill had already worked with Bowie, having created the legendary image of him for the cover of 1974’s Diamond Dogs.

“After that he toured America, and while he was in L.A., Liz Taylor said she’d like to meet him — she was interested in putting him in a film she was going to do in Russia,” O’Neill said in 2016. “So she said, ‘Bring him around on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.’ Well, 2, 3, 4, 5 p.m. went by, and he still wasn’t there. No one is ever late for Liz Taylor, so Bowie didn’t get that part in that film. By the time he turned up at 6, there was no light, so she was the one who grabbed hold of the situation — quite literally, she grabbed him and held him, put on the hat he was wearing, took his cigarette, and we moved like lightning to get the pictures. It was very quick, but they became friends in the process.” (Images from the session are featured in Bowie by O’Neill, which was re-released in September with never-before-seen photos.)

O’Neill took this legendary “morning after” image of Faye Dunaway at the Beverly Hills Hotel on March 29th, 1977, the day following her Academy Award win for Best Actress in 1976’s Network. It’s a great example of the messages that can be conveyed in a single image, equal parts success, glamour, introspection and, perhaps, exhaustion. While other photographers may have been clamoring for such a portrait session, O’Neill enjoyed unique access to create this image: He and Dunaway had been in a relationship for years, and would marry in 1983; they divorced in 1987.

Always Audrey is the final book that includes O’Neill’s participation, and features his behind-the-scenes photography of two of Hepburn’s films, 1966’s How to Steal a Million and 1967’s Two for the Road. O’Neill took the below image in the south of France on the set of the latter production.

“The photos in the book, I think, reflect the best of the Audrey I worked with,” O’Neill said in October. “It's not a surprise, but I remember Audrey as being a really nice person — she always had a big smile on her face — and just seemed really happy and in the moment.  You'd never see her upset or causing any difficulties, never stormed off if things weren't going right, and always quick to play around with the cricket bat or table tennis.”

What did O’Neill love most about his photos he created? In 2015 I asked him what it was like to work with Sinatra, and his answer could be applied to many of the icons whose images he captured over the years. “I just hope it gives them a taste and a feel for what it was like to work with the world’s greatest entertainer,” O’Neill said of his Sinatra images. “Many of these photos offer an insight into a world people likely will never see again.”

All images seen here are courtesy of Iconic Images, London.


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