The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” says internationally renowned photographer Terry O’Neill of his 50-year career capturing the lives of celebrities.

O’Neill, whose ambition it had been to become a jazz musician, got his start in camera work almost by accident. While working in a photographic unit of an airline, he took a photo of a man, who was sleeping on a bench at London Heathrow Airport—and who happened to be Britain’s Home Secretary Rab Butler. The result was the launch of O’Neill’s career photographing icons in real-life settings.

Later, while working in London’s Fleet Street for the tabloid The Daily Sketch, he was sent to photograph a then-new pop band called The Beatles. The reason was, according to O’Neill, “because I was young and could talk to them.” The photos taken that day at Abbey Road Studios while the band was recording Please, Please Me were published in the paper, which then sold out.

The first major group portrait of the Beatles was taken by Terry O'Neill during the recording of their first hit single and album 'Please please me' in the backyard of the Abbey Road Studios in London, January 1961.

The first major group portrait of the Beatles was taken by Terry O’Neill during the recording of their first hit single and album ‘Please please me’ in the backyard of the Abbey Road Studios in London, January 1961.

No one thought that pop music would stay popular. According to O’Neill, “The Beatles and [The Rolling] Stones and I used to sit around and talk about what we were going to do for work when all this ended.” It seems those in the business couldn’t believe that they were getting paid for doing what they loved and for having so much fun.

Frank Sinatra, in Miami

Frank Sinatra, in Miami

O’Neill is widely known for his iconic photos of celebrities such as Sir Elton John CBE, Frank Sinatra, and Faye Dunaway. Speaking of capturing these famous people on film, he says, “I was able to just blend in. In fact, I learned that from Sinatra. I got his wife Ava Gardner to send him a note allowing me in to photograph him. When I got there, he roundly ignored me as if I wasn’t there. I later realized that he had given me the greatest gift of all: to be able to blend in, to fade into the background.”

While O’Neill is fond of saying that he simply tries to photograph what is happening, it is clear in his work that he has an uncanny ability to find the person or human in all his subjects. In 1977, two years before O’Neill married Dunaway, he told her that, if she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role, he wanted her to be by the pool at 6:30 on the morning after the award ceremony.

The result is his iconic photo of Dunaway lounging “the morning after.” Contrary to popular opinion, it was not an accidental setting by any means, rather it was created at that moment and photographed with only the couple on set.

South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and  politician Nelson Mandela spends his 90th birthday in London for the Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Tribute which was held in Hyde Park on 27 June 2008.

South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician Nelson Mandela spends his 90th birthday in London for the Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Tribute which was held in Hyde Park on 27 June 2008.

Several years later, O’Neill returned to London and taught himself color photography for the first time. He is well known during this period for his many photo shoots, the most memorable of which was, according to O’Neill, the week he spent with Nelson Mandela on the occasion of Mandela’s 90th birthday. In taking thousands of photos of him in the company of his visitors, O’Neill came to understand what true greatness really means.

Several years ago, Iconic Images purchased O’Neill’s archives, which had been boxed in storage. Thanks to the company and its CEO Robin Morgan, we have the great fortune of getting a glimpse of an extremely exciting period in history through O’Neill’s lens.

ThimotyConnorBioDivider

Timothy Connor is director of the Corporate Development and Marketing Services group, Newport Co., Ltd. He is also co-chair of the ACCJ Special Events Committee and member of the ACCJ Communications Advisory Council.

Divider

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” says Terry O’Neill.