Legendary British photographer Terry O’Neill started out shooting the Beatles and the Stones as struggling young bands in the early 60s, and went on to create iconic portraits of Frank Sinatra, Elvis, David Bowie, Brigitte Bardot, The Who, Eric Clapton, Faye Dunaway and so many more. He talks to Burt Kearns about the secret of great photography, the Swingin’ 60s scene in London (which he helped create), and the generosity of Frank Sinatra.
They’re tearing down the SLS Hotel & Casino at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, and that got me thinking about Terry O’Neill.
They’re tearing down the SLS from the inside, renovating the casino and rooms and turning the place into something called the Grand Sahara Resort. The new name’s a nod to the old name. For more than half a century, since 1952, the building held the real Sahara Hotel & Casino. This was where Frank Sinatra and Buddy Hackett and Wayne Newton and Jerry Lewis packed the showroom, and Louis Prima, Keely Smith & Sam Butera made show business history in the Casbar Lounge. The Sahara is where the Beatles stayed when they played the Vegas Convention Center in 1964 (the Beatles have been Strip headliners since 2006, in a Cirque du Soleil show at the Mirage).
The Sahara closed in 2011. Which is where Terry O’Neill, the greatest celebrity photographer of our time, comes in.
A few years after the Sahara sign was carted off to the Neon Boneyard downtown, some hot shots from Los Angeles came in with the idea of turning the old joint into a hip retro casino. They designed the decor around the iconic Rat Pack photos taken by Terry O’Neill. You know Terry O’Neill. He’s the suave British photographer who married Faye Dunaway. He also helped create London’s Swinging ’60s scene with his photos of its young movers and shakers before taking iconic shots of stars like Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot, Paul Newman — and Sinatra in his Tony Rome period.
O’Neill’s Rat Pack photos were blown up supersize on the walls, and even imprinted into the carpets of the casino. The centerpiece of the new SLS was the Iconic Images Gallery — featuring big, expensive iconic images shot by Terry O’Neill.
The SLS, isolated from the action on the Strip, never caught on. It was sold a few times, until the new owners gave up on the concept and sold it to someone who’s turning it into the Grand Sahara.
But back when the SLS promised to be a swingin’ yeah baby return to Vegas cool, a pal and I were part of the push, producing spots for the Iconic Images Gallery. The short video clips featured Terry O’Neill. That’s when we got to speak to him about his work, the people whose images he made iconic, and the pop culture his work defines.
PKM: So what makes the perfect photograph?
TERRY O’NEILL: Oh God, I wish I knew. Every photographer would tell you there’s no such thing as the perfect photograph, ’cause you never get it. There’s always something wrong with it, and it could be the most infinitesimal thing that’s wrong, but you’re never satisfied as a photographer. When I look back at all my work, I always think, “Oh, I should’ve stayed on longer, I should’ve done this, I should have done that,” so I don’t really get the full enjoyment through what I’ve done. Do you understand what I mean? I always feel I could’ve done much better.
PKM: The fact that you can’t get satisfaction — is that the secret to success?
TERRY O’NEILL: I mean, I’ve got friends like Eric Clapton. I’d say, “God you were great tonight.” He’d say, “Yeah, but I coulda done this here, I coulda–” And I thought, God! It teaches you that anybody who’s any good is never satisfied. Ever.
PKM: You’ve shot so many photos that are considered iconic. When you approach a subject, do you work to create a mood?
TERRY O’NEILL: As far as getting moods and things in my pictures, whatever’s happening, I photograph. I don’t try to make a false mood or something. If someone’s angry, or someone’s happy, whatever it is, I try and capture it. I just seem to blend into the background, you know. That’s the secret of great photography. People forget that you’re a photographer. I learnt that from Frank Sinatra.
PKM: How’d that happen?
TERRY O’NEILL: I became friendly with Ava Gardner on a film called Mayerling. We became really great friends, and I said, “I’ve got a chance to shoot your ex-husband.” She said, “Oh, I’ll write you a letter.” So she writes me a letter and I don’t know what it said, but it must have been something really complimentary, because I handed Sinatra the letter and he read it, and said, “Right, you’re with me.” And for the next three weeks, totally ignored me. And I realized at the end of the three weeks that he gave me the greatest gift someone could ever give someone, ’cause I could go anywhere with him. He never questioned anything, nothing. And I realized what that was the secret of great photography. Of being there but just totally being in the background. And that set me up for the rest of my life, really. I mean, when people ignore you and forget you’re a camera, that’s the whole secret of everything, and that’s all I ever wanted to be. There’s a great shot, I’ve got Sinatra. I’m right on top of him, he’s sitting in a chair thinking and you’d never know I was even there, it was like a magic, magic shot.
The whole secret of photography is to be anonymous and be invisible and don’t open your mouth unless spoken to.
I go down to the Abbey Road, go in and there’s this group in there singing ‘Please Please Me.’ It turned out to be the Beatles. And that was the very first job I had on a national newspaper.
PKM: So how did this all start for you?
TERRY O’NEILL: Funny enough, it was jazz drumming that got me into photography. Because modern jazz wasn’t making it. Trad jazz was taking over, which I didn’t want to play. Mink Mulligan, The Crane River Jazz Band, Acker Bilk. And all us modern jazz players were getting driven out. Getting to America was the thing, and most people used to go on the boats, like the Queen Mary, and take a job in the band. But I found out that British Airways were flying to New York. It took fourteen hours, and you had three days off in New York, flew back — three days off in London. And I saw this as the way to be the new transatlantic jazz drummer. So I went to BOAC, and they said, “Well, you’ve just missed an intake. If you take a job here in the meantime, you stand a better chance of being taken on next time.” So I took a job in the photographic unit, and hence was the start of my new career. Unbeknownst to me, because I thought I was going to end up in New York being a famous jazz drummer.
As a kid, I had a definite normal upbringing. I stumbled into photography literally. I took that up and then I was teamed up with somebody and he died in a plane crash and I got offered his job on a paper. So there I am twenty, twenty-one, working on a national newspaper (The Daily Sketch). And then the next youngest guy was thirty-one. I mean it was like a ten-year gap in the whole of Fleet Street! And you know how competitive Fleet Street is. And I said to the guy, “Len” — that was the picture editor, Len Franklin — “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you. I’ve got you here because we’re interested in young people. We wanna beat this Daily Mirror” — which was their competition — “and we wanna get hold of the young people. And we got a big feeling for music and musicians and that’s why we gave you the job. So I want you to go down and photograph a group.”
So I go down to the Abbey Road, go in and there’s this group in there singing ‘Please Please Me.’ It turned out to be the Beatles. And that was the very first job I had on a national newspaper. And I took this really amateurish picture of them holding their things, ’cause I didn’t really know what to do. There really were no pictures of pop groups around at the time. So I got them with their instruments — the picture is so amateurish I can’t tell ya — but I took the picture, went back and the newspaper published the picture three months later when the record came out. ‘Please Please Me’ went to Number One, and the paper sold out that day. The paper turned out to be right. And then Len said, “Right, who else do you want to do?” And I said. “Well, the Rolling Stones are a big group. They’re better because they play the blues.”
What happened was I’d got rung up by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who said, “I’d like you to take the Stones’ photos.” And I said, “Well, I can’t, I’m really busy.” “So we’ll come to you.” So I said, “Right, okay,” and off the top of my head, I had this idea to take them down to Tin Pan Alley (the center of London’s music biz). Because I didn’t like the Beatles shot. I know it’s a great shot, but I hated that shot of them holding all the instruments. So I said, “Let’s go down to Tin Pan Alley where all the songwriters are and we’ll do you like the kings of Tin Pan Alley.” So that’s what I did. I took them down to Denmark Street and all that, walking around London with their instruments and stuff to make them look cool.
I wanted to do the picture different than the Beatles shot, so I got them all standing there outside the Tin Pan Alley club in Denmark Street. They showed up looking like five ragamuffins, which suited me right down to the ground, because most of the bands wore suits, mohair jackets, all the ties and all the rest of it, and yet they looked boring. And this lot looked the real McCoy!
You’ve got to remember that they were a pop group who played in a little club down in Richmond (in southwest London), just a street band, a little rock ‘n’ roll band, and I wanted to give them some strong presence. At the time, they didn’t actually have a recording contract, but I wanted to make it look they had. And that’s why, as opposed to the Beatles shots, I shot them very strongly. So I shot them outside this club, and it went down a storm!
You can see that they had something from the way they stand. I mean, they were five individuals. The Beatles, they all looked different, but you just knew they were a quartet, where the Stones looked like five individuals. I always remember that. I remember when I took the pictures in, the picture editor said, “God, they look like freaks! They bloody look like wild men!” I said, “Well, that’s the way they are.”
So anyway, I knew about another group called the Dave Clark Five, and I went to photograph them, and they ran it as “Beauty and the Beasts.” That was the first double-page spread ever on pop people in newspapers, and that was start. The whole ’63 thing and everything just took off.
You can see that they had something from the way they stand. I mean, they were five individuals. The Beatles, they all looked different, but you just knew they were a quartet, where the Stones looked like five individuals. I always remember that. I remember when I took the pictures in, the picture editor said, “God, they look like freaks! They bloody look like wild men!” I said, “Well, that’s the way they are.”So anyway, I knew about another group called the Dave Clark Five, and I went to photograph them, and they ran it as “Beauty and the Beasts.” That was the first double-page spread ever on pop people in newspapers, and that was start. The whole ’63 thing and everything just took off.
PKM: Those photos not only captured, but helped create, the Swinging ’60s scene in London.
TERRY O’NEILL: I wanted my pictures to tell a story. Most of the groups in those days were shot in studios and they’re all boring, like the shots of the old-time movie stars. I had a 35 mil camera and I could take it anywhere, and I could take pictures in any light and I was really ahead of the game. And that’s what got me to where I was.
PKM: You were photographing a revolution.
TERRY O’NEILL: I came along at a time when young people were given a chance. I mean, Fleet Street and the whole world was run by fifty-year-old men, and suddenly I’m a kid given a chance to express myself! And I went and I photographed the Beatles, the Stones, and then I photographed David Bailey, Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton. And I was photographing all these people who made the Sixties. And we all worked together. We had no idea the effect on the world and where the Beatles were gonna go.
We used to go out every night. And at that time, a photographer was like the king, like the chefs are now! It was all photographers, because I could get them into the newspaper. (David) Bailey got them into Vogue and (Terence) Donovan got them in magazines. Having the access to people like that, you wouldn’t get it today. Then, they were crying out to have their pictures taken, and wanted their pictures in newspapers. There’d never been a picture of a pop group in a newspaper, so I was a big deal. I could get them into newspapers! And I was around their age, I could converse with them. Plus, I was a musician myself.
And we used to sit around talking, saying, “What are we gonna do when this is all over?” Because we’re all convinced that one day in the next year it was all going to grind to a halt. I mean, Keith Richards thought the whole thing would last two years and that was it. And look at the Stones now! They’re still rocking away. Ringo, for example, wanted to buy a chain of hairdressers for his wife and things like that. And we all thought we’d have to get a proper job and we used to laugh our heads off at Mick Jagger singing at forty, the old man. It was a joke and he’s still rocking it out now!
That time was the best time ever. There’ll never be another time like it. It was just a freak of nature, that everything came in that way of the young. And we didn’t misuse it, either. In fact, this was the first time young people were ever given any credence at all. We created fashion, we created new models, because everything was always very “gloves on” and all that. And everything just loosened up. It was an incredible time. I wish it would come back.
I’d got rung up by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who said, “I’d like you to take the Stones’ photos.” And I said, “Well, I can’t, I’m really busy.” “So we’ll come to you.” So I said, “Right, okay,” and off the top of my head, I had this idea to take them down to Tin Pan Alley…
PKM: You went on to create some of pop culture’s most iconic images of stars, from Sinatra to Elton John, Brigitte Bardot to David Bowie — I know you married Faye Dunaway (1983-87), but did you become friends with any of the others?
TERRY O’NEILL: I never get too friendly with artists and people I work with, because if you get to know them, you’ll be the one ending up sitting having a drink with ’em, and someone else is taking the pictures! And I’ve learned that with Frank Sinatra, because when you’re around somebody a lot, naturally, you’re with ’em after hours and all that. And I realized with him that I don’t wanna be the one sitting and having a drink with him and having a laugh. I want to be the photographer. So we sort of went our own way for a couple of years, because if he extends this friendship to you, it looks like you’re rebuffing him. But really, I was just being smart. It’s best for him and it’s best for me. I didn’t want to become part of the entourage because I wanted to keep my own opinion and unbiased eye on whatever I saw. That’s my game.
I think an important part of my work is that I didn’t look at the fame of the person. I always looked at the person. For example, Harrison Ford was a carpenter, and that’s the way that I looked at him. And Sinatra was a waiter. And different things like that. I always realized that people, before they were famous, had ordinary jobs. I mean, fame is a nothing thing, you know. You wouldn’t like to be famous, believe me. Because everyone’s looking at you. You walk into a shop — I mean it would drive me mad.
Fleet Street and the whole world was run by fifty-year-old men, and suddenly I’m a kid given a chance to express myself! And I went and I photographed the Beatles, the Stones, and then I photographed David Bailey, Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton. And I was photographing all these people who made the Sixties. And we all worked together. We had no idea the effect on the world and where the Beatles were gonna go.
PKM: So you’re retired from the game. Do you ever get the urge to follow any of today’s celebs?
TERRY O’NEILL: To be honest, I don’t have much interest in taking pictures now. That’s mainly because no one excites me. You know, when you’ve done people like Sinatra, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Brigitte Bardot, where do you go? All today’s lot, they all seem the same to me.
When I look back on my life I feel I’ve been lucky. I have really been lucky and you know, as far as thinking I’m talented, I don’t even think of myself as a talent. I just think I was somebody who met the Beatles, who met the Stones, and I did this and I did that and something and something and something, and it was just my way of life. I just did something different every day. It was just natural for me to take pictures. I didn’t really think of talent or ability or something. In fact, I hate cameras. I know this sounds funny, but I hate cameras. I have to use them to get the image, but I’m not really into it all.
And when people tell me I’m an extraordinary talent, I find it hard to believe. I just look at all my pictures and I think, “I coulda done that better, and if I’d only done this, and if I’d waited until he’s moved another six foot forward or something.” I see all sorts of faults in them, but people see them as something different. I don’t think any true artist is happy. In fact, I haven’t really met one. They all drive themselves mad along with me, so join the club.