After getting his start in 1960 at The Daily Sketch, British photographer Terry O’Neill (1938–2019) took his rightful place at the forefront of a revolution in music, fashion and pop culture sweeping the UK. As the Swinging Sixties took the nation by storm, O’Neill captured it all with his signature blend of glamour, style and charm.
Over the next six decades, O’Neill would amass an incomparable archive filled with artists and stars that transformed the 20th century into a golden age of innovation and creativity. To honour his legacy, Fotografiska New York presents Terry O”Neill: Stars, the late artist’s largest US exhibition. The show brings together 110 classic and lesser-known works that capture the glitter of Hollywood and the grit of the music industry.
“I think what made O’Neill an extraordinary portraitist was his extremely humble approach to photography, even after he was granted access to all the major stars,” says Phoebe Weinstein, Exhibitions Manager at Fotografiska New York. “It might come as quite a surprise to most people to learn that Terry never aspired to be a photographer, and that he almost stumbled into it.”
O’Neill may not have achieved his youthful dream of becoming a jazz drummer, but he never lost the inimitable sense of timing and rhythm that the best photographers possess in spades. He cultivated relationships rooted in trust, dignity and respect, recognising the innate humanity of people who were sometimes regarded as commodities by their respective industries.
“The world of Hollywood stars, legendary athletes and supermodels never got to Terry,” says Weinstein. “He saw and treated the stars like everyone else, and I believe that is why he was also to capture such authentic and honest images of these otherwise rather unattainable people. He was a people person that understood the power that he held with a camera in his hands, and he respected that power.”
Whether photographing Elizabeth Taylor gently placing a cigarette between David Bowie’s lips, or shooting Faye Dunaway in a satin robe and stiletto heels gazing enigmatically at the 1977 Academy Award she won the previous evening for her role in Network, O’Neill captured moments of tenderness and intimacy with the same aplomb he brought to fashion shoots with Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss during the height of the 1990s supermodel era.
“Most of the photographs of Hollywood stars in the exhibition were taken behind the scenes or outside of the controlled studio setting,” says Weinstein. “This allowed O’Neill to capture them with their guards down, coupled with the fact that he had such a passion for music and films, which meant that these weren’t just assignments to him, he genuinely cared for the talent that he worked with.”
O’Neill’s iconic portrait of Brigitte Bardot on a 1971 movie set came from a profound sense of love, which he channeled into the creation of the photograph. “I had no idea if the photo would match the image I had in my mind until the film was developed, which, in the end, took several weeks,” O’Neill once said. “Even now, remembering the first time I saw these images, I get chills.”