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Remembering Terry O'Neill Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

18 November 2019

British photographer Terry O'Neill, who captured six decades of stars from the film, music and fashion industries as well as luminaries in the fields of sports and politics, passed away Saturday at his home after a long illness. He was 81.

He got his calling in his youth but mistook it for the priesthood. "I was told I had too many questions to be a priest," he explained.

Instead, he gravitated to the music world where lyrics did all the questioning. He loved jazz and set his heart on being a jazz drummer. To get to New York City where he hoped to dazzle the jazz world, he applied for a job at BOAC, the British airline that would later become British Airways.

There were no steward jobs open so he was shuttled to the photography department. There he had the fortune to work with Peter Campion who took him under his wing. O'Neill recalled how Campion "would bring in all these books for me to look at. He literally showed me what photography could be."

Among his assignments for BOAC was to take shots of people arriving and departing in the terminal. "I happened upon a very well-dressed bowler-hatted man, taking a quick nap in the departures area and he was surrounded by African chieftains, fully clad in their regalia," O'Neill told the story.

An editor approached him to ask for the image of, it turned out, Home Secretary Rab Butler taking a nap. That image launched his career, getting him a job at The Daily Sketch.

He worked there several years before branching out on his own to take the portraits of the people who defined the era. That included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Raquel Welch, Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie, Elton John and the Queen, among others.

He was particularly prized by his subjects for being "a class act, quick-witted and filled with charm," in the words of comedian and children's author David Walliams.

He won over Raquel Welch with just two words. She remembers the occasion:

I never liked being photographed ... until I started working with Terry. I thought, glancing in his direction, he's attractive! 'Hey Rocky,' he smiled. How did he know my nickname? I smiled back and thought that's a cool way to break the ice.

The Queen took a little more work. In 1992, he took her portrait for the second time. It was not the best of times for the Queen Elizabeth II, who described it as an "annus horribilis."

O'Neill, though, had an idea.

The second time was great. It was in a bad year, as she put it. And I just got her to laugh because I noticed the first time when she laughed, she made a great picture.

So he told her an undisclosed horse-racing joke to get the portrait.

O'Neill was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal in 2011 for his significant contribution to the art of photography and an Honorary Fellowship of The Society. Earlier this year, O'Neill was awarded a Commander of the British Empire for services to Photography in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours list. His work hands in more the 40 museums and galleries around the world. A short slide show has been published by The Guardian.

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