Terry O’Neill obituary: Photographer of stars from Bardot to Bowie

He created iconic images of Mandela, Springsteen and second wife Faye Dunaway

Terry O’Neill and his photograph of Nelson Mandela at 90 in 2009. Photograph: Daniel Deme/EPA

Terry O’Neill and his photograph of Nelson Mandela at 90 in 2009. Photograph: Daniel Deme/EPA


Terence Patrick O’Neill
Born: July 30th, 1938
Died: November 17th, 2019

Terry O’Neill, who has died aged 81 after suffering from cancer, was a paparazzo at heart, truest to his cheeky self when snapping off reportage shots. Most of his career predated digital photography; he clicked away, printing up contact sheets from the negative rolls to discover whether his vigilance had been rewarded with a single perfect frame.

That was how he caught Brigitte Bardot in 1971, a cigar between her teeth as the wind swept her hair, or football manager Brian Clough in 1965, forehead-down on the barrier of what was then called Hartlepools United’s stand.

O’Neill searched his contacts for the realisation of a hoped-for visual idea, and also just to find out what was there. Which was a lot, whether subjects reacted to his blarney (the queen gave one of the most genuine camera smiles of her reign after he told her a horse-racing joke), or took charge of the shoot, as did David Bowie, to whom O’Neill was court photographer.

He was Elton John’s preferred picture-taker, likewise Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen (the band). When O’Neill spotted a young Bruce Springsteen in a carpark on Sunset Boulevard under a billboard to promote his make-it-or-bust Born to Run album in 1975, he seized the moment to take the last pre-fame image of the Boss.

Born in Romford, east London, O’Neill was the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Heston, on the capital’s western edges. He never intended to be a photographer and was pushed towards the Catholic priesthood, but left school at barely 15 to play drums in gigs. After national service he hoped to join the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) as a steward, in order to reach the US to play jazz, but BOAC only offered an apprenticeship as a technical photographer, and so he took it.

Fleet Street

In 1959, for an assignment on human emotion, he pointed his Agfa at an aged gent napping among African dignitaries in London Airport’s sole terminal, who turned out to be the then home secretary, Rab Butler. A passing hack suggested which paper would buy the image, and with that came £25 and O’Neill’s entry to Fleet Street, with a Daily Sketch staff job from 1959.

The tabloid was a lads’ paradise of novelty stunts, including Laurence Olivier dragging up for the London Palladium. That O’Neill sometimes did not know who the important people were saved him from nerves.

He capitalised on his youth and music tastes to trail and photograph the just-hatched Beatles through television studios, or blinking in unfamiliar daylight. The Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham then asked him to cover his wards, so O’Neill shot them in a cafe between TV sessions; Keith Richards acquired his first suitcase when O’Neill suggested the Stones all be given them so that they would look like a touring band as he dragged them down Tin Pan Alley.

Frank Sinatra, on the recommendation of his ex-wife Ava Gardner, let O’Neill melt into his heavy crew for weeks

O’Neill sauntered easily onto film sets in Europe and then Hollywood. How did he win co-operation from the beautiful people, especially women stars chary of their appearance?

“Compliments. More compliments, that’s it,” he said. “And, well. . . you could add a few more compliments.”

Male stars, a disgruntled Steve McQueen aside, adopted O’Neill as an amiable pal, happy to stay invisible despite his handsome looks. Frank Sinatra, on the recommendation of his ex-wife Ava Gardner, let O’Neill melt into his heavy crew for weeks; Michael Caine never minded when O’Neill recorded him yet again snoring in a recliner. And he was a therapeutic listener. Peter Sellers would ring up regularly at 2am, and O’Neill would then go round to the actor’s home to give ear to his loneliness.

First wife

To do that, O’Neill had to slip away from his first wife, the actor Vera Day, to whom he was married for 13 years. The marriage ended after he moved to Los Angeles at the height of his success, despite him commuting for a while back to London by Concorde at the weekends.

In 1977, he made a stunt of Faye Dunaway’s portrait the morning after she had won best actress Oscar for Network: statue, newspapers, a Beverly Hills pool, and Dunaway, bemused. They began a relationship and were married for four years in the 1980s, during which time he fell into movie production at Dunaway’s behest (including Mommie Dearest, 1981) and a depression so deep he eventually called his old friend the celebrity tailor Doug Hayward to tell him that he felt like taking his own life. Hayward ordered him on to a plane back to Britain.

Most photographers threw away contact sheets like Kleenex, but O’Neill kept many (including Raquel Welch, in a fur bikini, tied to a cross)

O’Neill was candid about his many relationships, from centrefold models thrilled by his London accent who pursued him through the Playboy Mansion, via Jean Shrimpton, to the domestic monarch Martha Stewart in the late 1980s; Eric Clapton pointed her out to O’Neill in a restaurant, and O’Neill immediately chased her, napkin over arm, pretending to be a waiter. Stewart housed him, fed him, bought him a kitten, and he fled after six months, still burned from his last marriage, which had ended in 1987.

By then he had been out of photography for too long to return at the same level; he considered becoming a picture editor before saying to a colour supplement editor, as he so often had done in the past, “Listen, I got an idea.”

New 1990s faces

The idea was a series of portraits of new 1990s faces, which restarted his career, but many layers of management and PR were now interposed between celebrity and lens, and O’Neill was soon bored by long days waiting for a half-hour slot with his subject, buffered by legions of intermediaries.

When granted the old freedom – invited to preparations for the Nelson Mandela birthday concert in 2008, for instance, or snatching a few frames of Amy Winehouse in the same year – the pix had their old vivacity.

Most photographers threw away contact sheets like Kleenex, but O’Neill kept many, most of them better than usable (including Raquel Welch, in a fur bikini, tied to a cross, which was shot 30 years before it was eventually published, and Muhammad Ali with his mum). They became the basis first for a modest licensing business, then for multiple exhibitions and books that sustained him in retirement.

O’Neill was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 2004, and received the society’s centenary medal in 2011. He was appointed CBE last month.

His final marriage was to the model agency chief Laraine Ashton. The couple divided their London house between them, so both could retreat rather than leave. She survives him, as do his two children from his marriage to Day, and a son, Liam, from his marriage to Dunaway.