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Terry O'Neill: Behind the Scenes

A star-studded photography career of 45 years is feted with an exhibition at The Village in Westfield.

It all started at the airport when Terry O'Neill, who had zero interest in photography whatsoever, took an accidental shot of the then home secretary R.A.B. Butler, nodding off next to a group of African chieftains. O'Neill had unknowingly stumbled onto a style of photography where he would catch people at unexpected moments and photograph them on his 35mm camera that was then considered amateurish. Part of the Swinging London 60s' camera crew (Bailey, Donovan, Duffy), O'Neill went on to photograph everyone from Muhammad Ali to Frank Sinatra to the British Royal Family. An exhibition feting O'Neill's contribution to celebrity photography has just opened at The Village, Westfield, completing a trilogy of Getty Images exhibitions. We speak to O'Neill about why Sinatra is the ultimate 'guvna' and how the paps ruined everything.

Dazed Digital: How did you develop your particular style of photography, capturing people at casual moments?
Terry O'Neill: I photographed people how I saw them. They were natural. When I started off doing reportage at the airport, I'd sit in the area where the passengers would sit as opposed to the area where all the other photographers would be waiting. I'd snap Petula Clark having a cup of tea with my 35mm camera. In those days, people were using 5 by 4 and 8 by 10 cameras. To use an 35mm was extraordinary and it was deemed quite amateurish. Totally
When I first went to Hollywood and met people like Fred Astaire I was thinking at the time "So when do we have to get a proper job then?"

DD: Were there any moments where you were starstruck about the people you photographed?  
Terry O'Neill: No, not at all. I started out photographing celebrities. You just go from job to job. It's only now when I look back that I realise how many people I've shot...I've done everybody who was worth doing.

DD: What was the best film set you ever shot on?
Terry O'Neill: Any with Paul Newman. Oh, and Frank Sinatra. He was the absolute guv'na, the king of them all. It was Ava Gardner who introduced me to him. I showing him a letter Ava had written to him about me. He read the letter and said "Right you're with me." From then on, I could go anywhere with him. Anywhere except the toilet.

DD: How do you think celebrity photography and portraiture has evolved since you first started doing it?  
Terry O'Neill: It's ground to a halt. The paps have killed it. Hello has killed it. A lot of photographic journals and magazines have folded. The stuff you see now is not natural candid stuff. The PRs now want to control everything. They want the same image to be in 300 different magazines all over the world. Then you have the paps acting like animals and they have made a mess of everything.
There aren't any real stars now. I'd still like to photograph people like Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jnr though. 90% of celebrities just aren't that interesting.

DD: What do you think is the most iconic image you have created?
Terry O'Neill: Brigitte Bardot smoking a cigar probably. Or Sinatra on a Broadwalk walking along with his bodyguards.

Terry O’Neill: Behind The Scenes at Getty Images Gallery, The Village, First Flor, Westfield, London W12 until August 3. Free admission.