TERRY O'NEILL: PICTURE THIS
Terry O'Neill talks to Absolutely Magazine about his next project with Kensington and Chelsea Art Weekend.
Absolutely Magazine interviews photographer Terry O'Neill about his links to Kensington & Chelsea and the meaning of culture to him and those based in the area - from photographing celebrities and rockstars in the hay days of the '60s, to visiting his favourite galleries and museums today, and his vision for the future of the borough:
Why did you pick up the camera in the first place?
Playing drums in jazz bands was and is my first love. I was successful in London clubs but I wanted to play with the best and they were in New York. Getting there was of course expensive so I hit on an idea. If I could get a job as an air steward on the BA (BOAC) transatlantic flights, I could moonlight in clubs in London AND New York. In those days you got to stay over for three days so I could play the NYC clubs during those layovers.
But there were no jobs going for air stewards. I was told that I could take a job in the technical services division and wait my turn. I took the job. They gave me a camera, sent me to art school to learn how to use it, and tasked me to take pictures at the airport of VIPs, or families saying their goodbyes. One day i took a very candid picture of a bowler hatted gentleman snoozing in a chair surrounded by West Africans in tribal robes and headgear. I didn’t know then it was one of the most important men in the British government and Commonwealth, Rab Butler, Secretary of State for Foreign Office. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if they could buy the film: it was a Fleet Street newspaper reporter who knew what I had. The next thing I know the newspaper wants to employ me. Suddenly I’m doing seven jobs a day.
Is there anyone you wished you’d photographed but haven’t?
Very few. Marilyn Monroe died sadly a year or two before I made it. There seems to be so few real stars today who can hold a candle to Liz Taylor or Sinatra. They were mesmerising, they walked into a room and the room fell silent. Who is there to day to compare? I’d like photograph Putin, he’s an intriguing character, I’d like to find who is behind the mask.
How do you get the perfect shot?
Probably my greatest images were almost accidents, being in the right place at the right time and knowing when to be ready . Brigitte Bardot on a film set with occasional gusts of wind blowing the hair across her amazing face - I waited for that one gust. Frank Sinatra on the Miami boardwalk with his entourage. I was actually walking to his hotel wondering how
I’d get past security to the Presidential Suite to hand him the letter from Ava Gardner had written by way of introduction. Then suddenly there’s Frank walking towards me: I started
Exactly what is it you want to say with your photographs and how to you go about getting that across to the viewer?
My photographs only work if they tell a story - and i think I’m really a journalist with a camera, a story teller who uses pictures, not words. You take a picture with your eye, your anticipation, the camera merely helps you interpret what you see. Take my famous David
Bowie Diamond Dogs shoot. That wasn’t posed. The dog freaked out at the strobe lights I was using and reared up to try and bite them. The entire studio ran, except David and me. He was high at the time and I was behind the camera which gives you a false sense of security. A great shot, part accident, part knowing to keep the camera rolling.
What makes a good sitter?
Trusting the photographer. It’s not my job to take a bad picture. It’s my job to take a great picture. The best sitters are those famous names who deep down know that behind the celebrity they are just ordinary folk who use the toilet just like the rest of us. Who love, like or
loathe just like the rest of us. I have always treated my subjects respectfully, but I’ve always viewed them as people - nothing more - and that way you both relax, you both bond and the rest flows from that. Bowie was brilliant because he actually collaborated, he wanted to tell a story too. Others like Steve McQueen were just control freaks and bullies. So when he started to rant, I just carried on taking pictures of this angry man - because that’s who he really was.
How much do you respond to chance and occurrences?
All and every time. No matter how much of an idea I may have fixed about someone, my eye is looking for opportunity, a moment, an insight that reveals more, or tells a deeper story.
How have you come to be involved with the Kensington & Chelsea Art Weekend?
I’ve lived and worked around Kensington & Chelsea most of my life. It’s where art and life combined, popular post-war culture began. Mary Quant had her basement on the
King's Road and Barbara Hulanicki opened her first boutique Biba in Kensington. The Beatles, The Stones, the first supermodels and I would hang out at those shops, we’d eat at the restaurants and discuss ideas. Kensington & Chelsea was at the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties and in truth, that’s where it all began.
What can you tell us about the projects you’re going to be working on for the Kensington & Chelsea Art Weekend?
I have several places exhibiting my work, from Box Gallery on the King's Road to The Little Black Gallery on the Fulham Road. My art hangs all over London actually - it's amazing how many places you can see it, from Lucio’s restaurant to the Savoy American Bar. There's also a major new hotel is opening next year that is using my photographs throughout 1,000 rooms.
Tell us about your organisation and its mission?
I work exclusively with Iconic Images. It has the biggest archives of Monroe, Bowie, Elton John, Audrey Hepburn, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, and hundreds of others like the legends of music, jazz, film, stage and politics, but also the biggest fashion archive in the world. Iconic makes sure photographers’ legacy is insured and ensure our photographs can still be enjoyed 200 years from now.
What is your link to the area and heritage?
Work and food. I’ve worked in the area at studios most fo my life, and of course I’ve eaten in the borough most days too.
What is your favourite cultural hot spot or art gallery in the borough?
The Victoria & Albert Museum tops every other venue in London - it is probably the best in the world. They’ve just opened their Photographer’s Gallery, which is a great leap forward because photography is now a major player in the art market, whereas it was invisible only 10 years ago.
What is your future vision and how could you see Kensington & Chelsea improve?
Kensington & Chelsea needs more cultural art spaces and galleries or it's going to be overtaken by the East End/Hoxton/Clerkenwell axis. It might help if the area created some form of subsidy for art-related projects, but like every other borough they need every penny of income they can get. It would be such a great thing to decorate a major outdoor area or thoroughfare with street art. There’s just not enough to excite the eye outside of traffic signs and shop fronts. I love the idea of “stories on the wall”, great images projected or
printed to create public events outdoors.