Studio visit: Terry O’Neill

In 2016, the legendary photographer, who passed away recently, talked to us about studying for the priesthood, hanging out with Frank Sinatra, and his love of Leica

‘I look back on my life and I can’t believe I did all those things,’ commented Terry O’Neill (1938-2019), when we interviewed him in 2016. The British photographer was globally renowned for his candid shots of musicians including Elton John, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, and Hollywood greats ranging from Fred Astaire to Frank Sinatra.

O’Neill came to photography via an unconventional route. ‘My mother wanted me to be a priest, but the priest who was teaching me said that I asked too many questions,’ he explained. O’Neill dreamt of becoming an international jazz drummer, and when he discovered British Airways flew to New York, he applied to become an air steward so that he could spend his off-duty time in the US. He took a job in the photographic unit of British Airways to better advance his chances.

‘That was the start of my photographic career,’ said O’Neill. ‘I went from England and got slung into the centre of Hollywood.’ Early subjects included Frank Sinatra, who allowed O’Neill to follow him as he pleased. ‘I could go anywhere with him — it was fantastic. When I got back to England I realised what a gift he’d given me. He’d totally let me into his life.’

Among O’Neill’s most famous images is a shot of actress Faye Dunaway, captured elegantly dazed by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the morning after her 1977 Oscar win. ‘She went to bed at 3.30am and got up at 6 to do this picture,’ he recalled. Dunaway’s Oscar glints on the breakfast table, the morning’s press scattered at her feet. O'Neill went on to marry the actress six years later.

Leica camera family tree. LeitzLeica, Germany, 20th century. Approx. 118 in (300 cm) high; 87.5 in (222 cm) wide. Estimate £350,000-450,000. This lot is offered in Out of the Ordinary on 14 September 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Leica camera family tree. Leitz/Leica, Germany, 20th century. Approx. 118 in (300 cm) high; 87.5 in (222 cm) wide. Estimate: £350,000-450,000. This lot is offered in Out of the Ordinary on 14 September 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

The cameras behind O’Neill’s iconic shots were always Leicas, the German brand that was also a favourite of photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winograd. ‘The Leica was very important to me,’ said O’Neill. ‘It was a fabulous camera to use — quick as a flash, anywhere, any time.’ 

In the Out of the Ordinary sale in London on 14 September 2016, we offered a ‘family tree’ of the brand’s 107 principal cameras, arranged by model and date of production — a history of the brand from 1914 to 2014, from pre-production models to the screw-fit Leica series, M-series, R-series, and later digital cameras. O’Neill's Leica collection sold for £362,500.

Cameras like these were the tools of his exceptional career, having helped him to create what he described wryly as ‘my life in pictures’. And the secret of his success? ‘You must like the people, that’s the key to any job. It comes through in the pictures: that’s the difference between a good picture and a bad picture.’