Terry O’Neill, Who Photographed Rock Legends, Dies

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Terry O’Neill took the album cover photo for 1978’s Who Are You

Terry O’Neill, the British photographer who documented many of rock music’s and popular culture’s most iconic subjects, with photos that became iconic works themselves, died Saturday night (Nov. 16), at his home after battling prostate cancer. O’Neill, who had been awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) just this year for his services to photography, was 81.

During his career, O’Neill documented much of the Swinging Sixties and photographed such legendary subjects as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and decades later, Amy Winehouse. In other entertainment realms, O’Neill’s work included photos of Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Sean Connery as James Bond, Brigitte Bardot, Clint Eastwood, Raquel Welch, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and members of the British royal family. His many rock album covers include the photos of The Who on Who Are You, David Bowie on Diamond Dogs, and Elton John’s A Single Man.

The news of O’Neill’s death came from his agency, Iconic Images. “Terry was a class act, quick witted and filled with charm. Anyone who was lucky enough to know or work with him can attest to his generosity and modesty. As one of the most iconic photographers of the last 60 years, his legendary pictures will forever remain imprinted in our memories as well as in our hearts and minds.”

In the early Sixties, O’Neill received an assignment in London. “I was asked to go down to Abbey Road Studios and take a few portraits of this new band. I didn’t know how to work with a group – but because I was a musician myself and the youngest on-staff by a decade – I was always the one they’d ask. I took the four young lads outside for better light. That portrait ran in the papers the next day and the paper sold out. That band became the biggest band in the world; The Beatles.”

The legendary “Faye at the Pool” photo, 1977 (Photo: Terry O’Neill, Iconic Images)

Faye Dunaway was the strong favourite to win the award for her work in the 1976 film, Network. O’Neill, who did not know the actor, convinced the star to meet him at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel at dawn if she won. “I told her to bring the Oscar” he remembered. “I always wanted to capture what it felt like the next day, not the image you’d see in the papers of the star holding up the award with all the lights and camera – but I wanted to capture the moment it all sinks in, that your asking price has just skyrocketed and you can have any role in the world. I wanted to capture the morning after.” The blurry-eyed Dunaway met O’Neill at the pool where she posed at a table with the morning papers, a tray of coffee and her gold statue.

The pair were married from 1983 to 1986.

Upon hearing the news of O’Neill’s passing, many of the artists he worked with paid tribute. The Who wrote on their Facebook page: “It is with great sadness that we heard of the passing of our dear friend, photographer Terry O’Neill. Terry took many photographs of both The Who and the individual members of the band and our association with him goes back many years. One of his most iconic images is [the] one taken at Shepperton Studios which became the cover of 1978’s WHO ARE YOU album. Rest in peace, dear Terry.”

Elton John described him as “brilliant, funny… and a real character.”

O’Neill was born on July 30, 1938, in East London. His work ultimately appeared on the covers of TimeNewsweekVanity FairParis Match, and more.

When O’Neill was awarded the CBE on this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honors List, O’Neill called it “a huge honour. And I’m incredibly humbled by it. It’s a real recognition for the art of photography, as well. This isn’t just for me of course, it’s for everyone who has helped me along the way. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

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