Terry O’Neill, the photographer who chronicled London’s 1960s culture by capturing the celebrities and public figures who defined the era, has died aged 81.
O’Neill, who was awarded a CBE last month for services to photography and was known for his work with the likes of Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor, died at home on Saturday night after a long illness, his agency said. He had prostate cancer.
“It is with a heavy heart that Iconic Images announces the passing of Terence ‘Terry’ O’Neill, CBE,” a spokeswoman for the agency said. “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.”
A biography on the agency’s website said: “O’Neill realised that youth culture was a breaking news story on a global scale and began chronicling the emerging faces of film, fashion and music who would go on to define the swinging 60s. By 1965 he was being commissioned by the biggest magazines and newspapers in the world.”
O’Neill helped capture an era of cultural and social revolution in Britain. He was one of the first people to shoot the Beatles, and would go on to work with the Rolling Stones, Brigitte Bardot and Sean Connery. O’Neill said of the Beatles: “I was only 20, and the youngest photographer on Fleet Street. It was obvious that John was the one with the personality, so I put him in the front”.
O’Neill was one of British photography’s biggest names and after his pop culture work would eventually photograph Nelson Mandela, as well as the Queen, who he said was the only person who ever made him nervous. “I researched some horse-racing jokes to break the ice and thank God she laughed,” he told the Observer in 2018.
He experienced the London blitz as a young child growing up near Heston airfield in west London, and originally planned to become a priest before being told he “had too many questions and not enough belief”. He eventually took up photography after a short stint as a drummer.
He was married to the actor Faye Dunaway for three years, with whom he had a son. O’Neill said he regretted getting involved with someone who he had photographed, and that he “hated the whole circus” that surrounded the marriage, which was his second after an earlier relationship with the actor Vera Day. He later married Laraine Ashton, a modelling industry executive. A photograph of Dunaway that O’Neill shot after her Oscar win for her role in Sidney Lumet’s Network in 1977 is included in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.
In an interview last year he mourned the loss of the kind of stars he had photographed, saying: “There’s nobody around now I’d want to photograph. Amy Winehouse was the last person – real talent. All the proper stars have gone.”
He added: “The perfectionist in me always left me thinking I could have taken a better shot. But now when I look at photos of all the icons I’ve shot – like Mandela, Sir Winston Churchill and Sinatra – the memories come flooding back and I think: yeah, I did all right.”