Along with fellow photographers David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Terry O’Neill’s images defined the Sixties era, and the last six decades have seen him shoot every star-studded name from Churchill and Brigitte Bardot to The Rolling Stones. We talk to Terry about his upcoming Reworked exhibition at London’s Rook & Raven gallery, and what it means to truly be an icon.
Main image: Raquel Welch on Cross, reworked by Curtis Kulig
Brigitte Bardot, digitally manipulated work in progress by James Dawe
Your upcoming Reworked exhibition will see a range of contemporary artists reinterpret your work. What made you decide to go for the reworked format?
Working with Rook & Raven's eclectic mix of contemporary artists really appealed to me; I love feeling excited about what young talent can do with my images. This project has given me a real buzz. It reminds me of the sixties, because there's no reason or plan – it’s organic, interesting and not clichéd. It's anarchic, which is what the sixties were all about.
Do you think your work is received any differently by today's generation than it was by your original fans?
Today's generation are appreciative of my images because they’re denied candid pictures in today's world of micro-managed celebrities – where stars are inaccessible, airbrushed figures photoshopped to within an inch of their lives. Today's generation recognise the intimacy and honesty of the days when superstars were really superstars, and their relationship with the camera wasn't dictated by a marketing man or the paparazzi.
Chuck Berry on a documentary film set, 1975
So how has the 'icon' concept developed since you started out? Do today’s stars stand up to those you’ve photographed in the past?
There aren't icons anymore – icons aren’t disposable. Anyone who's anyone today is on the scrap heap within a couple of years – we've created a disposable society, and disposable icons to boot. But how can today's celebrities expect to be iconic? They're not inventing anything. In the sixties, stars were changing the world – who's changing the world today? Lady Gaga?
Who would you take a portrait of from 2012’s current range of celebrities, if you could choose anyone?
This may sound sad, but there’s nobody on my radar that I’d really like to photograph. There's not a lot of stardust out there. Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie would be interesting to shoot; they remind me of the true movie stars from the sixties and seventies, especially now they’re slightly older – but I doubt their management would let anyone near them unless they gave the suits control over what images were released to the media.
Mick Jagger - Intervention, reworked by Daniel Lumbini
Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne – they were all huge personalities. Today, the so-called stars are all just clones; the allure of celebrity has been destroyed by the tabloids and celebrity magazines. Amy Winehouse was an exception – she was spectacular and I’m very thankful that I managed to capture a great portrait of her.
You're known for capturing your subjects in very candid settings – what is it about that immediate style that appeals to you over bigger, more structured shoots?
You can get close to the person, build a rapport with them and shoot them in their own environment, which makes them feel relaxed. In a structured setting, they’re staring straight down the lens and feel self-conscious.
Shrimpy/Stamp, reworked by Pam Glew
What really defined the sixties, for you?
Girls, music and clothes. In a way, photographers like myself, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy created the sixties. It wasn’t just who we were shooting, but the way we shot them. Back then, photographers were often much more important than the pop groups they photographed; if I couldn’t make it down to shoot Mick [Jagger] and the boys one week, they would come to me. I don’t think I could’ve come of age at a better time. I was 22 at the start of the sixties. Best decade of my life.
You were part of the first wave of photographers to pioneer the use of 35mm film. With the extensive range of digital tools photographers now have at their disposal (not to mention editing software), has the medium benefitted from all these new developments?
No. The only thing that has benefited is speed – photographs can be on a front page or the Internet within minutes. But that’s the problem... you wonder how many great shots they’re missing because they’re having to work too fast.
Brigitte Bardot, date unknown
Who were some of the most creatively inspiring individuals you've ever shot – and why?
Artistically, Frank Sinatra was probably the greatest man I’ve ever photographed. He was painstakingly practiced and brilliant, and cared a lot about the music and the musicians. You had to be the best to work with him – he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
One of the memories I will keep forever is saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela after spending a week photographing him for his 90th birthday. I was deeply humbled by him – he gave me a wave as he drove away to the airport, and I nearly burst into tears. I felt so privileged to have spent a week in private with him, talking to him, watching him - how he handled himself and the most famous faces in the world with humility and grace. It was very moving saying goodbye.
See more of Terry's work on his site and head to Rook & Raven for the Reworked exhibition now.